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

An Object Lesson in how presumed-dead technology lives on.

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.

They suffered from high levels of stress, musculoskeletal trauma, eye strain, skin damage, even miscarriages. Labor organizations responded strongly to the difficulties faced by the new "pink collared" workforce. In 1978, not too far from Silicon Valley, a VDT coalition was established to fight for the rights of workers tied to CRTs. Similar organizations emerged across North American and Europe to improve conditions for workers using CRTs in the automated office. There is now legislation in many U.S. states that regulates working conditions by providing adequate lighting, regular breaks from the CRT, and user-adjustable workstations.

And what of the CRT’s death? In the U.S. alone, 400 million televisions will be discarded because of flat screen technology. Add the 197 million computer monitors sold since 1995 and you begin to sense the magnitude of the problem. In North America and Europe, the number of CRTs in the waste stream won’t peak until 2050. Each one of these CRTs has several pounds of lead in the glass screen, not to mention other potentially toxic metals and flame retardants. This explains why many U.S. states banned them from landfills over concerns that potentially toxic material might leach out and poison water and soil. So a CRT’s constituents—its metals, plastics, and glass—can and do keep going as leachates that poison and burden our bodies and the bodies of others. Even after disposal, CRTs will require labor and dollars to manage, mitigate, and remediate their remainders.

Uncased CRTs at an e-waste recycling center (Flickr/Judit Klein)

If burial is not an ending, perhaps we can rejoice in recycling? Not exactly. The CRT recycling sector in the U.S. is in crisis. Recycling CRT glass is labor intensive, and it’s hard to recycle CRT glass into anything other than glass for new CRTs. That market has collapsed, though, because no one makes new CRTs anymore.

So now, rather than recycling CRTs, we hear that companies are abandoning them in warehouses in Colorado and Arizona. And those are just the sites we know about. As much as 660 million pounds of CRT glass languish in U.S. warehouses. There are trials that combine CRT glass with concrete to build X-ray-proof walls in hospitals, but that use would only chip away at a fraction of the CRTs waiting to be recycled. CRT glass, too, might make a good fluxing agent in copper smelters, but it could bump up against national and international hazardous waste laws.

Outside the U.S., a huge workforce of pickers, traders, refurbishers, and repair technicians broker the space between the living and the dead in a massive CRT recovery economy. Demand is huge. Old CRT monitors make good enough TVs and arcade consoles. All that metal, plastic, and glass offer rich deposits to be mined out of burgeoning cities. At best, digital divides are crossed and livelihoods supported through an international trade in discarded but reusable and repairable CRTs. But the open flame and acid baths used to strip CRTs of their valuable metals are toxic. We fool ourselves if we think discarded electronics like CRTs can be resurrected neat-and-tidy through circular recycling. Manufacturing, using, discarding, reusing, repairing, or recycling CRTs entails unrecoverable remainders.

Death and burial may signal a final ending, but they’re bad metaphors for what really happens to CRTs.

CRTs are no longer manufactured. But they continue to shape the world, even after they are discarded. They multiply as they are repaired and reused, as their parts are harvested for different devices, as their materials are stripped out and placed back into production chains, as their chemical constituents move out of landfills and open flames into bodies and environments.

This ongoing action is not circular. Only recently, a novel strain of bacterium was identified thriving on the highly toxic (to humans) chemical constituents left in the soil of an electronic waste dump. Such forms of life are concerned with their own flourishing, and are indifferent to our industrial mythologies of circular economies, closed loops, and zero waste.  Even as anything recognizable as a CRT disappears, something else emerges. And we can't always predict what that thing will be.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things