If you’ve ever flown on a long, international flight, you’ve probably already come to appreciate the virtues of a good inflight entertainment system. Today’s modern aircraft have sophisticated, high-tech entertainment systems that put movies, television shows, music, and games at our fingertips, but that hasn’t always been the case. Over the course of aviation history, airlines have experimented with a number of ways to keep passengers entertained while in the air, with some of the options proving to be more successful than others. Recently, the travel section of the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph, took a look at that history, presenting readers with a slideshow of historic photographs that are both fascinating and surreal.
The slideshow that features the history of inflight entertainment systems is just a small part of the Telegraph‘s celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial flight. Back in January of 1914, a company called the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line began running a scheduled flight between the two cities that make up its name. The fledgeling airline had just one passenger on its inaugural flight, but the age of commercial air travel was born none the less.
It took another 7 years before the first inflight movie was shown on a plane. According to the Telegraph, that occurred aboard an airline called Aeromarine Airways, which projected a promotional film entitled “Howdy Chicago” for passengers. It wasn’t until 1925 that actual Hollywood motion pictures began being shown aboard flights. That’s when Imperial Airways screened The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, on a flight. That promotion proved highly successful, and other airlines soon followed suit.
Films weren’t the only form of entertainment aboard aircraft however. Live radio broadcasts were also popular, allowing passengers to listen to comedy and drama programs inflight, as well as sporting events that were taking place while they were on the way to their destinations. Some airlines even had real performers onboard their aircraft, having them sing and tell jokes to passengers while en route.
The modern inflight entertainment system was born in the early 60’s, when Transworld Airlines installed a new system developed by a man named David Flexer for the first time. Flexer had spent several years, and more than a million dollars, developing a lightweight system for projecting films onboard an aircraft. The system was approved by the FAA, and in 1961 it was put into operation, bringing films to regularly scheduled flights across the U.S.
While travelers could watch the films, they generally had a hard time hearing them. The noise from the engines blocked out most of the soundtrack, making them practically silent. As aircraft construction improved however, better insulation and quieter engines helped to alleviate this issue to a degree. Eventually, the airlines would adopt the practice of handing out cheap headphones that would enable passengers to listen to the films, as well as watch them.
According to the Telegraph, passengers enjoyed watching films inflight so much, that they would routinely schedule their return trips to avoid watching the same film again. This became less of a problem starting in 1971, when the 8mm cassette based film-format was created. This allowed an aircraft to carry multiple films onboard at any given time, giving the flight crew the ability to easily change up what was shown.
Today, the modern inflight entertainment system is simply a marvel, often allowing passengers to chat and play games with one another while aboard their flight. They also give us an almost overwhelming number of films, television shows, songs, and games to choose from as well. High-resolution touch screens have made navigation through these systems a breeze, and headphones equipped with noise-cancelling technology can mask nearly all the background noise generated by the engines. As a result, we almost feel like we’re back in our own living rooms while on those long international flights. Almost.
Check out the full Telegraph slideshow by clicking here.