Entertainment in the Home
When Buckminster Fuller’s futuristic Dymaxion House was displayed in Chicago in 1929, the television set, phonograph, and radio it featured were far from the everyday reality of most of the people who saw it. Less than 25 years later, these devices had become commonplace in middle-class homes across North America and Western Europe. The most significant forms of home entertainment technology of the twentieth century can broadly be divided into the audio and the visual, screen and sound, though as the century progressed the two categories increasingly overlapped. Electrification was a critical factor in the development and diffusion of these new entertainment technologies, as it was for other domestic technologies that became popular in the postwar period. Although some electronic devices could be operated by means of batteries, the consistent, popular use of most entertainment technologies in the home would not have occurred without mass domestic electrification. In the U.S. this occurred (unevenly) in the second decade of the century, and in Britain by 1926. Before World War II, live and recorded music and screen entertainment was more easily accessible to most people in public venues such as music and dance halls, cafes, and movie theaters. To some extent, the new technologies encouraged the return of public forms of entertainment to the domestic sphere.
In America, the phonograph displaced other forms of home music making, the most prominent of which was the piano in middle-class homes. By 1900, the Victor Talking Machine Company was marketing a domestic phonograph, and a few years later the Victrola became the first mass-marketed, enclosed phonograph. Its name was appropriated for the generic phonograph designed as household furniture. Futuristic designs eventually supplanted traditional disguises, and the phonograph was combined with radio and with audio cassette functions (in the early 1970s) in home stereo systems. By 1988, compact disk (CD) sales had surpassed the sales of phonographic long-playing albums, or LPs. Digital technology, which surpassed the phonograph record in quality of sound reproduction, durability, and convenience, was rapidly displacing the phonograph as the primary form of home sound technology.
The wireless technology that supported radio was a product of the late nineteenth century, but it did not become popular in homes until the 1920s. Prior to this, radio was the domain of industry, national security, and private enthusiasts. The simplification of technical controls to two knobs, the replacement of headphones with a loudspeaker, and the physical displacement of the radio from the basement and garage to the living room, transformed a primarily male activity into a genteel, feminized, domestic amusement for the whole family. By 1950, approximately 95 percent of American households had radios. In the 1990s, Canada pioneered digital radio, and in 1995 the first digital radio receivers were marketed to consumers. Researchers have predicted the full transition from AM–FM to digital radio by the first decades of the twenty-first century. Television (TV), a more expensive and complex technology, was nevertheless much more quickly adopted by consumers than radio. It was introduced to the public in 1924 at Selfridges department store in London, England, by Scotsman John Logie Baird, but only became a household commodity after World War II. Much as inside and outside was merged in modern houses by means of the picture window, the introduction of television brought public culture into private homes. RCA and DuMont offered the first sets (all with black and white pictures) to the public in 1946. Between 1948 and 1955, nearly two thirds of American households installed television sets, and by 1960 almost 90 percent of households had at least one television. The way people watched television during the last half of the twentieth century changed considerably due to the development of television-related technologies such as coaxial cable, communications satellites, the video cassette recorder (VCR), and the remote control for all of it. Cable, which spread slowly from the 1950s through the 1970s, and communications satellites, which gained popularity in the last two decades of the century, broadened the range of programming available to viewers. The digitization of television in the form of high-definition television (HDTV) began at the end of the twentieth century but was not expected to have a large-scale impact in homes until well into the first decade of the next century.
The VCR was the first peripheral device to television to gain widespread consumer acceptance. It had two distinct technological functions that together performed the important cultural task of giving consumers the freedom to choose programming outside of regular broadcasting. One function was time shifting, the ability to record a program for playback at a later time. The second closely related function allowed the replay of prerecorded cassettes, either commercially produced or made personally with home video recorders, introduced by Sony in 1980 with the Camcorder. In 1956, the Ampex Corporation of California introduced the industrial precursor to the consumer VCR: the VTR, or video tape recorder. By 1966, Ampex had sold over 500 VTRs for home use, but with openreel video tape these were both unwieldy and expensive. In 1972, Sony introduced the U-matic, which sold for $1600 and was the first video cassette recorder specifically intended for home use. Although Sony’s Betamax format video cassette was widely popular among consumers, the Video Home System (VHS) from JVC became the standard format until the last years of the twentieth century when laser disk technology began to make significant inroads. By 1988, more than half of television-owning households also had VCRs. In 1996, the first digital video/versatile technology (DVD) hit the consumer market in Japan and reached the U.S. market the next year. By the end of the century, DVD technology had become mainstream, and home video providers began to stock video disks alongside video tapes. Unlike video tapes, DVDs could be played independently of TV on home computers.
Home video games are considered television peripherals since they rely almost exclusively on the television screen to express their video component. The first generation of home video games was ushered in with the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. Early versions were limited to preprogrammed games, whereas the popular Sony, Sega, and Nintendo systems developed in Japan offered the possibility of programmability and an endless number of games along with advanced graphics and fuller sound. Products such as Nintendo’s Game Boy and the Sony Playstation were the objects of a home entertainment craze; over 10 million Playstations were sold between 1995 and the first years of the twenty-first century. The practices of watching television, listening to music, and operating computers influenced the way people thought about, used, and designed their homes: from living rooms, to the recreation room/ family room/games room, the kitchen, the home office, and even the bedroom and bathroom. Many postwar television watchers designated a TV room that set apart television watching architecturally from other domestic activities. Others had a TV area in the living room, or swivel stands that allowed for flexible viewing arrangements. Home entertainment technology also inspired the design of new types of furniture that reflected both the utopian and nonutopian expectations with which modernity and its products were received. Designs for cabinets and stands for televisions and stereos highlighted or hid their conspicuous futuristic designs. Alternatively, designers attempted to integrate new technologies into more traditional domestic environments by designing decorative cabinetry in fine woods to match preexisting traditional furniture.