The earliest version of the CRT was a cold-cathode diode, a modification of the Crookes tube (see X-ray) with a phosphor-coated screen, sometimes called a Braun tube. The first version to use a hot cathode was developed by J. B. Johnson (who gave his name to the term Johnson noise) and H. W. Weinhart of Western Electric and became a commercial product in 1922.
In case of a television, the entire front area of the tube is scanned in a fixed pattern called a raster, and a picture is created by modulating the intensity of the electron beam according to the programme's video signal. The beam in all modern TV sets is scanned with a magnetic field applied to the neck of the tube with a "magnetic yoke", a set of coils driven by electronic circuits.
In case of an oscilloscope, the intensity of the electron beam is kept constant, and the picture is drawn by steering the beam along an arbitrary path. Usually, the horizontal deflection is proportional to time, and the vertical deflection is proportional to the signal. The tube for this kind of use is longer and narrower, and deflection is done by applying an electrical field via deflection plates built into the tube's neck.
Color tubes use three different materials which specifically emit red, green, and blue light, closely packed together in strips, (in aperture grille designs) or clusters (in shadow mask CRTs). There are three electron guns, one for each color, and each gun can reach only the dots of one color, as the grille or mask absorbs electrons that would otherwise hit the wrong phosphor.
The outer glass allows the light generated by the phosphor out of the monitor, but (for color tubes) it must block dangerous X-rays generated by the impact of the high-energy electron beam. For this reason, the glass is made of lead crystal. Because of this and other shielding, and protective circuits designed to prevent the anode voltage rising too high, the X-ray emission of modern CRTs is well within safety limits.
CRTs have a pronounced triode characteristic, which results in significant gamma (a nonlinear relationship between beam current and light intensity). In early televisions, screen gamma was an advantage because it acted to compress the screen contrast. The gamma characteristic exists today in all digital video systems. However, in some systems where a linear response is required, as in desktop publishing, gamma correction is applied.
It is likely that technologies such as plasma displays, liquid crystal displays, and other newer technologies will eventually make CRT based displays mostly obsolete, because the new designs are less bulky and consume less power. As of mid-2003, LCDs are becoming directly comparable in price to CRTs, with LCDs forming 30% of the computer display market by value. However, color CRTs still find adherents in computer gaming, due to their very quick response time, and in the printing industry for their better color fidelity and contrast.
Magnets should never be put next to a color CRT, as they may cause magnetization of the shadow mask, which will cause incorrect colors to appear in the magnetized area and may be expensive to have corrected. Most modern television sets and nearly all newer computer monitors have a built-in degaussing coil. This coil creates an brief alternating magnetic field from standard 50- or 60-Hz household power, upon power-up. The alternating magnetic field created is sufficient enough to shake off most cases of shadow mask magnetization. It is also possible to purchase or to build your own external degaussing coil which can aid in demagnetizing older sets or in cases where the built-in coil was not effective.
In extreme cases, high power magnets such as the now popular neodymiumironboron, or NIB magnets, can actually deform the shadow mask. This type of damage is considered permanent and will render the CRT mostly useless. However, subjecting an old black and white television or monochrome (green screen, amber screen) computer monitor to magnets is generally harmless. This can be used as a demonstration tool and children should be encouraged to do so, provided they are informed to never do the same with a color tube.
Some believe the electro-magnetic fields emitted by CRT monitors constitute a health danger to the functioning of living cells. Exposure to these fields is far lower at distances of 80cm or farther.
WARNING: CRTs operate at very high voltages. These voltages can persist long after the device containing the CRT has been switched off. Do not tamper with devices containing CRT tubes unless you have proper engineering training and have taken appropriate precautions. Since the CRT contains a vacuum, care should be taken to prevent implosion.