You are on page 1of 9

Visionary Period, 1880's Through 1920's

Television was actually invented long before the technology to make it a reality came into being. As early as 1876 Boston civil servant George Carey was thinking about complete television systems and in 1877 he put forward drawings for what he called a "selenium camera" that would allow people to "see by electricity." In the late 1870's, scientists and engineers like Paiva, Figuier, and Senlecq were suggesting alternative designs for "telectroscopes." The excitement over the possibility of "seeing at a distance" was promoted even further in a March 1877 New York Sun letter to the editor that said: An eminent scientist of this said to be on the point of publishing a series of important discoveries, and exhibiting an instrument invented by him by means of which objects or persons standing or moving in any part of the world may be instantaneously seen anywhere and by anybody. Other developments throughout the late 1870's and 1880's included: Eugen Goldstein's introduction of the term "cathode rays" to describe the light emitted when an electric current was forced through a vacuum tube (1876). Sheldon Bidwell's experiments in telephotography (1881). And, in Germany, Paul Nipkow submitted a patent application for a way to electrically transmit images using spinning metal disks; calling it the "electric telescope."

Thus, the key ideas for what we know as television were being discussed at the same time that Bell and Edison were becoming famous for their inventions. In fact, many historians believe that the original intent for what we now know as television was to see the person you were talking to on the telephone at the same moment you were speaking. Bell was so concerned that someone would beat him to the punch on such an invention that in 1880 he deposited a sealed box containing a "photophone" with the Smithsonian Institution in case he needed to prove his priority of invention. But others did not limit their ideas to just providing images of telephone speakers. An 1890's trading card in the One Hundred Years Hence series depicted people listening to a live concert at home while a device projected the image of the performers on the wall. In fact, there were so many ideas about "distance vision" that it was a major subject at the 1900 World's Fair (Paris), where the 1st International Congress of Electricity was held. At those August meetings, Russian Constantin Perskyi made the first known use of the word "television."

Soon after, the momentum shifted from ideas and discussions to physical development of television systems. Two paths were followed: 1. Mechanical television - based on Nipkow's rotating disks, and 2. Electronic television - based on the cathode ray tube work done independently in 1907 by English inventor A.A. Campbell-Swinton and Russian scientist Boris Rosing.

American Charles Jenkins and Scotsman John Baird followed the mechanical model while Philo Farnsworth, working independently in San Francisco, and Russian migr Vladimir Zworkin, working for Westinghouse and later RCA, advanced the electronic model.

Jenkins, in the U.S., and Baird, in England, got the 1st television programming on the air in the 1920's, even if all they initially broadcast were stick figures and silhouettes. Charles Jenkins also claims two other firsts in regard to American television: He received the 1st U.S. television license for W3XK (1928), operating out of Wheaton, MD; and He broadcast the 1st television commercial in 1930, for which he was promptly fined by the Federal Radio Commission, the predecessor of the FCC.

Meanwhile, also in the 1920's, Farnsworth was demonstrating an electronic pickup and image scanning device he called the Image Dissector, and Zworkin introduced his first iconoscope camera tube, which he called an "electric eye." Yet, because there were no commercial manufacturers of television sets at this time, all of this work went on largely out of the public eye until April 9, 1927. On that day Bell Laboratories and the Department of Commerce (home to the Federal Radio Commission) held the 1st long-distance transmission of a live picture and voice simultaneously. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was the "star" of the show. He said:

Today we have, in a sense, the transmission of sight for the first time in the worlds history. Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.

Thus, the "Visionary Period" of television ended with two competing methods of broadcasting having been developed and some broadcasts having taken place. But the American public, except for a few electronic and radio hobbyists, remained largely unaware of and completely untouched by television.

Golden Age, 1930's through 1950's

It was in the years immediately preceding WWII that the television industry we know today was born. RCA's David Sarnoff used his company's exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair as a showcase for the 1st Presidential speech on television and to introduce RCA's new line of television receivers some of which had to be coupled with a radio if you wanted to hear sound. In addition, anybody visiting the Fair could go into the RCA pavilion and step before the cameras themselves. The excitement about television generated by the 1939 World's Fair carried the interest in television through WWII when development of the medium took a back seat. By the time the war was over the electronic system of television had clearly proven its greater capacity and a period of intense growth took place. Between 1945 and 1948 the number of commercial (as opposed to experimental) television stations grew from 9 to 48 and the number of cities having commercial service went from 8 to 23. And, sales of television sets increased 500%. By 1960 there were 440 commercial VHF stations, 75 UHF stations, and 85% of U.S. households had a television set. Thus, in the years after WWII, television became not just a subject for inventors and hobbyists but the focus of entrepreneurs, creative artists, and journalists.

Sarnoff and Alan DuMont are representative of the entrepreneurs. Playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Paddy Chayevsky introduced Americans to high drama in programs like Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, and the Actors Studio, beginning in 1947. John Cameron Swayze introduced America to weekday news programming via the Camel Newsreel Theater in 1948.

But the scientists and engineers had not gone away. Zworkin developed better camera tubes - the Orthicon in 1943 and the Vidicon in 1950. And other new inventions and technologies furthered the outreach of television. Notable among these were:

The introduction of coaxial cable, which is a pure copper or copper-coated wire surrounded by insulation and an aluminum covering. These cables were and are used to transmit television, telephone and data signals. The 1st "experimental" coaxial cable lines were laid by AT&T between New York and Philadelphia in 1936. The first regular installation connected Minneapolis and Stevens Point, WI in 1941. The original L1 coaxial-cable system could carry 480 telephone conversations or one television program. By the 1970's, L5 systems could carry 132,000 calls or more than 200 television programs. Brothers and Stanford researchers Russell and Sigurd Varian introduced the Klystron in 1937. A Klystron is a high-frequency amplifier for generating microwaves. It is considered the technology that makes UHF-TV possible because it gives the ability to generate the high power required in this spectrum.

In 1946 Peter Goldmark, working for CBS, demonstrated his color television system to the FCC. His system produced color pictures by having a red-blue-green wheel spin in front of a cathode ray tube. This mechanical means of producing a color picture was used in 1949 to broadcast medical procedures from Pennsylvania and Atlantic City hospitals. In Atlantic City, viewers could come to the convention center to see broadcasts of operations. Reports from the time noted that the realism of seeing surgery in color caused more than a few viewers to faint. Although Goldmark's mechanical system was eventually replaced by an electronic system he is recognized as the 1st to introduce a color television system. In 1945 the 1st experimiental microwave relay system was introduced by Western Union between New York and Philadelphia. This distribution system transmitted communication signals via radio along a series of towers. With lower costs than coaxial cable, microwave relay stations carried most TV traffic by the 1970s.

In 1948 there were early tests of cable television in the rural area of Lansford, PA. This and other early cable systems primarily provided improved reception of broadcast programming from nearby large cities. Thus, cable television was basically a redelivery system until the late 1960s. In 1956 the Ampex quadruplex videotape replaced the kinescope; making it possible for television programs to be produced anywhere, as well as greatly improving the visual quality on home sets. This physical technology led to a change in organizational technology by allowing highquality television production to happen away from the New York studios. Ultimately, this led much of the television industry to move to the artistic and technical center of Hollywood with news and business operations remaining on the East Coast.

In 1957 the 1st practical remote control, invented by Robert Adler and called the "Space Commander," was introduced by Zenith. This wireless, ultrasound remote followed and improved upon wired remotes and systems that didn't work well if sunlight shone between the remote and the television. This "Golden Age" of television also saw the establishment of several significant technological standards. These included the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) standards for black and white (1941) and color television (1953). In 1952 the FCC made a key decision, via what is known as the Sixth Report and Order, to permit UHF broadcasting for the 1st time on 70 new channels (14 to 83). This was an essential decision because the Nation was already running out of channels on VHF (channels 2-13). That decision gave 95% of the U.S. television markets three VHF channels each, establishing a pattern that generally continues today. Thus the "Golden Age" was a period of intense growth and expansion, introducing many of the television accessories and methods of distribution that we take for granted today. But the revolution technological and cultural that television was to introduce to America and the world was just beginning.

Wired, Zapped, and Beamed, 1960's through 1980's

The 1960's through 1980's represented a period of expansion and maturation for television with the addition of a few exciting new technologies like satellite delivery of programming. For example, at the start of this period color television had been introduced but there was little color programming. By 1967, most network programming was in color. And, by 1972 half of U.S. households had a color television. 1962 brought the 1st transatlantic reception of a television signal via the TELSTAR satellite. A 1961 multi-national agreement between AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, the British Post Office, and the French National Post Office set in motion efforts to develop, launch, and utilize two mobile telecommunications satellites. TELSTAR was the 1st of these satellites. TELSTAR was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on July 10th. The next day the world's 1st satellite transmission of a short television program took place between Andover, MN and Pleumeur-Bodou, France.

TELSTAR and later communication satellites began to significantly change American's relationship with and understanding of the world. No longer did it take days or weeks to learn about events in distant lands. This was made vividly clear in 1975 when the fledgling Home Box Office company bought the rights to live transmission of the "The Thrilla from Manila," the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. While the broadcast networks would have to wait a day or so for tapes of the fight to be flown in, subscribing cable viewers saw this historic fight as it was happening.

Most experts agree that this transmission, which clearly demonstrated the ability of satellite communications to show real-time images from around the world, forever changed the cable industry and; thus, the television industry. Satellite delivery of programming was also a major factor in the growth of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). PBS was established as the video arm of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Congress created in 1967 by passing the Public Broadcasting Act. Although educational television had been around since 1933 when University of Iowa (W9XK) was the 1st educational institution to produce and broadcast video programming (you heard the audio on radio station WSUI), the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting signaled a statutory commitment to public and educational television. In 1978 PBS was the 1st network to deliver all its programming via satellite instead of landlines. But satellites and the explosive growth of the cable industry they engendered were not the only major technologies of this period. Home videotaping was another major technology introduced during this time. In 1972 the Phillips Corporation introduced video cassette recording (VCR) for the home. From this concept Sony introduced the Betamax format of VCR in 1976 at a suggested retail price of $1,295. A year later RCA introduced the 1st VHS format VCR in America. By 1985 the VHS format dominated the U.S. home market. The introduction of efficient fiber optic cable in 1970 by Corning's Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz also improved the delivery of television programming to American homes and businesses. These transparent rods of glass or plastic are stretched so they are long and flexible and transmit information digitally using rapid pulses of light. This breakthrough work allowed cable to be created that could carry 65,000 times more information than conventional copper wire.

High defintion television (HDTV) was also introduced during this period. In 1981 NHK, the Japanese National Broadcasting company, demonstrated their 1,125 line HDTV system to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers at their Winter conference in San Francisco. This constituted a major breakthrough in the visual quality of television pictures because the sharpness of a television picture is a function of the number of lines per screen the more lines the sharper and more vivid the image. Think about the technological breakthrough this signaled:

60 years before (1921) Jenkins and Baird had been broadcasting at between 30 and 60 lines, and 40 years before (1941) the FCC first required that the NTSC standard of 525 lines be used.

Finally, this period also saw several significant statutory and regulatory actions. In 1962 Congress passed the All Channel Receiver Act, requiring the inclusion of UHF tuners in all television sets. Also in 1962, as a reflection of the growth and importance of cable television as a means of transmitting television programming, the FCC began regulating cable television. In 1966 these regulations included "must carry" rules requiring cable operators to carry local broadcast programming. In 1972 the FCC issued its "open skies" decision authorizing domestic communications satellites, which significantly expanded the feasibility of using satellites to disseminate television programs. The open skies decision led to the 1982 authorization of commercial Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) operations. The 1st such service began in Indianapolis in 1983.

Digitally Networked, 1990's Through Today

While it is entirely too early write a history of television technology over the past decade it can be noted that:

The visions for television remain as grand today as they were in the beginning. Pundits still say the frontier remains limitless and predict that the marriage of digital technologies, broadband networks, and television will finally allow television to reach its greatest potential of being an interactive medium. The reach of television is so pervasive (by 1994, 99% of US households had at least one TV) that presidential candidates buy television time to hold "town meetings." Scientists and engineers still create technologies that expand the capabilities of television.

In the past decade closed-captioning has opened up television to millions of hearingimpaired viewers and V-Chips have enabled parents to take control over what their children watch. Digital video recorders are empowering television viewers at the same time they challenge traditional assumptions about television financing and viewing. The FCC continues to play an active role in this changing television environment. In 1994 HDTV standards were established and a plan for the transition from analog to digital

transmission of television programming has been rolled out throughout the decade. The challenge ahead for viewers, members of the television industry, and the FCC will be to work together to harness televisions still evolving technologies in such a way that they ensure that all Americans share in the benefits of the digital revolution.

Riding along on digital transmissions can be 'enhanced' content related to TV shows: You might click on the screen and buy the shirt the star of your favorite show is wearing, or read his biography onscreen. The long-unfulfilled promise of TV as an educational tool may come true as digital technology allows kids to interact with programs that adapt to their individual learning ability. Your cable provider could be responsible for your telephone calls and Internet access -- or your TV programs could come to you over the Internet, whenever you request them.