Today in Tedium: In an age when screens are seemingly everywhere, it can feel kind of old school to consider when screens were once a novel part of everyday life. If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, you may be familiar with the shot of joy that you might have felt when the TV cart rolled in with a VCR, ready to play something other than yet another pop quiz. Call it the substitute teacher’s secret weapon. We take this all for granted today, of course, but it is fascinating to consider in retrospect. And with that in mind, today’s Tedium talks about the cart that got wheeled into every classroom at least a few times a year. Yes, you know the one, and it’s more dangerous than you remember. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The AV club pièce de résistance: Let’s talk about the TV cart that seemingly every school uses
As I mentioned above, schools throughout the 1980s were awash in a wave of large metal carts that carried massive cathode ray tubes through hallways to lucky classrooms that were about to spend an hour diving into an educational video or two.
The CRTs are long gone, but these carts, generally with a power strip on the side, remain a bedrock of local school academia. And with good reason—they’re built like tanks, made of thick metal, and as a result are destined to hold up for a long time, making them well-suited for school environments.
There’s perhaps a reason for this, and it comes down to the company that invented this device—a Chicago-area firm that for years was a factory for hire before it found a niche that really worked for them. In 1957, the company landed on a real need—carts for AV use cases, such as film and overhead projectors.
That firm, Bretford Manufacturing, discovered the value of audiovisual carts that could be moved between different rooms. These carts, which had attached power strips, were developed by Bretford’s founder, Russell E. Petrick, and soon became popular in classrooms across the United States.
TVs weren’t really an important use case for schools in the early 1960s, when the device was invented. So what led to their use instead? As the patent filing puts it, it was clear this was a device developed initially for film projectors:
Utility tables are commonly used to provide a mobile support for intermittently used appliances, such as movie projectors, office machines and the like which may be temporarily positioned on a utility table. Often the devices supported by the table are electrically powered and the table must be positioned a greater distance away from an electrical outlet than the length of the cord carried by the electrical device supported thereby. This is especially true when the cable is being used in educational or commercial applications. Thus, it is desirable that the utility table have an outlet means thereon having a long extension cord connected to a wall outlet so that the relative short cord of the electrical device being carried thereby may be connected to a source of electrical power.
The detachable electrical outlet means of the present invention is provided with fastening means to enable the outlet means to be selectively positioned in the most convenient manner for the particular appliance being used. Furthermore, the outlet means incorporates structure which enables its long extension cord to be compactly wound in stored position when the utility table is not in use.
These devices were built for their time, but ultimately, they remained flexible. After all, it was literally just a metal stand with a power strip attached—and Petrick’s real innovation, when broken down, was essentially developing the device to have a detachable power strip, adding additional flexibility to how such a device could be used.
It was also a nice fit for the company’s other major focus of the time—selling projector screens, something the company took on as contract work only to start building themselves.
In some ways, the fact that the carts worked so well for TVs was really a happy accident—after all, they weren’t specifically built for TVs in particular. These carts were a perfect example of a common object that nobody talks about—they were basically everywhere, and they became even more prominent in as the television became the dominant medium of sick days.
But they were not without their problems. Far from it.
The year Bretford Manufacturing began expanding its efforts away from AV systems to computer desks, another emerging use case for the company’s metal-driven designs. The decision was lucrative—by 1983, the company was said to be making $15 million per year, per a Chicago Tribune profile from that year. “I keep waiting for the bubble to burst,” said David Petrick, son of the founder of the company, in the profile. The company didn’t get something bubble-bursting, so much as become the recipient of negative press of perhaps the worst kind.
The problem with audiovisual carts: They can tip over—endangering kids
The rising popularity of the TV/VCR combo, often (but not always) combined into a single device, meant that these devices were widely purchased by educational facilities around the country, large and small, targeting all age groups.
But even as the CRT gains cachet among some collectors as being a more “pure” form of television, especially in cases like video games, the fact of the matter is, moving away from CRTs was generally a very smart move. TV sets are massive, and they tend to not be particularly stable.
For classrooms, a larger TV set that could be viewed in the back of the classroom obviously made sense, but clearly those TVs weren’t light—depending on the maker and the size you could be looking at a set well above 100 pounds, likely heavier than much of the TV’s target audience.
Now, due to the popularity of television during this period, it meant that TVs were often being carted down hallways, and given that there were a lot of kids that were available to help move around these carts. If you’re in a high school, sure, fine. But often, these carts were significantly larger than many kids, which made it a dicey idea for them to be playing around the carts, or moving them around.
That is not an idle warning. At times, these carts led to tragedy. In the 1970s and 1980s, stories of lawsuits involving these carts, often in the wake of tragic deaths of young children, abounded. And Bretford Manufacturing was at times the subject of litigation, facing wrongful-death suits over accidents involving its equipment.
Eventually, the federal government got involved. In 1987, the Consumer Product Safety Commission had to warn the public about the danger of these carts, recommending specifically that they not be handled by young children:
CPSC has reports of 4 deaths and 4 serious injuries in schools involving the tip-over of tall audiovisual carts (approximately 50 inches high). Seven of the eight carts were loaded with a TV set on the top shelf. One was loaded with a projector.
In most of the cases, a school teacher asked the young students (ranging in age from 7 to 11) to move a cart to another room. The cart overturned when it apparently hit a child’s foot while being pulled or when the child stepped on the front of the cart for a ride. Typically, two children were moving the audiovisual cart, one child pulling from the front and the other child pushing from the back. The child in front was the one who was injured or killed.
This was not something that happened by accident. James Dieringer, the father of a 7-year-old Ohio girl who was killed in TV cart accident got a hold of an engineer who studied the product type, who then helped Dieringer file a lawsuit, as well as a complaint with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In making his claim, Dieringer pointed to the manufacturing-for-hire roots of the company that invented the carts.
“What we’re doing is putting industrial-size equipment in the hands of children without testing it,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1986.
Which makes sense; the company that made it did not start building AV equipment—it was a general manufacturer that slowly found its niche in audiovisual equipment for schools. If you look at the cart in Bretford’s initial patent filing, the primary difference between it and the kind you might have seen in modern schools is a slightly wider stance. These were devices built for film projectors, which, while large, were not massive balls of weight like a CRT.
Dieringer took the safety issue seriously, researching what went wrong in-depth and pointing out in a prior article that there were actually ample warnings on the cart, but that school officials seem to have not taken them seriously.
“The people who run the schools aren’t adequately safety-conscious,” he argued. “They don’t know how often accidents happen, or what kinds of accidents happen most. If they don’t know that, they can’t run an adequate safety program.”
While ultimately Bretford was found at fault in the death of Dieringer’s daughter, leading to a settlement, he did nonetheless highlight that with a little hard work and determination, an individual can have enough of an impact to change the way we look at safety.
The public exposure that these heavy, metal AV carts received helped to change the tenor of safety around them. Speaking anecdotally, I have visible memories of being in the seventh grade, which meant that I was now “old enough” to wheel one of these carts from the classroom and back. With actual real-world examples of kids getting hurt by these machines, both at school and at home, nobody was going to mess around in the name of AV equipment.
According to a 2001 Philadelphia Inquirer article, at least 28 children died from tip-over incidents involving TV carts at different locations between 1990 and 1997, but the piece noted that these incidents, while much more widely publicized at schools, were actually much more common at home. Consumer safety experts, the piece noted, largely gave schools a pass on replacing the carts, in part because they were so costly—despite their relatively simple function, they cost hundreds of dollars—that it would have put strain on already tight public school budgets.
This is a sad situation, and I have to imagine one no school ever wants to deal with.
In the modern day, the designs have largely changed to adapt to a more LCD-friendly approach, with a design that’s more specialized and less stackable, and presumably, less dangerous. Bretford even produced a retrofit kit for its older products. (In one more novel use case, someone combined a 2006 Mac Pro with six Cinema Displays using a Bretford LCD stand.) But the old standby is still around. It’s still a utility table, after all. There’s always some other kind of utility it can be used for.
The number of years that a Bretford TV cart was in use, according to a 2010 contest the company found to find the “oldest cart” still in active use. Given that the company was 62 years old at the time of the contest, it’s surprising they didn’t find one older than that. A cart dating to 1984, of course, puts it in the prime of the VCR era. Since this time, the company has moved into newer use cases, such as bulk holders for laptops and charging towers.
These carts, despite having a history that could at times turn tragic, still nonetheless create affinity, because they associate them with a “break”—the substitute teacher that would put on a Disney movie instead of having to make sense of the teacher’s materials, for example.
But I also have strong memories of these carts because they represented a moment for me in my college years where I was able to get a bit creative and use one of these carts to build a new world for myself.
See, during the waning months of my final year of college, I was trying to get some embers going for my fledgling career as a designer. I was unable to get on the school paper at Michigan State after multiple attempts, and while I had done well in journalism classes, I had not gotten much in the way of real-world experience. The one thing I did have was The Big Green.
The Big Green, which appears to sadly be no longer active, was an early online journalism project at MSU that attempted to fill the gap between all these J-school kids who wanted real-world experience and the fact that the student newspaper simply did not hire everyone. (I get the arguments about independence and everything, but a J-school that doesn’t have the school’s paper directly tied to it really harms the educational opportunities of both, just my two cents.)
I had come up with the idea that this thing needed a website with a real design to it—something that, as a budding designer, I would build with the help of a friend who knew a thing or two about PHP. (This was still early days—we built the CMS for this thing ad-hoc.) The problem was, I didn’t really have a good time to work on it, as I was taking classes to finish out my second major in political science. But I worked this role as a night receptionist, which involved me essentially watching the front door all night in a security role.
One problem: I did not own a laptop at the time, and realistically, I was essentially there on the off chance that someone showed up really early, and was sneaking into the dorms, so I needed to be at the entrance. (Not an unrealistic concern—I actually caught a guy once who was staying in the basement.) I had to be at the desk all night, but it was a long shift—six full hours where I had to be awake—so it was prime time to work.
My solution to this problem was extremely hacky: First, I got a hold of an immensely long ethernet cable, one that was something like 100 feet long, and plugged into an ethernet port at the receptionist desk; and two, I grabbed one of these TV carts, went to my dorm room, grabbed my computer and monitor, plugged it in, and brought it back down. It was hacky. It was genius.
This TV stand, safety hazards and all, allowed me to finish this big project just before I left campus. I’m not saying this device was particularly groundbreaking. When broken down, it’s an electrical power strip, some rubber padding, and a bunch of metal put on casters. If you own a Mac Pro, you should just buy one of these, because at around $250, it’s not only cheaper than the $400 wheels, it can also hold the monitor.
Like everything else, someone had to invent it.
Do you have fond memories—or less-fond memories—of this type of stand? Share your thoughts with me on Mastodon.
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