Cathode Ray Tubes – The Displays That Powered Our Screens for Over 100 Years

When you think about display screens, sleek modern LCD and OLED panels probably come to mind. But for over a century, it was bulky cathode ray tube (CRT) technology that powered every kind of video display you can imagine – from TVs to radars to lab oscilloscopes to early computer monitors. In this article I‘ll overview the history of CRT display tech and explain exactly how these influential glass tubes worked to manipulate electrons into images and video that could be seen by the human eye.

What Are Cathode Ray Tubes?

Cathode ray tubes are specialized vacuum tubes that house an electron gun to produce a focused beam of electrons. This beam is then steered via magnetic/electric fields to scan across a phosphor coated screen. When energized by the electron beam striking it, the phosphor material glows bright to produce images for a viewer to see. It‘s this glowing trace drawn by electromagnets that is responsible for manipulating video information into a visible form.

While the origins of CRTs stretches back to the 1850s, they came into widespread use in electronics and displays starting in 1897 with German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun‘s invention of the oscilloscope. From there, cathode ray tubes found their way into just about every kind of display application imaginable over the next hundred-plus years. Televisions, aircraft cockpit displays, old VCR cameras, desktop computer monitors, you name it. If it displayed video or graphical information before flat panels came along, it probably used a CRT to accomplish the task.

Now that sleek flat screen TVs and monitors based on LCD and OLED tech are commonplace, the old bulky CRT display has been relegated to the history books. But understanding how these devices functioned to convert electronic video signals into moving images is key to appreciating the displays we enjoy today. Let‘s explore exactly how they worked their magic!

A Brief History of Cathode Ray Tube Development

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