A Brief History of Color Technology

A Brief History of Color Technology

From prehistoric cave paintings to royal purple dyes, from film photography to cutting-edge digital displays, the pursuit of more-perfect color has driven much of human development.
From prehistoric cave paintings to royal purple dyes, from film photography to cutting-edge digital displays, the pursuit of more-perfect color has driven much of human development.

I t’s hard to imagine civilization without color. So much of humanity’s culture – art, science, fashion, identity and beyond – is bound up in the shades of the rainbow. Our eyes are commonly described as being able to perceive seven colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – but within those shades lies an infinite number of variations.

Those limitless gradations represent more than hues – they represent our very spirit. There’s a reason “black and white” is used to describe simplistic thinking; nuance, character, subtlety, all those attributes that create the complexity of our kind can be represented within the infinite complexity of the spectrum found between red and violet.

Attempting to recreate those colors we perceive through artificial means has been a pursuit for as long as our species has had the tools to try. More than 30,000 years ago, artists in France painted in blacks and browns and reds on cave walls, depicting the wildlife they saw in their daily life.

William Eggleston, Greenwood, Mississippi (Red Ceiling), circa 1971. Sold at Sotheby’s on 5 April 2023 for $82,550

The meaning of a color is based not only on what is resembled, but on what is ascribed to that hue. Purple, for example, became the color of royalty because it was exceedingly difficult to make in ancient days; creating just an ounce of dye required laboriously extracting mucus from tens upon tens of thousands of sea snails – a process so difficult it led the substance to be worth its weight in silver. And changes in what colors mean aren’t relegated to the ancient past, either; it wasn’t too long ago that Mattel’s Barbie made the color pink iconic, and now we can’t help but be reminded of the doll when we encounter its bright shades.

But after thousands of years of crawling along, color reproduction jumped to a run in the last 150 years. Color film brought the ability to recreate natural hues to photorealistic depictions of actual events – first to still images in the late 19th century, then to motion pictures in the first half of the 20th. It was the technology of television, however, that brought moving color pictures into people’s homes. While the first color TVs were invented in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the first color broadcasts began beaming out to American households. And, more than a decade later, televisions that were capable of displaying such content became commonplace in these very homes. (In fact, the transition wasn’t officially complete until 2009, when the broadcast system’s conversion to all-digital signals made black-and-white sets obsolete in the U.S.)

The Frame TV by Samsung

In the past several decades, a new revolution in depicting images and their colors has occurred. Digital cameras have almost entirely supplanted their film counterparts, becoming capable of capturing images in fidelity and accuracy even film photography can’t match. In concert, televisions have slowly but surely grown not just wider and thinner, but clearer and more colorful – or rather, even more precise in their colors.

As a first-in-class technology, the Samsung MICRO LED exceeds the limits of contemporary displays and deliver hues that are intensely true, differentiated, and lifelike. The MICRO LED technology, found in the brand’s most luxurious screens, is at the epitome of home display technology. As you might imagine from the name, these diodes are smaller than your average LED – 99% smaller, in fact. Each LED effectively becomes a single pixel with its own lighting source, providing extra-sharp definition that has to be seen to believed – and is impossible to ignore. The resulting colors are shockingly rich, accented by the contrast of deep blacks and bright whites. This technology makes it all the more incredible to experience your favorite works of art.

Samsung’s OLED TVs are Pantone Validated, providing accurate expression of 2,030 Pantone colors and 110 skin tone shades.

Samsung OLED TVs also offer a full spectrum of colors validated by the Pantone color organization – 2,030 of them, in fact, including 110 skin tone shades. Or, Samsung Neo QLED 8K televisions use quantum dots – microscopic particles embedded in the screen that enhance and refine the color and clarity, especially as viewing conditions change, giving people a way to bring a universe of colors right into their space. The wall-mounted display called The Frame, in turn, defines itself as much on aesthetics as it does its crisp 4K display; incorporating an elegant border and a matte, antireflection display, it can transition into Art Mode when not being watched, enabling it to display near-perfect replicas of any painting desired, available through the Samsung Art Store. This Art Store uniquely enables you to bring color directly into your home from storied galleries like The Met and The Louvre – whether it’s the swirling shades of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or the lush and vibrant colors representing the changing autumnal leaves.

With such accuracy in color reproduction, you might think you’re staring at a real work made on a wall hundreds or thousands of years ago. And though the image may not be the original work of art, the displays used to view are a very real marvel of the cutting edge. Understanding a work of art prerequisites standing knowledge of the pigments and saturation involved, and Samsung screens as sharp as the MICRO LED, OLED or Neo QLED 8K provide access to the length and breadth of almost all the visual art humanity has made, from cave paintings to modern cinema to the future of art – and color – itself.

Top: A craftsman in Tunisia displays samples of a powdered purple dye he extracted from Murex shells at his workshop. Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP via Getty Images.

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