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Behind a nondescript Manhattan storefront, Chi-Tien Lui is stockpiling objects many people wouldn’t think twice about trashing: cathode ray tube televisions. The first floor of CTL Electronics — whose clientele includes the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and other museums across the country — is lined with a rich mix of vintage TVs, from tiny boxes to big, looming screens. In his bedroom upstairs, Lui has a 1930s mechanical television, an early image transmission system that passed light through a spinning metal disc. In his workshop, there’s a grid of old screens that once sat inside the Palladium, an iconic New York nightclub that closed in 1997. “They used to have 16 of these, rotating in the club — everybody danced underneath,” Lui recalls. “When they went out of business I took all the equipment back. And right now, I’m restoring them.”
CRTs were once synonymous with television. By 1960, nearly 90 percent of American households had one. But at the turn of the millennium, their popularity rapidly decayed as LCD panels flooded the market. Even though CRTs comprised an estimated 85 percent of US television sales in 2003, analysts were already predicting the technology’s demise. In 2008, LCD panels outsold CRTs worldwide for the first time. Sony shut down its last manufacturing plants that same year, essentially abandoning its famous Trinitron CRT brand. By 2014, even stronghold markets like India were fading, with local manufacturers switching to flat-panel displays.
Despite all this, picture tube televisions continue to linger. You’ll find them in museums, arcades, video game tournaments, and the homes of dedicated fans. But as the CRT slips further into obsolescence, devotees like Lui are navigating a difficult transition between simply maintaining an aging device and preserving a piece of technological history.
The concept of television predates the electronic CRT display by decades. Scholar Alexander Magoun’s book Television: The Life Story of a Technology describes it as a natural extension of the telegram, fax machine, and telephone. In 1879, a cartoonist envisioned families communicating across continents via a wall-mounted “telephonoscope.” In the 1880s, German inventor Paul Nipkow imagined capturing slices of an image through holes in a spinning disk, then projecting the light patterns through an identical disk on the other end. Russian scientist Constantin Perskyi reported on this new theory of “television by means of electricity” at the 1900 Paris world’s fair, coining the term that we still use today.
The first actual working television, demonstrated by Scottish inventor John Baird in the mid-1920s, used Nipkow’s mechanical disk idea to show dim, fuzzy images of a ventriloquist dummy named Stookie Bill. Several similar devices followed, some backed by major companies like GE and AT&T. By 1928, Americans could pay for a mechanical “radiovision” kit from inventor Charles Jenkins, and tune in for thrice-weekly “radiomovie” pantomimes on his broadcast network. But these TVs were inherently limited by the number of holes you could put on a disk, and the incredibly bright lights that were required to capture an image.
When the Great Depression hit, support for mechanical TVs petered out, and companies began funding versions that scanned electronic lines across a screen. Over the next several years, these experiments produced a technology that would last for almost a century.
Electronic CRT TVs flourished in the years after World War II, and for the rest of its lifespan, manufacturers looked for ways to iterate on it. Perhaps the most obvious advance was color television, which took off in the 1960s after a bitter standards war between Columbia Broadcasting System and the ultimately victorious National Broadcasting Company. Once these standards were set, individual companies built loyalty with technological tweaks. Sony’s iconic Trinitron abandoned the perforated metal “shadow mask” that most color TVs used to keep their electron streams separate, for instance, using vertical wires that produced bright, clean colors and a flatter screen.
Toward the end of the CRT era, manufacturers began directly competing with the plasma and liquid-crystal displays that were threatening to overtake the market. The mid-2000s saw a brief enthusiasm for “ultra-slim” models, which touted tubes as miraculously thin as 15 inches. Some manufacturers adopted new high-definition HDMI connections. These machines maintained a tenuous advantage at first: new flat-panel TVs cost thousands of dollars, and consumers had to sort through a confusing assortment of unproven display technologies. But as these screens got cheaper, bigger, and had higher-resolutions, there was no way for the CRT to win. Its design relied on a fat glass tube, which became deeper and heavier with every added inch of screen space. Sony’s hulking 40-inch Trinitron from 2002, one of the biggest consumer CRTs ever produced, weighed over 300 pounds. A modern 40-inch Sony TV, the second-smallest option in its current lineup, weighs less than 20 pounds.
But flatscreens haven’t won everyone over. Ian Primus, an IT repair technician and CRT aficionado, has amassed a basement and storage unit full of old TVs. He has a reputation as one of the increasingly few people who will take CRTs off people’s hands. “If you let people know that you’re looking for old TVs, suddenly you’ve got three or four people calling you,” he says. He gives out his number to thrift stores that have decided the bulky sets are more trouble than they’re worth and want to direct donors elsewhere. Sometimes he simply drives around at night before garbage collection, looking for castoffs.
Primus says he doesn’t just hoard old TVs; he uses them constantly in his daily life. “I don’t have an LCD computer monitor, and I don’t have an LCD TV. Everything is CRTs,” he says. “I know I’m crazy.” Most new devices exclusively support current TVs, including one of Primus’ newer tech purchases — Nintendo’s NES Classic — which, ironically for such a retro-looking device, only features a modern HDMI adapter. But it’s still possible to use adapters with many of them. As long as that’s true, Primus says he’ll probably stick with CRTs.
“I’m not going to try to be one of those guys who says, ‘Yeah the picture on a CRT is better than the LCD,’” he says. But he likes the deep blacks and high color contrast and the sturdiness of old hardware. Primus, like Lui, is also helping keep CRTs available to the people who can’t do without them. In his case, that’s the retro gaming community.
A video game’s look and feel is often highly dependent on specific hardware setups, and for most of the medium’s history, those setups often involved a CRT. The iconic black scanlines we associate with old games, for instance, exist because consoles would tell a TV to only draw every other line — thus avoiding the flickering that interlaced video could produce, and smoothing out the overall image. (For more detail, retro gaming enthusiast Tobias Reich maintains an exhaustive guide about scanlines and other CRT rendering issues.) Old games may look torn or feel laggy on a new TV. That’s in part because LCD screens process an entire frame of an image and then display it, rather than receiving a signal and drawing it right away.
Some games are completely dependent on the display technology. One of the best-known examples is Duck Hunt, which uses Nintendo’s Zapper light gun. When players pull the trigger, the entire screen briefly flashes black, then a white square appears at the “duck’s” location. If the optical sensor detects a quick black-then-white pattern, it’s a hit. The entire Zapper system is coded for a CRT’s super fast refresh rate, and it doesn’t work on new LCD TVs without significant DIY modification.
A less extreme — but much more popular — case is Super Smash Bros. Melee, a 2001 Nintendo GameCube title that’s become one of the most beloved fighting games of all time. Originally designed for casual players at parties, Melee upends the conventions set by series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat: instead of memorizing combos to chip down an opponent’s health bar, players try to knock each other off the screen using careful positioning and improvised, super fast moves. Despite its age, and the increasing difficulty of finding a copy, it’s a mainstay at fighting game tournaments.
Melee’s frantic pace has kept players coming back year after year, even after Nintendo released subsequent Super Smash Bros. games in 2008 and 2014. But it also makes the game exceptionally unforgiving of lag. On CRT monitors, which were dominant when the game launched, a character will react almost instantly when you push a button. On a newer TV, the animation may start just a little later, forcing players to adjust their timing, which can put them at a disadvantage.
As with many debates in the gaming world, there’s disagreement over whether new TVs are truly unusable. Not everyone believes the lag is bad enough to justify keeping an old CRT around, especially as flat-panel displays have gotten more responsive. But for now, visiting the Melee section of an e-sports tournament is a little like stepping back in time, as sleek LCD screens give way to bulky black boxes. Some of those boxes belong to Primus. He leases them out to gatherings around his hometown of Albany, as well as larger events across the region, like the Boston-based tournament Shine.
Shi Deng, co-founder of Shine’s organizing body Big Blue Esports, estimates the tournament used about 100 CRTs last year. Some events let players bring their own displays, but Shine doesn’t; they’re a pain to set up, and there’s too much liability if someone drops a 50- or 100-pound television on the ground. (An abandoned CRT caused real panic at one Detroit tournament last year, when police shut down the surrounding block out of fear it might be a bomb.) Instead, they rent from a handful of providers, who might truck the screens in from hundreds of miles away, coordinating tournament dates so there are enough TVs to go around.
Deng has his own small CRT, a hand-me-down from his mother. But rounding up old TVs is one of the most inconvenient parts of running a tournament, he says, and he’d love to see Nintendo come out with a remake so the Melee community could move on. That may not happen anytime soon. Some Smash players have rallied around the 2014 Wii U sequel, but it’s still a sideshow. A Nintendo Switch remake was widely rumored last year, but so far, it’s proven elusive.
Even if it does come out, CRTs will have a place in gaming for years to come. Speedrunners, for instance, use them to get the absolute best reaction time on old games. And CRTs aren’t just a pragmatic consideration for experts, either. They’re also the only way to give people a sense of how a game’s original players would have experienced it.
The CRT’s slow extinction is also becoming a pressing problem for arcades, especially with the rise of arcade bars over the past decade. Establishments like San Francisco’s Brewcade, Portland’s Ground Kontrol, and Chicago’s Emporium Arcade Bar all line their walls with dozens of nostalgia-inspiring cabinets and by extension, dozens of CRT displays.
Barcade, one of the largest — and most strictly retro-focused — chains, has about 350 games spread across seven locations. It has almost an equal number in storage. The company carefully preserves original, untouched cabinets for games like Centipede and Tetris. But it also buys a lot of sloppy “conversions” — machines that arcade operators hacked to install new games, with different paint jobs and controls. It strips these down for parts, operating out of what Barcade co-founder and CEO Paul Kermizian jokingly refers to as a “secret lair” on the outskirts of New York City. They give the cabinets to collectors for restoration, swap individual components into vintage machines, and hold onto the tubes until they can’t possibly be fixed.
Arcades generally have in-house teams of employees with varying levels of expertise. Ground Kontrol, which describes itself as a “hands-on museum,” is owned by two electrical engineers and two software specialists. They initially repaired machines themselves, until finally hiring a full-time technician. Barcade employs two dedicated repair specialists, and a number of other staff can do some work on the machines.