Muntzing TVs

Earl Muntz was an American businessperson who made a fortune chopping unnecessary bits out of TV sets. He may have also coined the term “TV” and certainly named his daughter “Tee Vee” too.

Muntz TV
Steve McVoy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Early television sets were deliberately over-engineered. They contained a whole bunch of extra parts so that they would work whether they were near or far away from the source of a transmission. This made them expensive: a simple 12-inch screen might set you back the equivalent of eight thousand US dollars in today’s money.

Earl Muntz, who advertised under the name “Madman” Muntz, wanted to do better. He recognised an underserved market, that of people who lived in cities – very close to television transmitters – but who didn’t have the funds to pay for an expensive over-engineered television set. In 1946 Muntz set about minimising television sets.

The technique he used to achieve this is now known as muntzing. He began stripping out individual electronic components of TV sets one by one. If the television still worked, then the part must be an unnecessary redundancy and could be safely discarded. If the television stopped working, the part must be essential and was put back in. Through this step-by-step process he made a television with considerably fewer parts: from thirty vacuum tubes he got it down to seventeen, for example. The Muntz TV could produce a serviceable picture and cost one quarter the price of those more expensive sets. Sure, if you tried to use it outside of an urban area it wouldn’t do so well, but within that target market his business flourished.

Earl Muntz supposedly popularized the abbreviation “TV” because skywriters couldn’t get the longer word out in time. He named one of his children “Tee Vee” in honour of the product that made him a household name. But it wasn’t only TV sets: Muntz sold high-end cars (the Muntz Jet) and pioneered 4-track car radios, projection TVs, and the first sub-$1000 cellphones. His golden touch didn’t always work out: in the notorious Betamax vs. VHS videocassette format wars he backed… the Compact Video Cassette, a technology from Funai and Technicolor that tanked badly in the market. Oh well, can’t win them all.

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