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

Item posted on www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/digitaltv.html:

“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 jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


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

Sons of Co-owner of Service Auto Parts Share Their Memories

Don and David Maddox, sons of Service Auto parts co-founder Owen Maddox, shared their memories in response to my recent article on the business. From Don: Again, thanks for putting this in the Chattanoogan. It brought back many good memories of the days I worked with my father selling auto parts here in Chattanooga. Both Hollin Williams and my father, Owen Maddox ... (click for more)

Service Auto Parts Once Kept Chattanooga's Cars Running

When I think about working on cars, I think of the times that I helped my father (or vice versa, after I started driving).  Engines were simpler then, with enough space under the hood for a mother cat and kittens to ride as stowaways one day to my father's work.  "Where is that meowing coming from?" he thought.  Fortunately, the felines were fine, though their nine ... (click for more)

EPB Files With FCC To Expand TV, Phone, Internet Offerings Outside Electric Service Area

 EPB announced Thursday that it has filed a petition to the FCC "in an effort to respond to neighboring communities’ requests for access to the company’s gigabit enabled high-speed Internet service." Officials said, "EPB offers high-speed Internet access, video programming and voice services using a fiber optic communications network that allows the company to deliver these ... (click for more)

Black Creek Developers Say They "Followed The Rules" On $9 Million TIF: To Continue Project

The developers of the Black Creek project at Aetna Mountain said Thursday they "complied precisely by the rules when we applied for and received approval of the TIF district." Doug Stein said the group plans to continue on with the project, which he said earlier would include the creation of a small town on a huge undeveloped tract on the mountain above Black Creek (formerly ... (click for more)

Pickle Ball? - And Response

Collegedale has done some wonderful things for its residents.  The Greenway is a perfect example of money well spent on helping to give her residents the opportunity to improve their lives, at least from a health standpoint. Having taught at Wolftever Creek for a decade plus, I was fortunate to have opportunity to take my classes on walks from time to time.  It provided ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Say It Ain't So, Larry Joe!

Larry Joe Wheelon, the tainted horse trainer who was charged with 18 counts of aggravated animal cruelty when his barn was raided in April of 2013 and some animals were sored so badly that they could barely walk, finally went to a court hearing in Blount County on Wednesday and his steps toward Judge Tammy Harrington’s bench were decidedly heavy. My goodness, yours would have been ... (click for more)