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PHILO T. FARNSWORTH may not have foreseen what he started. In 1927, the same year Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop New York to Paris, Farnsworth transmitted a televised image at his home lab in East Los Angeles, California. A local car dealer saw promise in the concept and set up an experimental TV station in 1931. Another experimental station followed in 1942, with links to the BBC and ironically boosted by Hitler’s Third Reich. Commercial TV didn’t arrive until 1947—and not without its critics.
These nuggets come from the book Los Angeles Television and add to a recent trove offered at this website in “TV History and Culture.” I hadn’t realized that so much early TV occurred in Los Angeles.
Philo T. Farnsworth’s family ties were in Utah. However, California philanthropists funded a laboratory for him, on New Hampshire Street in East Los Angeles, where he proved the efficacy of a completely electrical means of transmitting and receiving images. (Previous rotating disc technology was mechanical/electrical.)
Farnsworth’s first transmission, on September 7, 1927, was an image of his brother-in-law, Cliff Gardner. His device composed its electric image through a series of lines, akin, Farnsworth said, to a plowed field. He called his invention an image dissector; he also invented an image oscillite, a cathode ray tube to display the picture.
[Added September 8, 2015: A bit of Internet digging offers alternative views on Farnsworth’s first transmission. Other sources (which tend to echo each other) suggest San Francisco as the locale; or maybe Rigby, Idaho, where the family lived for a while; a simple black line as the image; his wife “Pem” (nee Elma Gardner) as the first human image; brother-in-law Cliff as his assistant.]
Notes author Tator in Los Angeles Television, “In 1927, Prohibition was in full swing, and the Los Angeles Police Department once raided Farnsworth’s lab because it thought he was making illegal whiskey.”
Farnsworth’s product proved potent indeed. Don Lee, local Cadillac dealer, took an interest in the device and hired away a Farnsworth engineer. Experimental TV station W6XAO went live in Los Angeles on December 31, 1931. It broadcast one hour a day to the five receivers in the area.
W6XAO’s first programming included old newsreels and outtakes from feature films. In time, though, it had original content. Footage of the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, a severe one of 6.4 intensity, displayed the medium’s potential for news. TV’s first complete film, The Crooked Circle starring Zazu Pitts, was another 1933 feature. There were also poetry readings to music.
Does anyone remember poet laureate Percy Dovetonsils? This Ernie Kovacs sendup from 1950s TV is, in restropect, terribly un-PC, but it was an element of Kovacs’ comedic genius.
Also, I recall 5 a.m. poetry readings of some maudlin stuff on KFAC, a Los Angeles classical radio station. Given the time slot, Wife Dottie once suggested they should get sponsorship from Bandini Fertilizers.
By the way, FAC stood for Fuller Auburn Cord, as in Auburn and Cord automobiles and its Los Angeles distributor, O.R. Fuller. The station’s classical music format, maintained from the mid-1940s until new ownership in 1989, was E.L. Cord’s idea.
It wasn’t long before W6XAO had competition for its miniscule market. On November 2, 1936, the British Broadcasting Corporation initiated the world’s first regular TV service from Alexandra Palace, London. That same year, the Olympics were televised from Berlin. Later, a German engineer involved in this, Klaus Landsberg, moved his family to the U.S. to escape the Third Reich. Paramount Pictures hired Landsberg in 1941 and, at age 25, he started experimental TV station W6XYZ in September 1942.
Landsberg outfitted a truck for remote coverage of tennis matches, boxing bouts and, on January 1, 1947, the station’s first Rose Parade coverage. W6XYZ’s programming regularly ran twice a week from 8 until 10 p.m., including 30 minutes of Test Pattern and Recorded Music. (Do you remember test patterns?) W6XYZ also had Shopping at Home, with viewer phone-in ordering.
This experimental station evolved into the first commercially licensed television station west of the Mississippi. KTLA went on the air on January 22, 1947, with an inaugural broadcast from Paramount Stage 3 in front of an invitation-only audience.
The program had quite a cast, among them Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Cecil B. DeMille and William Bendix (who helped with the Tupman Motors pitch).
Trade papers were less than enthusiastic. Daily Variety wrote, “Commercial television’s debut here rated low as programming. It looked like the answer to the question ‘What happened to vaudeville.’ ” Wrote the Hollywood Reporter, “Commercial Video Test by Paramount fails to impress. It is very doubtful if last night’s presentation inspired in a single viewer the desire to buy a video receiver.”
In 1947, there were perhaps 4300 TV sets among the city’s two million people. Today, 18 million people in the Los Angeles viewing area have 13.6 million TVs. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015