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208 × 156 × 20 mm
256 pages
100 illustrations, 50 in colour
18 Dec 2017

The Joy of Sets A Short History of the Television Chris Horrocks

We watch television for hours at a time, but the television set is never itself the object of our attention. We forget the tv is in our room as we engage with images from afar. How do we account for such an everyday piece of furniture? This book focuses on the tv set’s contradictory presence both as a material object and as a receiver of images.

Chris Horrocks traces the prehistory of television as a fantastic vision in nineteenth-century culture, and charts its emergence through the fears and desires that society projected onto this alien presence in the living room. He follows television’s journey from its strange roots in spiritualism, imperialism and Victorian experiments with electromagnetism, through its contested ‘invention’ by heroic figures such as Baird and Farnsworth, to its arrival as an essential consumer product. Along the way the tv acquired a significance and role that advertising, literature and cinema amplified.

The tv appears in culture as a sinister object capable of controlling thought, monitoring its audience and causing mental and physical harm. The design of the television console and cabinet imbued it with signs of status and good taste, and more radical designs drew on the space race and avant-garde design. The set has even become a radical medium in the work of artists Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik. Yet the television as a classic object began to disappear once the cathode ray tube became obsolete and flat-screen versions merged with the wall. The Joy of Sets brings this most elusive object into critical and historical focus for the first time.

‘Television, reveals cultural historian Chris Horrocks in this compact chronicle, has tangled roots. The scientific advances of inventor John Logie Baird, broadcast pioneer Paul Nipkow and Karl Braun, inventor of the cathode-ray tube, are only part of the story. A slew of Victorian novels featured visual portals conquering time and space, such as the “varzeo” in Ismar Thiusen’s The Diothas (1883). Along with sets, from Baird’s 1928 “Noah’s Ark“ televisor to today’s ultra-thin screens, Horrocks examines the technology’s military uses, the ethical furore over content, and its uses as a symbol in art, film and literature’ — Nature

‘The television set, ubiquitous but often overlooked, takes centre stage in Chris Horrock’s book. He offers a glimpse into how television sets developed from the meeting between technology and culture, becoming both familiar and alien objects in our lives. He asks that we look more closely at them and, in doing so, see them afresh . . . The Joy of Sets is a wide-ranging and well-researched book, which provides an unconventional perspective on TV . . . The ideas raised about “the ends” of the television set could spark new debates on the role the internet may play in our relationship with TV and whether new streaming platforms for receiving content will fundamentally alter the television set’s material form’ — Emily Rees

‘[This] study brilliantly investigates the impact of the remote control and the way in which TV was portrayed – sometimes menacingly – in art film and literature . . . the book is beautifully illustrated, containing many fine colour pictures of TV sets from the 1920s to the present day. There are comprehensive notes and the title benefits – unlike similar publications in this under researched field – from a thorough, six-page, bibliography. However, the real strength of this title is that it encourages the reader to think about the television set as an object of popular material culture and an inspiration for art as well as a mere technical receiver of images’ — Radio User magazine

The Joy of Sets: A Short History of the Television hides a useful survey history of the TV receiver behind a tongue-in-cheek title. With a strong British bias, this offers a breezy survey of receiver design, primarily in Britain and the U.S. over the last 80 years or so . . . This centers on the receiver as an art object, albeit a useful one.’ — Communication Booknotes Quarterly

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Chris Horrocks is Associate Professor in the School of Critical Studies and Creative Industries at Kingston University, and a film-maker. His previous books include Genteel Perversion: The Films of Gilbert and George (2014), Cultures of Colour (2012) and Marshall McLuhan and Virtuality (2000).


1 From Fantasy to Physics

2 Inventing Television

3 Television at War

4 Consuming the Receiver

5 Alien Television

6 Space Ship, Black Box, Flat Screen

7 Art Against Television

Epilogue: The Ends of Television



Acknowledgements and Photo Acknowledgements