The Race for Television
Americans awaited television for almost thirty years. Even before radio was fully accepted as a medium of popular appeal, video was hailed as the inevitable next step in the technological triumph that was broadcasting.
During the 1920s, there was frequent speculation about the emergence of "sight radio," "radio optics," "radiovisor receivers," and in a bow to the silver screen, "radio moving pictures" and "home theaters." Newspapers and magazines regularly reported on the technical progress of TV as the competition for practical video transmission focused on two technical processes: a mechanical system that employed a rotating scanning disc to transmit images; and the eventually triumphant technology, an electronic scanning system that used the principles of the cathode ray tube to produce a picture of high definition and reliability.
In the quest for viable TV, the names of the great scientists experimenting in the United States became well known. Prominent among them was Vladimir K. Zworykin, who in 1923 developed the electronic TV camera tube ("iconoscope") and six years later a non-mechanical receiver ("kinescope"). Like most important electrical experimenters, Zworykin was employed by large communications corporations, in his case Westinghouse in the early 1920s and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) by the end of the decade.
Other inventors who applied their talents to the race to produce TV included the Swedish genius Ernst F. W. Alexanderson, who from the General Electric laboratory in Schenectady, New York, transmitted a TV image around the world in 1930; Lee de Forest, an honored pioneer of radio technology; the Puerto Rican-American U. A. Sanabria, who experimented with mechanical systems in Chicago; C. F. Jenkins of Washington, D.C., who helped perfect the TV receiver; and Allen B. DuMont, the celebrated engineer whose facility in Passaic, New Jersey, was a leader in video research and development in the 1930s and 1940s.
Of particular significance was the engineering genius Philo T. Farnsworth, whose research in the 1920s and 1930s carried him from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. In 1928 he was the first inventor to present a public demonstration of all-electronic TV. However, unlike most of his formally educated rivals with their strong corporate financing, Farnsworth was relatively self-taught, and his finances came modestly from a small group of investors. Still, as Joseph H. Udelson has pointed out, Farnsworth produced components that proved crucial to the final video product. According to Udelson,
disadvantages did not prevent Farnsworth from developing the only pickup tube to present serious competition to Zworykin's iconoscope and...to pose a challenge to RCA.... If RCA was to introduce a commercially viable television system in America it could not avoid, despite all its efforts, a reckoning with Farnsworth which by the end of the 1930s was a powerful force in video development."
With such brainpower dedicated to perfecting television, Americans anticipated the educational and entertainment values the new medium soon would bring to the nation. One journalist, impressed that the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge in 1925 had been heard nationally over an ad hoc network of forty radio stations, felt confident in predicting that the next inaugural ceremony would be telecast from coast to coast, perhaps even beamed to Europe. Even more exciting were the predictions of Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothafel, a noted impresario of theater and radio. In his insightful book Broadcasting: Its New Day, Roxy in 1925 described the breathtaking programming to be available soon:
The entire program that we see in a theater will come to us.... The ether will vibrate with the likenesses of our favorite stars, which we will receive faithfully. . . . When the [transmission] problem is finally solved the world will indeed become a very small place to live in. The living spectacle of Niagara, with its rush and roar, or the vast abyss of the Colorado Canyon can be brought to the easy-chair at home. Our baseball players, instead of performing before a group of spectators, will perform before a radio transmitter and we shall hear the whack of the bat and the call of the umpire, and see the dust raised by the sliding player's feet. Radio vision is not an idle dream.
When a research scientist declared in 1925 that all U.S. households would have TV sets by the end of the decade, there was reason to be excited. It was promising, too, when David Sarnoff, the driving force energizing the Radio Corporation of America—and on his way to the presidency of RCA in 1930—predicted in 1928 that it would take about five years for TV to become "as much a part of our life" as radio. It was not even discouraging when the chairman of the board of Westinghouse sought to diminish public enthusiasm by announcing in early 1930 that television would not be commercially possible for at least two years.
Even the Great Depression failed to lessen enthusiasm for television. Convinced of a brilliant future for TV, Radio Retailing magazine in early 1932 editorialized, "Then there is the promise of television. Who knows how great will be the ultimate development of this new science—its possibilities awes [sic] the imagination." Comedian Eddie Cantor, too, was excited in 1936 when he envisioned TV as an irresistible theater of popular diversion—a dazzling theater that would offer viewers "such entertainment as the world has never dreamed of."
As early as May 1930, one optimistic consumer had queried a newspaper columnist about whether he should buy a new radio now or wait a few months to purchase a video receiver:
Our radio set was built in 1925. It's high time that it be replaced by a new set. . . . But now we are up in the air. We read of television images entertaining on a theater screen in Schenectady, and the prediction that thousands of playhouses will probably book television acts. Now, the question is, should we cling to the old faithful six-tube outfit, or go ahead and buy a receiver that is improved in tone more than our 1925 product? Why should we get a new set now and have a television set make it obsolete in September?
Fueling public interest were those scientific breakthroughs produced periodically by leading electrical corporations such as RCA and Westinghouse. Such developments were always spectacular and, importantly, well publicized. Typically, in September 1928 the General Electric experimental station, W2XAD in Schenectady, aired the first television drama, The Queen's Messenger— although technological limitations necessitated a simulcast of the sound portion of the program over radio station WGY. In another GE coup, in February 1930 the image of a familiar cartoon character, Felix the Cat, was transmitted instantaneously by television over twenty thousand miles: round trip from Schenectady to Sydney, Australia, and back. Later that year a theater audience in Schenectady marveled at a live television program as it was transmitted from the GE laboratory across town.
With the imminent availability of television as entertainer and educator, public leaders foretold its future impact on varied aspects of American life. The editor of The New Republic expected TV to replace newspapers, as details of the daily news could be telecast to every home." Police officials felt video would help in the apprehension of criminals by facilitating the exchange of information among law enforcement agencies. Some expected the medium to improve domestic politics; others felt it would enhance international relations. There were those who felt video would be a valuable tool in waging future wars, while others argued that it could render war obsolete.
Observers predicted that even business and commerce would be affected by TV. At Pennsylvania State University, the emerging medium was quickly understood in terms of the new jobs it would create; as early as 1930 that university offered
home study courses on television engineering. A scientist in Cleveland suggested that businesses soon would be able via TV to convene meetings of executives from throughout the country. This would not only save time, he suggested, but as a collateral benefit it would "make harmless the odors from foul cigars." And in 1930 inventor Lee de Forest, looking fifty years into the future, foresaw a profitable relationship between video and existing technology when he predicted that for a fee long-distance telephone operators by 1980 would be able to plug TV viewers into films and plays taking place throughout the United States—all with no interruptions for commercials."
Confidence in widespread, dramatic change should not have been surprising in this era of technological revolution. It must be remembered that at the beginning of the nineteenth century Napoleon had available to him essentially the same methods of communication and transportation that Julius Caesar utilized two thousand years earlier. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the miracle of the telegraph rendered the Pony Express obsolete, while armies came to be moved by steam-powered locomotives. And by the early twentieth century, communications were profoundly affected by the emergence of the telephone, the first flickering motion pictures, and wireless radio, while innovations in transportation included the automobile and the airplane.
For a society in which many could remember word-of-mouth and print as the primary forms of communication, this was an electrifying time in which to live. By the 1930s it was possible not only to telephone or telegraph but also to view sound motion pictures, play electronically enhanced phonograph records, and hear radio shows broadcast from network and local stations—indeed, from transmitters around the world. Also part of this age of miracles were the refrigerator, washing machine, and electric lights—all convenient, available, and affordable.
Television was only one part of a cornucopia of entertaining merchandise expected for the American consumer. This situation was well appreciated by an official of the Stromberg-Carlson electronics company, who proclaimed in 1937 that "television is only one of seven electronic devices which someday we may have in our homes." He envisioned the home of the future as a rich audiovisual experience equipped with a "radio, phonograph, sound film projector, sound movie camera, electric organ or electric piano, wire-recording machine, and television. ,14 Interestingly, of this future inventory of home electronic gadgets, the two that are less popular today than twenty years ago—the movie camera and projector—have been subsumed in the American home by two offshoots of television—the video camera and the videocassette recorder.
The entry into early television by the major radio networks and electrical
manufacturers only intensified popular expectations. Experimental TV stations were opened by the National Broadcasting Company (W2XBS in New York City in 1928; and, in Chicago, W9XAP, purchased in 1931 from the Chicago Daily News); the Columbia Broadcasting System (W2XAB in New York City in 1931); and the Don Lee Broadcasting System (W6XS and W6XA0 in Los Angeles in 1931). As well as the involvement of RCA through its National Broadcasting Company, other electrical corporations operating experimental stations were General Electric (1928); Westinghouse, in East Pittsburgh (1928); Philco, in Philadelphia (1931); and the Zenith Radio Corporation in Chicago (1938). Several leading developers of the medium—Farnsworth in Philadelphia, Jenkins in New York City, and DuMont in Passaic—also operated early stations. There also were creditable experimental stations in Kansas City (1932); Minneapolis (1934); Boston (1934); and at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana (1932); the University of Iowa (1933); and Kansas State College (1932).
Significantly, the scramble to develop television was not solely an American phenomenon. Interest in developing TV was manifest in the 1920s and 1930s in Poland, Sweden, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. In many ways, moreover, scientists and engineers in Great Britain and Germany were ahead of those working in the United States.
Since the mid-1920s John Logie Baird had been a driving force in perfecting and popularizing British television. Important, too, was Electric and Musical Industries (EMI), a corporation created in 1931 through the merger of two sound recording companies, the Columbia Gramophone Company and the Gramophone Company. Since the latter was controlled by an American company, the Victor Talking Machine Company, and Victor in turn had been merged with RCA since 1929, the arrangement afforded EMI access to research conducted by RCA. And through a merger in 1934 with a Marconi company developing transmitters and aerials, EMI became the world leader in video technology. When the British Broadcasting Corporation inaugurated regularly scheduled TV in November 1936, it quickly settled upon the EMI version as the standard.
In Germany in the 1920s scientists such as Manfred von Ardenne and Denes von Mihaly labored to develop television. Through support for sound and image experimentation from the German Post Office, a TV picture had been produced as early as March 1930. The coming to power of National Socialism in January 1933 only intensified the German efforts. Although Nazi efforts were marked by rivalries among the German Post Office; the Ministry of Propaganda, headed by Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels; and Hermann Goering's Air Ministry, in March 1935 the Germans inaugurated the first regularly scheduled television programming in the world.
Clearly, the British effort was superior. By August 1939 there were an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 sets in use in London, and the electronic scanning system adopted by the BBC offered praiseworthy picture quality. The effort in Germany—with its inferior mechanical camera system, its lack of financial backing, and its limited availability—was stunted. By 1939 video remained limited to the Berlin area; there were only about 350 receivers in private hands, and most citizens came to public viewing rooms to see the propaganda films and newsreels of Nazi television.
In the United States by 1939 there were twenty-two licensed experimental TV stations, but a public-opinion survey that year suggested that optimism rested not only with the experimenters and industrialists. According to a Gallup poll there was "a large potential customer audience awaiting the new television industry." Four million families—that is, one-eighth of all American families—considered themselves good prospects to buy a receiver sometime in the future. That figure was all the more impressive since for many years telecasting would necessarily be restricted to the densely populated areas of the country—the East, including New England; the Chicago-Detroit axis; and a few spots on the West Coast—where video experimentation was centered.
The Gallup figures, however, were not totally positive. This remained a troubled decade. The United States was still gripped by the uncertainties of economic and social dislocation created by the Great Depression. To this was added the disquietude generated by international politics as Europe and Asia were on the verge of another world war. Furthermore, video was still in its technical infancy, and there was public apprehension that a set purchased today would become obsolete tomorrow. While Americans generally wanted television, only 13 percent of those polled in 1939 were interested in purchasing a receiver at that time."
Consumer television equipment had been sold in New York City as early as April 1938. This included regular TV sets as well as small, less expensive attachments for converting radios into TV receivers. By the end of the following year, however, customers had a wider choice: more than three dozen models from several manufacturers, with screens from three to twelve inches diagonally and costing $150 to $1,000.
The reason for this increased availability was the decision by RCA to launch a major TV sales effort in the New York City area. RCA bought advertising space in New York newspapers to promise the public the complete video package: programs, receivers, and a network.
It is now possible for the RCA to announce the extension of its plans to provide, first, a regular television program service in the New York area; second, the offering to the public of receiving sets at moderate prices within the reach of the average family; and, third, the initial step in the construction of a television relay system as a means of interconnecting television transmitters for simultaneous service to and from other communities.
The drive was started in conjunction with the opening of the World's Fair in New York City in the spring of 1939. Regularly scheduled television programming was born on April 30 when NBC cameras televised President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially opening the fair, and Sarnoff announcing "the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. Until this date telecasting had been confined to a few experimental hours per week. But RCA, through its ownership of NBC, now upgraded and expanded its offerings. Although it was still noncommercial and experimental TV, station W2XBS aired live studio productions as well as films and remote transmissions from the station's mobile units.
In its first prime-time show, on May 3, 1939, NBC indicated that the future of the medium would be an admixture of live and film presentation. That premier extravaganza included a remote pickup of interviews conducted by Ed Herlihy at the fairgrounds; and from Radio City in midtown Manhattan, a ninety-minute variety show featuring music by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, composer Richard Rodgers playing piano for Broadway singer Marcy Wescott, newsman Lowell Thomas with the first made-for-TV film, a newsreel called Teletopics, plus a juggling act, a one-act dramatic sketch, and short films that included a Walt Disney cartoon featuring Donald Duck.
During its first year the NBC station—called WNBT beginning in July 1941 —was on the air for an average of two hours per day, televising more than a thousand programs totaling six hundred hours. The CBS station W2XAB—called WCBW after July 1941—offered a comparable amount of airtime. Less auspicious, but telecasting regularly since the spring of 1939, was DuMont station W2XWV.
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