In a recent discussion around the lunchroom at Mister Boomer’s workplace, a colleague was describing her success in eliminating her need for cable TV with a digital TV antenna. While the “rabbit ears” of our youth haven’t returned in their original form, this latest incarnation is a direct descendant of the contraptions we knew as young boomers.
For you trivia fans, the TV antenna we came to know and love/hate was invented by Marvin Middlemark in 1953. He was a Queens, New York resident born in 1919. After the war, when TV broadcasts started a regular schedule, Middlemark saw the need for a booster so people could receive better TV reception. His solution was to invent an indoor dipole antenna that took the shape of a central unit with two adjustable telescoping rods on either side. This gave the antenna a “v” shape protruding from a central “head,” thus giving it the appearance of “rabbit ears.” The rods could be positioned at any point along a 90 degree radius, from fully vertical to fully horizontal. In the middle of the central unit was a numbered dial that allowed for a change of frequency as a means of intercepting the strongest signal. When used in conjunction with the angling of the antenna rods, the best possible signal could be received.
In reality, we boomers recall that rabbit ears were a source of frustration and amusement. Adjusting the antenna was a constant necessity whenever the TV was turned on or a station was changed. It seemed like the rods could never hold the position that was most needed. Instead, they would succumb to gravity and fall to the closest horizontal or vertical stopping point. Flipping the central unit dial would, on occasion, remove a few flakes from the snow-filled TV screen, but as a general rule didn’t help much. Ultimately, boomer families found their own ways to further enhance the boosting power of their antenna. The most common method was to crimp a ball of aluminum foil to the end (or, occasionally, middle) of one or both telescoping rods. The theory was that a clump of metal might act as additional surface area for reception. In some families, links of paper clips were festooned from the rods, or between them. At Christmastime, tinsel could be found to perform the same function, while adding a festive holiday flair, as well.
Mister Boomer recalls two different sets of rabbit ears for the three black-and-white TVs his family owned in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. More than likely, the family’s first TV was a hand-me-down when Mister B’s parents were married after the war, so it’s possible the rabbit ears came with it. The first one was an art-deco looking thing. The central unit was essentially a metal ball with the bottom third cut off. Between the rods was another wire, twisted around itself and looped to return to the base, criss-crossing like the snakes on a caduceus. On either side of the central dial were three eighth-inch wide strips of metal, painted the same dull brown-black as the rest of the unit. It looked very much like the one pictured in the episode of The Honeymooners when Ralph and Norton are fighting over the TV!
The second set of rabbit ears was similar to the first, but now plastic parts were beginning to make deep inroads into consumer products. Instead of a loop-de-loop central wire, this one consisted of a simple circle, with each end of the wire bent sharply on the bottom of the circle, forming a “tree trunk,” that fit into the brown-plastic base.
Mister B’s father was often the General in Charge in the Battle for Better Reception. He’d issue orders to Mister B and his siblings to move each end of the antenna up, down, left and right until the best picture was established. Inevitably, as soon as one of the kids would let go of a rod, it would fall, ruining the reception. “Go stand there and hold it,” was the General’s half-kidding solution. A quick trip to the kitchen for foil, maybe a few rubber bands, string or tape from the junk drawer, and the makeshift work would begin in earnest. Somehow the battle was always at least partially won, but would be repeated on a daily basis.
When a rod or central wire broke, one of the more common remedies was to replace it with a wire coat hanger. In some households, you’d see the full hanger shape sticking out of the end of one of the rabbit ears’ rods. In others, it was straightened to replace a rod, taped or rubber-banded to a rod, or jammed into the central base to replace a central wire.
Rabbit ears were what we had at hand in the early days of TV. Now that they are poised for a digital-makeover comeback, what memories of these TV antennas come back for you, boomers?