When Electronics Carried Video And Electricity On One Wire

Over the many decades since electrical appliances and gadgets have taken over our homes, needing well-trained electricians to ensure that they and the house they are held in are in good working order, the priorities of manufacturers and consumers alike have changed considerably.

One particular concern during the early days of electrical entertainment was to reduce the number of wires and cables needed to use them.

This was particularly important for early computer game systems, as before the ubiquity of wireless controls and consoles typically kept close to televisions, as the trailing wires could form a trip hazard in certain living rooms unless the players sat close to the screen.

There were a few solutions to this, but arguably one of the most unusual was to try and combine multiple cables, so you had the rather unusual situation where an electrical cable carried electricity to power the unit from the mains supply to the machine, and then transmitted video signals through the same cable.

This was at odds with the still-common approach of having a separate power supply and video output, and only two major commercially released units were sold in this way before the development of the Universal Serial Bus (USB), which is an almost-ubiquitous connector to power mobile devices.

Only two systems tried it before USB power, and both were major commercial failures.


RCA Studio II

By the 1970s, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was trying to diversify their products, and one of the ways it did this was to create a video game console that was ultimately released as the RCA Studio II (there was no Studio I) in 1977.

Initially designed in 1969 and predating every other commercially released game console, the Studio II was delayed for years and ultimately released long after an entire generation of game systems was released in the wake of the success of Pong.

By 1977, the Fairchild Channel F had already been released and within months of the RCA Studio II the Atari VCS would become the dominant console of the era. However, the Studio II had a unique selling point that neither machine had.

The RCA Studio II featured a single wire that was soldered onto the unit and a unique TV selector switch box that connected the console wire to both the power supply and the video output.

Whilst unique, its hand-assembled nature meant that it was a constant point of failure, and means that alongside the system’s rapid discontinuation due to poor sales, very few consoles are still functioning without extensive modification.


Atari 5200

Four years after the RCA Studio II was discontinued, the company that had contributed to its failure tried the very same wire-saving method with similarly problematic results.

Released in 1982 as a follow-up to the VCS (later known as the 2600), the Atari 5200 SuperSystem made a huge number of changes in order to deal with the rather unusual situation of directly competing with itself.

It featured an analogue controller that did not really work, was allegedly easier to program for and featured a combination switch box.

Much like the Studio II, this meant that electrical power and video signals used the same wire, which led to some rather unnerving sparks emanating from the switch box when the power supply was plugged into it.

Ultimately, this was seen as a failure and a revision of the console saved considerable production costs by reverting to the use of a power supply and a video output cable.