Greyhound Bus terminal boredom in 1988. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Library) (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Library)

‘Television is creeping up on us’: How the Tel-A-Chair presaged the attention economy

Before the iPhone, there was the Tel-A-Chair.

A variation of the coin-operated televisions common in hotel rooms, the Tel-A-Chair was invented in 1969 by John Rice, a Sacramento tinkerer who was struck by inspiration during a three-hour wait at the Los Angeles Airport.

People watched televisions at a Greyhound Bus terminal in Los Angeles in 1969. (Los Angeles Times/UCLA, Charles E. Young Research Library)

“You can only eat so much pie and ice cream so we wandered all over the airport, looked at everything, and still had an hour to kill,” he explained to Parade magazine. When Rice got home, he mounted a small TV to an armchair, acquired a patent, and sold the idea to airports, hospitals, and bus companies.

At 10 minutes for 10 cents, the television chairs were good business. But they also attracted problems. Kids snapped the dials off, and the security guards at bus terminals found their job duties redefined as their shifts were spent shooing sleepers from the Tel-A-Chairs.

The L.A. Times took note of the trend in an article on June 26, 1970. “Television is creeping up on us,” it began, “lurking around every corner, getting in the way of concentration, conversation, human affection. There seems to be no place left to go to clear the cobwebs from our mass media-sized minds.”

If only they knew what was coming.

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