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MY PRINCIPAL enthusiasms for television are British (its mysteries and period dramas) and historical (TV’s place in an evolving culture). I unearthed a book on this latter topic. I’ll save Poirot, Father Brown, UCOS and the residents of Downton Abbey for perhaps another day.
Steve Kosareff counts himself among “televisionaires,” those with “a love of the magic box and its ability to receive ‘pictures’ out of thin air….” Like me, he’s interested in the medium’s history, its technology and its influence on our larger culture. Window to the Future identifies TV’s Golden Age as reaching its peak in the early 1960s. However, Kosareff also offers nuggets of earlier eras.
For instance, Jules Verne’s book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870, contained a description of a “distant vision” device. Alas, the 1872 translation that reached the U.S. deleted a quarter of the original book, including this distant vision device. A 2001 translation by Frederick P. Walter restored the omission.
Long before the technical feasibility of distant vision/television, the concept recurred in literature and art. By the early 1900s, amateur radio experimentation fostered magazines such as Modern Electrics, published between 1908 and 1914. The magazine included hobbyist articles as well as technology-based fiction and, in 1909, was likely the first to use the word “television” in print.
The earliest television used a mixed mechanical/electrical approach of spinning and scanning discs. In 1928, New York City radio station WRNY conducted experimental TV broadcasts using this technology, soon to be displaced by all-electric tube TV in the 1930s.
Early conceptualizations of TV often included viewers being simultaneously viewed. Movies such as Murder by Television, 1935, Trapped by Television, 1936, and Television Spy, 1939, had the medium’s interactivity as part of their plots. A 1931 song title pleaded I Wish There Were a Television to Heaven So I Could See My Mother Tonight.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair had five companies displaying TVs in operation. General Electric and RCA exhibits gave fair-goers the opportunity to see themselves and others on the devices. The first home TV sets were offered to New Yorkers at the same time, albeit with few takers.
Author Kosareff conjectures that poor sales prior to World War II were partly attributable to viewer discomfort with TV’s perceived capability of see-and-be-seen. In fact, years later in the 1950s I recall grandmotherly types still being conscious of proper decorum when sitting in front of the miniscule screens.
TV sets warehoused during the war were dusted off and sold quickly in the late 1940s. Peacetime conversion profited from wartime developments in electronics. The completion of cable links made transcontinental broadcasting a reality in 1951. Immediacy of the medium brought network TV news to the fore.
Advertisers swept in with the message that the family wasn’t a proper one without TV. What’s more, the TV was best integrated with other media in elaborate pieces of period furniture. Consoles of TV/radio/record player could be had in Early American, French Provincial or Fifties Modern. And, unlike those disadvantaged kids, folks with TVs were always elegantly dressed—and up-market.
In 1950 CBS demonstrated its color system in New York City, only to be countered by snarky ads from the American Television Services and Manufacturers confronting what this trade organization termed a CBS color conspiracy. It wasn’t until 1960 that color TVs were bought in significant numbers.
What’s more, black-and-white had a last glorious gasp, largely because of advertising. As Kosareff describes it, Motorola “hired the New Center Studio in Detroit to design the ad campaign. The agency asked its artists to submit ideas detailing fantasy places to watch television.”
The campaign promoted Motorola TVs, both portable and consoles, that were still black-and-white, but in remarkably stunning settings.
TV has had an interesting history. There’s Earl “Mad Man” Muntz too. And also the coming of a company named Sony. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015