We were the last family in the neighborhood without color TV. Dad was resolute: “Our set works. We’ll use it until can’t be fixed anymore.” And so we soldiered on with a black-and-white console set through most of the 1970s.  It broke down occasionally, as tube-type sets did. Mom called the TV repairman, a small, wiry, salt-and-pepper-headed fellow who remembered our set: “Oh! The 1966 RCA black-and-white console! I’ll be over this afternoon.”


Dad’s latent impulsive streak emerged one evening in 1977: he brought home a new color set. Surprised us all! It was a table model, metal cabinet, solid state and reliable. We never saw our TV repairman again.

I brought that old RCA to my first apartment in 1989. The picture was out. A buddy of mine with electronics skills came over to have a look. We pulled a bunch of suspect-looking tubes and carried them over to an electronics shop a couple blocks away. Their tube tester — an anachronism even then — told us that a couple tubes were bad, so we asked a crusty old fellow at the counter for replacements. “Tubes!” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “Bill! These kids are here to buy tubes!

Mom and Dad moved out of the family home last summer after 38 years. All manner of stuff emerged as Mom prepared to downsize into a condo — including a bag full of tubes. Were they from our old TV? Mom said she thought so.

Progress Is Our Most Important Product

General Electric is one of the world’s largest manufacturers, but in recent years the company has sold off most of its consumer products lines. For example, Electrolux makes and markets GE washing machines and refrigerators. Walmart slaps GE labels on coffeemakers and toasters that are probably made in China. I guess GE still makes light bulbs.

The Forgotten Network

DuMont manufactured televisions and television components, and even had its own fledgling television network in commercial TV’s early days. Wikipedia has a pretty good article about the network; read it here.

Raytheon, ISC, Tung-Sol

We associate Raytheon with government military contracts today, but apparently they were once in the tube business. I’d never heard of IEC or Tung-Sol before.

Tubes, Naked

I unboxed a few tubes and set them up for this photo. I was shooting my Nikon F2AS and my 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor lens, which focuses very close. I had a roll of expired Fujifilm Neopan 400 inside. I made all of these photos on my family-room coffee table with the blinds wide open on a gray day, with five incandescent lamps turned on around the room. Even with all that light, my shutter speeds were very slow; I put my camera on a tripod. All of these photos looked a little better in the viewfinder than they do here, but I’m not displeased with them.

You Can Be Sure

I lament how the red lettering (“Electronic Tube”) ended up a little washed out in this shot. I wonder what filter I might have attached to the lens to make those letters pop. But otherwise I like how all of these colorful tube boxes turned out in black and white.


That old TV is long gone; we never could get it to work. So I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these tubes. But I enjoyed their vintage package designs and had fun photographing them.


20 responses to “Tubes”

  1. Christopher Smith Avatar
    Christopher Smith

    Nice story and photos, they still make tubes today mostly for audio equipment ie: tube amplifiers

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hear there’s quite a market for vintage tubes today.

  2. nobbyknipst Avatar

    I loved this tubes very much as a kid, I collected each one I found. No old tv or radio, witch I didn’t put to parts by screwdriver, because I wanted to look inside…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was always fascinated by the insides of these kinds of devices too, but never dared take one apart for fear of ruining it.

  3. Wes C Avatar
    Wes C

    The television sets of the 50’s and 60’s were very expensive and were quite the investment for most families. Since the sets were expected to last many years, they were serviced instead of being replaced like today. There was a huge aftermarket parts industry which was mainly centered around replacement vacuum tubes and picture tubes. This market for replacement vacuum tubes was highly competitive and led to much lesser quality products being offered at much lower prices. The cheaper tubes really were not of the same quality as the product made by GE, Westinghouse, Tung-Sol, RCA and European companies like Mullard or Telefunken. There was also a huge market for rebuilt picture tubes. So all of this, and the fact that the tubes were replaceable at all, led to a bad reputation for vacuum tubes. In actuality, many vacuum tubes are very, very reliable! Anyway, it looks like your Mom and Dad went with quality brands when they purchased their tubes.

    Nice pictures from your Micro-Nikkor. I still need to try one…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Here’s the funny thing – at least in our family, our one tube set lasted no longer than any of the solid state sets that followed. We had to fix the tube set once or twice a year, but our solid state sets worked for years uninterrupted – until they failed catastrophically and needed replaced.

  4. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I have faint memories of the TV repairman making house calls. He carried an inventory of tubes with him as I recall. Don’t miss those bulky heavy television sets of the 50’s and 60’s, but I do love the sound of vacuum tube audio amplifiers. Nothing quite like it.

    Nice shots of those old tubes!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes! Our TV repairman had lots of tubes and other parts on his truck. Haven’t heard a tube amp in 20 years.

  5. Dan Avatar

    Thank you for the story of tubes.
    It brought back fond memories of repairing and building electronic equipment back in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was a time when you could actually see the individual components that you were working with, and one with modest skills and a Heath (sp) Kit could build a radio or ham transmitter or even a TV set if so inclined.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember ads for the Heathkit sets into the 70s. Seems like another world today.

  6. ambaker49 Avatar

    Not only is there a market for vintage tubes, there are people who rebuild some of the rarer tubes. Like film, now more of a niche industry.

    To get your red to pop, try a green or blue filter. This page has a good, and quick, demo of what does what in B&W.


    I’m not affiliated with them, just find the page useful.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for the tip and the link!

  7. Don Milne - Roadtrip62 Avatar

    Thanks for the memories, Jim. We kept our black-and-white television only until about 1970, also because my dad refused to buy color while the old set worked. Nice photos of those old tubes; looks just like 1962 to me.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How did I miss your comment until now? Sounds like your dad and mine were in cahoots.

  8. pesoto74 Avatar

    I remember my uncle Phillip got the first color tv that I saw in the early sixties. My Dad bought one shortly after. It seems like my father would usually get whatever new thing that Phillip got after it looked worthwhile. I remember the old tube-testers and tv repairmen. I never messed around with repairing a tv, however I have some with radios. On radios the tubes last a long time. Most often it is the capacitors that have to be replaced.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to have this great Philco tube radio. Back in my 20s I listened to it every morning while I got ready for work. It was a simple radio but I so enjoyed its tone.

  9. sobershutter Avatar

    I too remember the days of B&W tv and the tv repairman, it was old Mr. Tombs who worked on my folks tv sets. The one we had was likely a Zenith, some people are Catholic, some Democrats, my folks were Zenith people. The set we had back then (in the 70’s) was an ancient b&w in a wood grained steel case, it seemed big then but I was small. Late in its life span it developed an occasional HUMMMMMMM, a stomp on the wood floors from my dads work boot usually fixed it. We didnt have color tv until my grandmothers death, we inherited her color Zenith. S

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      heh! My dad was a “whatever brand is on sale” guy. We had an RCA, two GEs, a Philco, and a Zenith before I moved out of the house.

  10. Bob Dungan Avatar
    Bob Dungan

    Nice tube pic’s. When I first went to work in a drug store back in 1978. We had a tube testing machine. You could bring In your tube plug it in and see if it worked. We stocked tubes in it for sale. I don’t remember selling many tubes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, by ’78 it was only the broke and hopelessly frugal who still had tube sets.

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