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Old TVs never die . . .

February 21, 2009|Amy Orndorff | Amy Orndorff writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — 2009 will be forever known as the year the rabbit ears died.

When the country converts to digital television, that little black-and-white box in the kitchen will convert to a paperweight. The hand-me-down in the college dorm? Obsolete.

The good news is that there is a place where televisions go when they die -- a television heaven, if you will. It's the Radio & Television Museum in suburban Bowie, Md., and it is a shrine to the RCAs, Zeniths and DuMonts of yesteryear.

The converted farmhouse has two floors containing more than 100 radios, 15 televisions (back from the days when TVs were furniture) and countless items of memorabilia, including early issues of TV Guide and television advertisements. Docents give tours, or you can walk through the museum yourself, which takes about 1 1/2 hours.

The museum, like the history of the television, begins with the radio. Visitors can experiment with a model of Heinrich Hertz's 1880s transmitter and receiver, which first proved the existence of electromagnetic waves and made radio and television possible. Press a button on the transmitter to send an electromagnetic wave to a receiver that lights up.

Listen to a re-creation of the first broadcast from a radio station: the results of the 1920 presidential election proclaiming Warren G. Harding's election. The broadcaster at KDKA in Pittsburgh was so unsure how many people were listening and how far the program was reaching that he asked listeners to reply via letter. Those people were the scattered few who had bought radios to be on the cutting edge of technology before there was even programming to listen to.

The museum gives people "a sense of history, of how their iPods came about," says docent David Grossman. "It wasn't instant like it is now."

Radio quickly became the way presidents communicated with the people. Through this month, an exhibition includes recordings of presidential speeches and Herbert Hoover's radio. One speech worth listening to is Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address, in which he declared that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Another section of the museum is dedicated to televisions, although anyone who can't recall having a TV set without a remote may not recognize some of the early iterations. The RCA model that debuted at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair stands almost 4 feet tall, weighs more than 100 pounds and used a mirror to project the picture.

Flipping through TV Guide from the early 1950s, you can count the stations on one hand. (And you thought Bruce Springsteen's "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)" was quaint!) More horrors: Among the televisions is the eye-catching Philco Predicta, a set from 1959 that was designed to look futuristic and is painted a popular-only-in-the-'60s avocado green.

The museum also features a library of television programming from the '50s, '60s and '70s. You can ask a docent to put on one of your favorites (many of the museum's televisions still work, and chairs are set up near them) or catch a scheduled show.

Though the museum is regularly updated with relics, there is no word yet when the exhibit on rabbit ears will debut.

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