Historical Markers
Birth of Cable Television Historical Marker
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Birth of Cable Television

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
1501 E. Centre St., Mahanoy City

Behind the Marker

Bird's-eye view. Perspective map not drawn to scale.
A bird's-eye view of Mahanoy City, PA, as it appeared in 1889.
In 1947, Mahanoy City was not exactly a booming market for television sets- and for good reason. Most televisions of this era required a clear "line-of-sight" from transmitter to receiver to ensure reception. At 1,256 feet, Mahanoy City was hemmed in by an almost impenetrable ring of 1,400 to 1,700- foot mountains, which blocked the signals coming from the major transmitting stations in Philadelphia. Who would want to buy an expensive new television set when there was nothing to watch?

But all across the country Americans were putting Depression-era frugality and wartime shortages behind them, and eagerly purchasing consumer goods. As incomes rose in the postwar years, producers urged vigorous consumption to prevent backsliding into depression. Redbook magazine promoted the attitudes of "happy-go-spending" young families as all across the nation consumers were feeding their desires for automobiles, cosmetics, leisure goods, apparel, and electrical appliances.

John Walson sits at his desk, in front of a General Electric sign that reads, Black-Daylite Television, as he points to a television directly in front of the desk. Small boxes are on shelving in the background.
John Walson in his television appliance store, Mahanoy, PA, circa 1948.
John Walsonavich (later Walson) saw this desire first hand. As a lineman, installer, and repairman for Pennsylvania Power and Light Company (PPL), Walson helped rewire homes so they could safely run new appliances. After World War II, he opened Service Electric, a small appliance store and repair business; took on a General Electric franchise; and began selling appliances through a franchise with the Lara Electric Company of Williamsport. A natural salesman, Walson quickly proved his worth. "I became their A-Number 1 dealer and won many contests and trips throughout the time of being in the appliance business," he later said.

When Walson began selling televisions in 1947, customers typically paid between $450 and $575- almost two months salary for an average family- for a massive console-style set with a 14.5"" screen. For such an investment customers expected the sets to work when they took them home. Because of poor reception, however, Walson would drive the set and the customer to a mountaintop, where the signal was strongest, for demonstrations. So sales were sluggish, for as Walson noted, "the only place that you could sell them was marker on the mountaintop."

In June 1948, Walson decided to bring the mountaintop down to his Service Electric store at Main and Pine Streets. To do so, he ran a length of heavy duty, twin-lead Army cable, purchased at a surplus store in Philadelphia, from the top of the mountain into his store, and then fixed it to what he called an "ordinary antenna." For a month Walson strung the cable in trees; later he secured permission to use PPL's transmission poles in Mahanoy City. Because the signal had a tendency to lose power as it descended the mountain, Walson attached modified "boosters" at 500-foot intervals to amplify the signal. In 1949 local engineer Luther Holt improved the amplifier design.

The clarity and quality of images on the televisions in Walson's store astounded residents of Mahanoy City. "When I first put those three channels on," Walson said later, "the street was completely blocked with viewers, people watching the pictures in the window." Enraptured by the images, crowds loitered at his store until midnight. As his sales of televisions increased so did the number of requests for incorporation into his system. By 1949 Walson was charging customers $100 for installation and $2 a month to receive Channels 3, 6, and 10. If you allowed Service Electric to place their amplifiers in your basement you received free service.

A canny businessman, Walson understood that constant innovation was the key to control of the emerging "community antenna television" (CATV) industry. As early as 1948 Walson's system could provide twelve channels. The next year he and Luther Holt added another two channels. By using new coaxial cables Walson was able to further improve picture quality. And by "stacking" thirty-seven antennas he rigged his system to receive New York stations. In 1958 Walson acquired a 900-household cable system on Bethlehem's south side and erected a 200-foot tower on a ridge to supply cable TV to adjacent Allentown. He then expanded Service Electric into Easton, Phillipsburg, NJ, and Hazleton.

Though designed as a solution to poor reception and confined to isolated communities, cable television rapidly spread as a profitable industry. As operators like Walson began to tap into distant signals the structure of cable television began to change and the industry focused on expanding program options. In the 1960s, Walson shifted his focus to programming, and the creation of local cable productions. In 1972, Service Electric helped the Manhattan-based Home Box Office move into the countryside, beginning the rise of "pay TV." The first original program broadcast on HBO was the Pennsylvania Polka Festival, shot at the Allentown fairgrounds in 1973. In 1977, Walson arranged to have HBO satellites broadcast Brian Lamb's coverage of Congress and other Washington matters, creating C-SPAN.

In 2004, cable television generated $19 billion in revenues. The success of the cable television industry also produced an interest in its history, and a search for "firsts." Several CATV pioneers in Arkansas and Oregon insist that their systems preceded Walson's. If Walson's June 1948 date is accepted, however, Service Electric was indeed "first in the nation." Unfortunately, Walson's claim cannot be verified, for a fire destroyed his records back in 1952. In 2005 the Cable Center at the University of Denver inducted Walson into their hall of fame and billed him as creator of one of the nation's first community antenna television networks. In 1989 Walson could boast that he and his wife were the nation's largest single-owner operators, with 85,000 subscribers. John Walson died in 1993. In 2004 Service Electric's system reached 294,000 subscribers in 250 communities in central and northeast Pennsylvania and northwest New Jersey.
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