Radio with pictures? Early in the 20th century, the idea of sending sound and pictures through the airwaves seemed an inevitable, attainable goal. It was an era in which centuries-old limits had been overcome, one by one, and the next step seemed only a breakthrough away.
The long road to television really started on May 24, 1844, when Samuel Morse demonstrated his new telegraph machine. For the first time ever, people in two separate cities could converse with each other instantaneously. The first message encoded in the dots and dashes: “What hath God wrought?”
Three decades later, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone sent voices through the wires. In 1896, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted dots and dashes wirelessly. Thousands pursued the next step: adding voices to wireless transmissions. On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden broadcast the first entertainment “radio” program, reading from the Bible, spinning a few records, and playing the violin. In 1907, Lee de Forest inaugurated occasional radio broadcasts from a rooftop station in New York City. Many others added their voices to the airwaves through homemade devices.
In 1919 General Electric set up the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Competitor Westinghouse produced ready-made wireless receivers and in 1920 set up its own rooftop broadcasting station (KDKA) to offer the public entertainment and information programming, beginning with coverage of the results of the presidential election between Warren Harding and James Cox.
By 1922, the first radio commercials aired, and in 1926 national radio networks were set up, using telephone cables to link local stations throughout the country. NBC (from RCA) and CBS emerged as the top sources of network programming, and radio became a ubiquitous (and profitable) part of American life.
As radio established itself throughout the world, the pursuit of broadcasting pictures continued. Independent inventors and major companies including RCA, General Electric, and Westinghouse committed themselves to television research and development.
In March of 1925, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave a public demonstration of a working television system at a London department store. In June of that year, Charles Francis Jenkins held his first public television demonstration from his laboratory in Washington. The first U.S. intercity television transmission took place in April 1927, linking New York, New Jersey, and Washington with a congratulatory message from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and comedy monologues by a vaudevillian performer.
If it weren’t for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners.
— Johnny Carson
Through 1928 and most of 1929, a handful of experimental stations scattered throughout the United States began testing the new medium, with limited hours and simple programming. In New York City, NBC’s station used a statue of the cartoon character Felix the Cat, slowly revolving on a platter, as its moving test pattern.
The technology used in these early broadcasts became known as “mechanical television” and involved a bulky spinning disk that limited the quality and range of the images. But an alternative technology was already being developed. In 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth filed key patents for the components of the first practical all-electronic television system.
Although the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed evaporated much of the financing for TV experimentation, Farnsworth continued to develop his electronic television system. Well-funded rival RCA eventually licensed some of Farnsworth’s work, and RCA’s deep pockets from the success of radio, which had flourished during the period, was key in moving television forward in the United States.
In July 1936, NBC began all-electronic transmission from its New York City station. Three years later, RCA launched a drive to ignite popular interest in television by showcasing NBC transmissions from the 1939 New York World’s Fair and offering new electronic television sets for sale.
It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in the troubled world. It is a creative force for which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind.
— David Sarnoff, on the introduction of television to North America, 1939 World’s Fair.
In 1941, the government authorized stations to begin the transition from experimental to commercial electronic television, and the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) adopted a picture standard of 525 lines of resolution. RCA even faced a feisty new competitor in both network programming and television set sales, DuMont.
The basic television technology that would serve Americans was in place. But there would be one more major delay, as by the end of the year Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States had entered World War II. It was not until after the war that television would take off and the public would embrace this new force in their everyday lives.
Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of 10 books, including Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press). He is also a media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program Eight Forty-Eight, and a consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Text copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik. All rights reserved.
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