The Story Behind A Box

The cable converter box, a relic of the cable era of the 1970s, was developed in part by one of the first people to install a cable system. Here’s his story.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my piece about hidden features in objects, one of the objects with a hidden feature was a cable box that had a gigantic cable buried inside of it. I’ve had it for a couple of years, waiting for the right moment to tell its story. That cable box had always stared at me—asking, when was I going to find a proper angle to tell its dang story? And you know, as I took a magic eraser to the wired remote in the midst of a major room clean that led to its addition to my mood board, mostly reviving its former glory, I pulled out the sheet of paper, and a name on the remote caught my eye: Hamlin. Who is Hamlin? And what role did this company play in giving us this remote? Clearly, they must have been early, but how early? And what, as a reader, should you know about it? Today’s Tedium spends time breaking down a vintage cable box mystery, and highlights the path along the way. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is of a Hamlin Model CRX-5000-3, a later converter box than the one I own, which is fully analog. By the way, I just wanted to say hello to our new subscribers that found us via Product Hunt both last week and this week. Hope to keep you around!

Tedium on Patreon

Keep Us Moving! Tedium takes a lot of time to work on and snark wise about. If you want to help us out, we have a Patreon page where you can donate. Keep the issues coming!

We accept advertising, too! Check out this page to learn more.

“CATV wasn’t born … it ‘spawned’ simultaneously, like a cluster of salmon eggs. All were fertilized by the insatiable desire for ‘radio with pictures.’”

— Phil Hamlin, Sr., in a 1966 article for the magazine TV & Communications titled “The History of CATV in the Pacific Northwest.” (It was a series; part two is over this way if you’d like to dive in.) Hamlin should know, because he was there. In 1949, Hamlin built one of the first cable systems in the country, and likely the first one west of the Mississippi, when he connected together a group of homes in the Seattle area using private easements. Eventually, he was granted some formal access to utility poles and his cable efforts quickly formalized.

Cable Box

This cable box has been sitting in my room, waiting for just the right moment to emerge.

The man who designed these boxes introduced cable television to the Seattle area

So, how did I get this pair of boxes, covered in woodgrain and connected by a wire?

The short answer is because they were invented, and they eventually found their way to people around the country, connecting to cable systems for the first time.

The longer answer is because there was a need for such boxes. And Phil Hamlin, Sr. was there—both for the formation of the original industry that led to their use, and the creation of the devices. There was a separation of a couple of decades along the way, and by the time he invented the device, he was already a legend in the cable industry, having literally put up some of the earliest wires.

Hamlin’s early work led to a role with an important formative company in the cable industry, Jerrold, which manufactured some of the earliest electronics used in the cable industry and was a brand name in the space for decades in the pre-digital era.

As for Hamlin, he faded from the cable industry, only to come back again more than a decade later. Not that he wasn’t busy or anything; Hamlin had forged an electronics business that imported devices from Japan and later sold its own stereo speakers. He also served as a consultant, which led to his frequent contributions as a writer to TV & Communications. These pieces highlight his interests in many ways: One article featured his insights on how cable was being implemented in Japan, a market he knew a lot about because he had built an electronics-importing business in the 1950s. (Ignore the unnecessarily stereotypical typography on the piece.) Another article made a case against using a specific band of radio signals that was important to the aviation industry (Hamlin was a licensed pilot).

But his most interesting pieces discuss about the early years of community access television (or CATV, what cable was called before cable became the preferred nomenclature), an era in which he directly took part in the industry’s growth. We associate cable TV with distributing content collected via satellite to local communities, but at first, the goal was to support areas that simply had bad antenna reach to pick up standard cable signals. And Hamlin’s efforts reflected that early period.

Screen Shot 2021 09 29 at 8 44 48 AM

Hamlin’s bio, circa 1966.

His two-part series on the subject, written with an unusual mix of wistfulness, inside baseball, and highly technical explanations, seems to be written for people just like him. Near the beginning of the first piece, he takes the time to describe those people:

It has been said that “hams” have contributed more to the art of communications than all the “ivory tower” researchers in recorded history. The thread of truth running thru this assertion is that “tinkerers” and “experimenters” refuse to shrug off apparent contradictions of natural laws and frequently force the boys in the “towers” to go back to the textbooks.

As Hamlin makes clear, he sides with the tinkerers of the world, those who embraced the “wrong way” of doing things. Perhaps writing the piece did something to encourage him to focus his energies on the cable industry again, because just a few months after he wrote that, he jumped back into the industry with both feet.

And along the way, his substantial technical skills helped lead him back in that direction during the late 1960s and early 1970s—and the device he created in the process had a reach far beyond the Seattle area.

“It all seemed rather routine, just another application for CATV in [the] Seattle area. But broadcasters and others opened eyes wide when they read [the] proposal of Seattle Cable Vision Inc. to deliver up to 36 channels to customers.”

An October 1966 passage from the magazine Broadcasting, discussing Seattle Cable Vision’s efforts to bring a 36-channel system to homes in the area. This was a big deal at the time, as most cable systems did not offer anywhere near that amount of channel coverage. A key element of this effort was a converter, invented by Hamlin, that would allow television sets to air as many as three dozen channels. (This is the device we’re talking about here.) This was largely at a time before satellite distribution, so Hamlin offered channels to local schools and initially planned to offer tape delayed programs on many of the channels. Hamlin soon sold off his interest in Seattle Cable Vision and focused his efforts on selling the converter boxes to cable systems around the country.

Hamlin Ad

An ad for Hamlin’s cable converters, circa 1979. By this point the company had been selling cable boxes of this nature for more than a decade. (via Internet Archive)

How Hamlin came up with the cable converter, and how it ended up everywhere

You may find the set-top box that comes with your current cable system bulky and annoying, but early on, the cable converter box was an important piece of equipment in the early days of cable television. It got around some key limitations of early television, at a time it was not even guaranteed that the TV set would even have UHF. And Hamlin’s design, though clearly dated today, was a quite important element of that, as it predicated the channel listings based on what the box could convert, with the channel on the TV set staying stationary but consumers switching channels using the set-top box. This general design became the way that we used all sorts of things that we plugged into our TV sets, from VCRs to video game consoles. Every set-top box we use today shares a lineage with this device.

And what Hamlin built was quite popular in the days before the remote control. In fact, if you look online, you’ll see this slider-style box come up a lot, to the point that props shops actually offer it for sale as a way to help create a ’70s household vibe.

Hamlin

The Hamlin seal of approval.

Hamlin’s design was simple but effective, providing a way to easily tune channels across the dial. And it had a long shelf life, too: Despite inventing the device in 1966, Hamlin’s company was still selling converters or the same general design with full-page magazine ads in 1979. A sample of the marketing language:

For many years there was no choice. Today you can choose from a baker’s dozen … But the first is still the best!

We were proud of our product in 1966. But our current products reflect twelve years of field experience. The performance, appearance, durability, and stability were undreamed in those pioneering days.

Hamlin was one of many innovators during this era; in 1969, for example, he even developed a color television with his converter box baked in, leveraging his access to Japanese technology to help develop the box. His efforts were included in a roundup of a number of other cable converters of the time.

“Hamlin has taken the ‘front end’ from his set-top converter and installed it in place of the regular runners in a low-cost Japanese color receiver,” TV Communications contributor I. Switzer wrote in 1969.

Hamlin was one of many innovators in the cable industry, and Hamlin International delivered a cable converter box before anyone else, innovating both through interface (with its unique slider mechanism, allowing for lots of additional channels without the benefit of digital tuning) and through mechanism (allowing cable systems to have more channels than a standard TV set might allow). But because of the huge number of innovative people also developing technology during this period, it meant that competition to be first was fast and furious.

And while Hamlin had clearly designed and brought to market the first cable box, it wasn’t patented, and a likely reason for that was the fact that a competing firm had patented a similar technology to what Hamlin brought to market at around the same time Hamlin was inventing it and shipping his boxes to budding cable systems around the country. (Hamlin had just one patent to his name, a method for tapping into existing coaxial cables.)

That firm, International Telemeter Corporation (also known as Ampli-Vision), soon sued Hamlin for infringing on their approach to circuitry. According to a legal decision from a later case, Hamlin International had to pay ITC $2 per device as a part of a settlement.

Perhaps for that reason, Hamlin wasn’t so hot on simply selling these devices directly to consumers—instead, cable subscribers had to rent them directly from the cable company, a model that cable companies are infamous for, but which benefited manufacturers like Hamlin, who didn’t have to deal directly with consumers.

In a 1977 piece in The Vancouver Sun on this topic, reporter Scott Macrae seemed to have caught Hamlin on a bad day in which he did have to deal with a consumer:

We got a frosty reception when we called Phil Hamlin in Seattle. Hamlin says he invented the converter in 1966 for a Manhattan cable company and claims to have sold one million of his converters through the Seattle-based Hamlin Internationale Corp. Hamlin had just put the phone down after explaining to another Vancouverite why he could not purchase a converter from Hamlin; there are no private sales of converters in the U.S.

Hamlin had invented the general design for the cable converter and popularized its use with cable systems around the U.S. and Canada. And while it was widely used—Hamlin’s boxes are all over eBay, with only a few of them supporting traditional infrared remotes—it quickly became a commodity.

Lack of patents aside, this device was the way literally millions of people experienced cable television for the first time.

$14.3B

The amount of money that Metropolitan Fiber Systems, an exchange carrier that managed fiber optic lines, sold for in 1996 in an all-stock deal amid a rush to mergers allowed for by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The suitor was Worldcom, a Mississippi-based communications company that was having a moment at the time. That moment would not last.

Fiber Optics

Phil Hamlin Jr. was an executive in the fiber-optics space, playing a key technical role in its growth. (Denny Müller/Unsplash)

Phil Hamlin’s son also had a pretty amazing career of his own

While Phil Hamlin Sr. was helping to get the modern cable industry off the ground in the late 1960s and 1970s, his son, Phil Jr., was a high school dropout who had nonetheless found an early niche as a broadcast engineer in Alaska, and would soon take his skills to both the airwaves (as a local DJ) and the oil fields (managing communications and landing systems for planes).

By the time of his 2007 passing, he had helped to found two hugely important companies that helped to jumpstart the digital revolution.

The first, Metropolitan Fiber Systems, emerged in 1988 as one of the earliest dedicated distributors of fiber optic cable around the country—literally laying the foundation for the digital era in which we’re living in. The second, Level 3 Communications, became one of the most important network providers of the internet era. As FundingUniverse notes, nearly all of the world’s largest telecommunications companies used Level 3’s network, and your network data likely has passed through its pipes at some point.

“The company has played a key role in helping to lead the global communications industry through a true revolution—the shift away from the legacy circuit-based technologies in place for the past century to new Internet Protocol (IP) technologies,” the website states.

Unfortunately for Phil Jr., the company that bought Metropolitan Fiber Systems was Worldcom, one of the most infamous companies of the dot-com era, whose focus on aggressive acquisition eventually fell apart in a high-profile accounting scandal that led its founder and longtime CEO, Bernie Ebbers, to spend most of his final years in prison. (He died last year, released a month prior because of severe health issues.) While the junior Hamlin was at one point worth more than $100 million, most of it earned from his stake in MFS, he lost nearly all of it in the dot-com bust.

(Level 3, which saw its stock price tumble during the dot-com bubble, did a bit better in the long run, however, holding on until 2017, at which time it was acquired by CenturyLink, now known as Lumen. It sold for $30 billion, twice as much as MFS did.)

Financial losses aside, Phil Jr.’s life nonetheless represented a success story of its own, one that took some of his father’s spirit into his work, inheriting his skill with electronics and invention.

“I don’t know if I would call him a genius, but he was very, very good at what he did,” his dad said of his son in a 2007 Seattle Times article upon his passing. “He was self-taught: He learned everything from reading books.”

Like father, like son.

The story of Phil Hamlin, Sr., cable industry pioneer, comes with a tragic end, unfortunately. And warning, it’s a bit graphic.

In 2014, the 96-year-old Hamlin was murdered by a house guest whose wife was serving as his caretaker. Shane Chamberlain, the attacker and house guest, attacked Hamlin’s granddaughter Bethany in a brutal, seemingly unprovoked attack involving a crowbar, then shot and killed Hamlin with his own weapon, which Chamberlain found through rummaging.

When asked to explain his actions, Chamberlain reportedly told the 911 operator, “I broke.”

Chamberlain was sentenced to 42 years in prison for the murder of Phil Hamlin, Sr., and attempted murder of Bethany Hamlin.

It’s a sad note upon which to reflect on a life that ultimately changed the way in which millions of people watch TV on a daily basis. While International Telemeter Corporation has the patent, Hamlin International had the sales and distribution, along with the design.

His obituary, fortunately, did not focus on the headlines that surrounded his passing.

“Mr. Hamlin’s life was colorful, to say the least,” the obituary said, as it broke into his work building stereos, his innovations in the cable industry, and his late-in-life love of poodles and RVing. I have to mention the circumstances of his passing as a point of completeness, but I encourage you to instead focus on what he created.

Sometimes an object tells a story of a life well lived. The object, while you may not think about it, was someone’s crowning achievement. And Phil Hamlin’s crowning achievement was the cable converter box, a technology that influenced the television systems we have today.

I’m only disappointed that I didn’t clean mine sooner.

--

Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Twitter