A Terminal Condition: The Cathode Ray Tube's Strange Afterlife

An Object Lesson in how presumed-dead technology lives on.
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The cathode ray tube is dead.

“Rust in peace,” ministered the New York Times in its 2009 catalogue of obsolescence for the aughts. The obvious play on words conjoins an industrial mythos with a Christian burial rite in a requiem for an object that had, not long before, been the primary screen on which many of us experienced television, video, and computing. What does it mean that we think of the CRT as something with a life—something that was born, lived, died? 

What kind of life did the CRT lead? An extraordinary one, and an extraordinarily long one for a technology integral to an age of obsolescence. The CRT is technologically fundamental to modern seeing, yet its inner workings depend on something completely invisible: a vacuum.

In 17th-century England the existence or non-existence of the vacuum was at the center of one of the greatest controversies of the modern era. It pitted Thomas Hobbes, the arch political theorist, against Robert Boyle, a fashionable aristocrat, in a fight about the very meaning and demonstration of certainty. This was no arcane philosophical debate. The stakes were unimaginably high in the midst of violent crises over authority and control in England and on the Continent (both the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War raged during the Hobbes-Boyle debate).

Boyle, using a vacuum pump—a seriously cutting-edge technology in those days—was trying to make the case that a radically new form of demonstration promised secure, indisputable knowledge. Through what we now call experimentation, competing claims to knowledge and authority could be judged without recourse to violence. Reason over Might.

Hobbes ridiculed the air-pump demonstrations, which Boyle had completed in front of the brand new Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Hobbes argued the contraption wasn’t any more significant than a “pop gun.” Even if the pump worked, he asked, who could come to this exclusive club called the Royal Society to see it? The contraption had to be shown to work always and everywhere—and, if it didn’t, what is certainty, then?

As Boyle tried to respond to Hobbes with ever-increasing specificity, he helped create the literary genre of peer-reviewed scientific papers. 

Fast forward to the 19th century, when working CRTs depended on experimenters J. J. Thompson and Karl Ferdinand Braun, who lived in England and Germany, respectively. Both men did fundamental work in the physics of electromagnetism. As always, there’s a dispute over who was actually first.

Thompson showed that cathode rays were electrons passing through a vacuum. Braun built cathode ray tubes—vacuum tubes with an electron emitter and a fluorescent screen—to help him see electrical waveforms on the first oscilloscopes, something previously done by hand and on paper. Braun’s tubes became the Kleenex of the CRT age, still known as Braunsche Röhre in German and Buraun-kan in Japanese.

TV Laboratory Grundig 1952 (Wikimedia Commons)

By the 1920s, the tubes were being manufactured for use outside specialist laboratories. Manufacturing millions of CRTs annually required a lot of plastic, glass, and metal—including copper.

Copper deflects and focuses the beam of electrons so that they hit the phosphor-coated screen, causing it to fluoresce into an image. Copper is also key to the degaussing process. Without degaussing, a CRT’s screen will show permanent image shadows and discoloration. The copper for CRTs comes from many places, including the deserts of the southwestern United States. And so the CRT—that porthole into the apparently weightless and immaterial realm of cyberspace—has entailed mining and refining of earthly materials for a whole lot of metal, plastic, and glass. You can see the effects from space.

What you couldn't see, at first, was anything but static on the TV screen. Many Americans bought TVs before they could receive a signal. Turn it on and its CRT showed only what we once called snow. Where do you even put a box like that?

In 1951, Better Homes and Gardens referred to something called a "TV room," a concept for something yet to come. Advertisers and homebuilders busily prepared audiences accustomed to newspapers and radios for the new medium to become an electric hearth at the center of family life.

Families would gather just to watch broadcast test patterns.

In stuttering fits and starts, the life of CRTs patchily and unevenly colonized new terrain of the home, displacing other things, like pianos, that had once been centerpieces of home life.

A family watching television, c. 1958 (National Archives and Records Administration) 

Computers were introduced to the workplace in the 1950s. Before CRT monitors though, we communicated with these machines through teletypes or punch cards. CRTs were introduced in the 1960s, forever changing the man-machine interface. The idea of a "man-machine interface" is, of course, highly misleading. Most of the people interfacing with CRTs—in what was quickly becoming a more automated office—were women.

CRT in a DEC PDP-12 minicomputer,
a model first introduced in 1969
(Wikimedia Commons)

Automation was not necessarily liberation. The work associated with the new video display terminals (VDTs) was relentless and backbreaking. Work routines in the “new knowledge economy” were more like an assembly line. By the early 1980s, ergonomics experts had outlined all kinds of problems experienced by workers using VDTs.

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Josh Lepawsky is a professor of geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He oversees Reassembling Rubbish, a multi-year research project investigating discarded electronics.

Charles Mather is a professor of economic geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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