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Being Modern: Flat-screen TVs

A few weeks ago, Britain's oldest working television set – a 1936, 12-inch-screen Marconi type-702 in a walnut-and-mahogany box the size of a small bedroom wardrobe – sold at auction for nearly £17,000. A decade or so ago, that was the sort of money you'd have to splash to take home one of the then new-fangled plasma or LED televisions. Now, you can pick one up for £85 at Tesco. Such is the ubiquity of the flat-screen TV. Walk up and down any residential street across the land and you will see them flickering through the windows. No one these days seems to own what we used (with good reason) to call "the box".

The surprising thing is not that this has occurred, but that it took so long. The flat-screen television was invented by William Ross Aiken as long ago as the 1950s. You can see him proudly holding one in the January 1958 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. That it took the best part of 50 years before his invention became the industry standard is due to the usual combination of myopic men in suits deciding they know what's best and an inventor with no flare for marketing.

As Aiken remembered it in 1996: "At the last minute, I guess at the board of directors' meeting for the final approval, somebody said: 'How are we going to explain to our stockholders that we wasted millions of dollars on the wrong tube.'" And so Aiken shuffled away, the shareholders' loss was the shareholders' loss, and the public were lumbered with monoliths in their living-rooms.

But not any more. Now, we can have Aiken's invention all over the place: set into the fridge door in the kitchen, popping up out of the footboard of the bed or, worst of all, taking up the entire wall above the fireplace where we might once have placed a mirror or (what were we thinking?) a poster or painting.

Which is not to say flat-screen TVs are bad. They're not. They take up less space and gather less dust and all that. But why would you mount one where you have to crane your neck to watch it? The definition might be high, but the place for the television is surely still at eye-level in the corner.