Inside the desperate fight to keep old TVs alive
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.
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.
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.
These places may eventually have to start installing LCD monitors in cabinets, and the results might not be disastrous. Software filters can approximate a CRT’s trademark image distortions, like scanlines or the curve of a screen, and a tinted glass panel can enhance the illusion. Not all arcades are so dependent on CRTs, either. Classic arcade series like Street Fighter switched to LCD-based cabinets years ago. A wave of indie game developers have designed a host of cabinet-based games with modern displays, ranging from weird, arty experiments to traditional-looking two-player boxes.
Barcade, for one, will hold onto CRTs as long as possible — and Kermizian thinks that will be a while. “I think there’s plenty around for at least 10 years, before anyone even stresses about it,” he says. It’s still cheaper to buy old parts than to retrofit a cabinet for LCD, a process Kermizian says would cost about $350. And paradoxically, he says fear of an impending shortage could free up more tubes, as some competitors preemptively adopt LCD displays to get ahead of the curve.
“The day maybe will come when we have to do an emulation of a CRT. We’ll be pretty sad,” he says. “But there are a lot of tubes out there. It’s not dire at this point. Not for us, anyway.”
It’s one thing to round up screens for a video game tournament, or even swap out the tube in an arcade cabinet. But what if an artist has turned a mass-market television set into something truly one-of-a-kind and that television set is about to wear out? This is the question that Chi-Tien Lui has built his life around, and one that few people are so well equipped to answer.
When Lui started CTL Electronics in 1968, he and his customers were working in the vanguard of film and video. He had learned to fix TVs as a teenager in Taiwan, and he came to America working as an electrician in the merchant marines. He opened his shop just after Sony released its first Portapak system, a comparatively tiny video camera that attracted artists like Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik, the Korean-born father of video art. Paik and others came to CTL for help with their work, and as their installations aged, shaping the future of media became less important than preserving its past.
Today, Lui specializes in maintaining pieces like Paik’s Untitled (Piano), a player piano piled high with televisions displaying closed-circuit footage of its interior workings. He’s been fixing TVs for so long that he knows exactly which brands have compatible parts, across decades’ worth of hardware, including the now-rare Korean monitors that Paik favored. That’s particularly important for the museums that hire him to help replicate the precise original look of video art installations. It’s a task that’s much easier if you can just replace a broken tube with one of the right shape and size, rather than replacing the entire set. When he eventually retires, the prospect of losing that expertise makes the future of CTL Electronics — which employs Lui’s daughter and a handful of other employees — uncertain.
CRTs are tough pieces of hardware, but as they age, plenty of things can go wrong. The electron gun can weaken, giving screens a dim, yellowish tinge. An electrical transformer can blow out. The phosphor can burn away unevenly, leaving permanent, ghostly outlines of images behind.
Lui works with a German engineer who helps refurbish tubes — by installing a new electron gun to fix yellowing, for example. Much of his work involves sifting through the vast but shrinking pool of CRT detritus. He scours eBay for old TVs and parts, snapping them up in bulk, and hopes that most of them will work when they arrive. “It’s getting harder and harder, and the price goes up and up and up,” he says. He gestures toward a sizable Sony Trinitron, one of his prize finds. “Ten years ago, I could get them under $100. Now it’s $2,000. Certain TVs, everybody wanted to grab.”
Getting rid of the broken or unwanted CRTs, though, is a nightmare. “CRTs are essentially the bane of the electronic recycling industry,” says Andrew Orben, director of business development at Tekovery, one of the companies Barcade uses to dispose of irrevocably broken hardware. The tubes contain toxic metals that could leach into a dump site, and 18 states specifically ban sending them to landfills. They’re made of raw materials that are often impossible to sell at a profit, primarily glass that’s mixed with several pounds of lead. When CRTs were still being made, that was a useful resource, but recyclers have struggled to find other uses. Companies could once export the tubes abroad, but as LCDs become more commonplace, CRTs are becoming less and less attractive.
Tekovery doesn’t dismantle the CRTs it receives, and Orben says few e-waste companies in America will handle that part of the operation. Over the past few years, several supposed CRT “recyclers” have been caught secretly abandoning their old displays in vast television graveyards. Iowa’s attorney general sued the now-defunct company Recycletronics in January for storing 4.6 million pounds of leaded CRT glass, along with other e-waste, across eight facilities in two states. A lawsuit last year targeted a former partner of Recycletronics, which kept a staggering 113 million pounds of glass in two Ohio warehouses.
The problem isn’t going away anytime soon, either. A 2011 EPA-commissioned report estimated that over 580 million CRT televisions (not counting computer monitors) had been sold in the US since 1980; the average CRT was used for 11 years and kept in storage long after that. Recyclers don’t want to deal with them, and even if TVs are dismantled correctly — and not dumped in a landfill — the dust from leaded glass can have long-term health effects on workers and their families, including birth defects in children.
“There are companies in the industry that are specifically looking for long-term solutions” to the CRT recycling question, says Orben. But they’ve faced their own difficulties. Nulife, a company that legitimately smelted down old tubes for commercial sale, was ordered to scrap its backlog of glass after failing regulatory checks. It pulled out of the US market last year.
The CRT television has had a vast impact on American culture, but it’s come at a cost — and the companies that created this crisis aren’t the ones paying it. “The manufacturers made their money on this type of stuff,” complains Orben, “and now, they’ve basically left all these private recyclers to clean up.”
The few people still using CRTs are trying to preserve the best experiences these machines made possible — to prolong the lives of objects that don’t die gracefully. “We as a society have developed this mentality where everything CRT-based is obsolete and needs to be trashed,” Primus says. “They’re a lot more robust than people think they are.”
Aging televisions will eventually stop feeling merely old and start feeling vintage. It’s unlikely that CRTs will enjoy a sudden resurgence in popularity like vinyl records have. They’re extraordinarily large and heavy, and depend on other obsolete technologies like VCRs and old gaming consoles. But people may start thinking more carefully about how to maintain or donate them, rather than just throwing them away — something that would be good for both preservationists and the environment. For now, Lui sees the bright side of our nearly century-long love affair with CRTs. “America’s a good place to collect antiques,” he says. “It’s much easier to get old equipment in this country than anywhere else.”
In the meantime, he has no intention of moving into the world of repairing flatscreens. “When the iPod, iPad came out, I quit learning new things,” he says. The new generation of electronics, he says, is fundamentally different from the old one. You could go to a factory training program and learn how to repair a CRT. “The new TVs, they don’t want you to repair.”
But when it comes to actually watching television, Lui is less nostalgic. Across from the grid of Palladium monitors, he shows off a Chinese TV station playing on a massive screen above his desk. “This is an LG, Korean TV, OLED monitor,” he says. “I think this is the best TV I’ve ever seen.”
Photo source: The verge, Getty Images, Ian Primus