The Days of Rabbit Ears and Aluminum Foil

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - by Harmon Jolley
Antenna stands as a monument to television reception past.  Click to enlarge.
Antenna stands as a monument to television reception past. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Harmon Jolley

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“On February 17, 2009, federal law requires that all full-power television broadcast stations stop broadcasting in analog format and broadcast only in digital format.”

That reminds me. I haven’t used our outside antenna since 1983, when we hooked up to cable television. The original MTV theme song still plays in my head. The antenna is still there after all these years, though the pole on which it’s mounted has a good deal of rust. The wire got tangled in my weed trimmer a few years ago, so I couldn’t use the antenna in its present state anyway.

I wonder if I should take the antenna down? I could recycle it, like I did my mother’s after the wind blew it down. Maybe it should go due to safety concerns. Does the antenna attract lightning? What if it fell onto our cable TV line and snapped it, and disrupted our service? Would that be irony or just old technology meeting new?

I’d almost hate to see the antenna go, for it’s a monument to the past. Ah, yes, I remember most of it fairly well, and have heard of the rest.

April, 1954 was a month of excitement in the Chattanooga area. The city’s first local television station, WDEF, was testing its signal. No longer would television-enabled viewers be limited to distant stations in Atlanta or Rome, where the predecessor of WTVC was broadcasting. General Appliance Corporation, with stores on Cherry, Broad, and McCallie, responded by offering a General Electric Black Daylite UHF/VHF television for $199.95 – “for Chattanooga’s own local television.”

Hannah-Adams anticipated the increase in viewers by advertising an outside antenna installation special in the April 5, 1954 Chattanooga Times. An aerial thirty feet high to pick up Atlanta stations cost $49.95. Rome was available for ten dollars and ten feet less. Chattanooga could be reached with a ten foot pole - $29.95 for the antenna and aforementioned pole.

My parents were married the same year that WDEF began broadcasting. A small television with a “rabbit ears” antenna appears prominently in photographs of our living room. Rabbit ears were always a challenge to set for optimum picture quality. The screws or bolts holding the antennae would often loosen, causing one or both to fall and words to fly. Then, there was the use of aluminum foil with them to improve reception. There were times when I believe that we used a roll of foil in order to get a clear picture.

By the early 1960’s, we were using an outside antenna. It was fastened to our chimney, which was rarely used except during the 1960 ice storm. My father installed our antenna, but didn’t run into the troubles that Lucy and Viv had with theirs on a “Lucy Show” episode. Just think – somewhere, someone might have been having trouble installing an antenna while the rest of the family was inside watching that same “Lucy Show” episode.

Meanwhile, my grandparents tolerated a good deal of trouble watching television at their farm outside Jasper, Tennessee. The wiring in their house was probably suspect, for every time that the well pump cycled on, the television screen briefly went black. I recall that they also wrapped aluminum foil around their rabbit ears. Still, television brought moments of relaxation from farm life. My grandmother liked her “stories” (afternoon soap operas), while my grandfather loved to call me in to watch the “fights” (Harry Thornton’s wrestling show).

By the late 1960’s, UHF stations were becoming more common. WCLP began broadcasting public education programs from Chatsworth, Georgia in 1967, and preceded the local WTCI by three years. By that time, we had an RCA (always RCA) black-and-white UHF/VHF television with remote in the den. On it, I could keep turning the fine tuning dial until I got a snowy WAGA from Atlanta. On UHF, WCLP was equally snowy, but I recall that the puppets on “Miss Nancy’s Store” held my interest weekdays at 5:30pm.

The terrain that surrounded some area homes provided a major challenge for reception. Our first house in Hixson was situated in a narrow valley between two ridges. To pick up the television signal, a very tall pole with motorized rotating antenna was on our roof. Despite its height, the antenna didn’t provide a very clear picture. Maybe if we had climbed up there and added aluminum foil, the antenna would have done better. I do recall that the new local UHF station WRIP (now WDSI), founded by Col. Jay Sadow, came in fairly clearly. In its early years, the station was one of my favorites, since they seemed to show The Three Stooges at most any time of the day or night.

Cable television eventually replaced the humble antenna and its challenges. Still, our antenna was sometimes called back into service when cable was off the air. Yes, this was before my unfortunate weed trimmer incident with the antenna wire. I just loosened some screws on the back of the television, and wrapped the thin copper wire back around the terminals. Voila! Five local channels again.

If you have memories of television antennae, please send me an e-mail at

UHF signal was received through the round antenna.  Click to enlarge.
UHF signal was received through the round antenna. Click to enlarge.
- Photo2 by Harmon Jolley

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