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Saturday 10-6

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Early Television Stations

W6XAH Bakersfield, CA

According to information that we have, W6XAH broadcast in Bakersfield, California, starting in January of 1932 and continuing until 1935. 

W6XAH was operated by Frank, Leo and Charles Schamblin of the Pioneer Mercantile Company, which  also started the first radio station in Bakersfield in 1933, KPMC, operating on 1560 kHz. Lee DeForest was involved in the television station, and a nearly lifesize picture of him was on the wall at KPMC.

The station made its first broadcast on January 6, 1932. According to Leo Schamblin's son (also named Leo), a receiver was installed in the showroom of the Pioneer Mercantile hardware store in Taft, about 40 miles away. People from the town came to watch the first transmission, which was of the Walt Disney cartoon Steamboat Willie. The following day, Leo received a phone call from Walt Disney, who inquired as to how the transmission went. Leo told him that everything went well, and Walt replied that he had been following the progress of W6XAH, but unfortunately Disney was going to file suit against the station for use of the cartoon. Leo was astounded, but Walt then told Leo that the damages that Disney would demand would be $25, and that Disney would send Leo a check for that amount. Walt explained that Disney had to protect its copyright position with the new medium of television.

Apparently the station stopped broadcasting a regular schedule later that year, but continued to experiment with television until 1935. FCC records show the station licensed for the 2000-2100 kHz band in 1935. During 1932, the audio portion of the TV transmissions was apparently broadcast on 1550 kHz.

Here is an account of the station from Mark Luttrell, whose grandfather, Al Randour, was a division manager for Pioneer Mercantile:

Experimental work with W6XAH was primitive and was done with a limited budget and limited equipment. The Schamblin brothers were able to produce basic television images but they were only able to be received in the vicinity of the studio and only a few homes had televisions receiving signals in those days. People gathered on the sidewalk outside the studios to watch the experimental broadcasts on television monitors that had been set up. It is also interesting to note these experiments took place before there were radio stations in Bakersfield.

Broadcasts varied and included musical groups such as local dance bands. My grandfather, Al Randour was a member of the "Moonlight Serenaders" band that Mr. Frank Schamblin had organized which was one of the groups appearing on W6XAH. In addition, people made appearances during broadcasts to talk about community events. Local historian Richard C. Bailey gave talks on Kern County (Bakersfield is the county seat) history as well.

Because of limited funding and technical problems with these television experiments, efforts were discontinued that same year. However, the Schamblin family then started KPMC (the PMC was for Pioneer Mercantile Company) radio in 1933. This radio station broadcasted at 1560 A M very close to the 1550 A M frequency used as the audio channel for W6XAH during the television experiments. The station was affiliated with the CBS and Mutual Radio Networks. In 1978, the radio station was sold to Dan B. Speare Broadcast Enterprises which operated KPMC until the station was again sold in the 1990s to Buckley Radio of Connecticut which owns radio stations across the U.S.

Other accounts of the history of the station are given by Frank Smith and Roger Grace. In 1966 the Kern County Centennial Observance Committee published an article about W6XAH in the Kern County Centennial Almanac, with pictures of the cameras and transmitter.

Here is a description of the station's technology from the book "The Great Television Race" by Joseph H. Udelson:

The builders altered a standard Jenkins transmitter scanner by adding a new disc of 32 apertures, rotated 60 times per second; 3 rotations were required to produce each of the final 96-line frames, with 20 such frames per second. The increase in picture lines was accomplished without the necessity of adding additional frequency bandwidth to the assigned 100 kHz. (normally able to accommodate only a 60-line frame) by using a new single sideband suppressed carried technique. A variant of this method, vestigial sideband transmission, is the standard employed in current American television broadcasting.

An article appeared in the July-August, 1932 issue of Television News that described how the single sideband transmitter worked. It also featured pictures of the film camera and and the transmitter. This article was titled "Single Sideband Television Transmission.  More image detail with lower frequency range possible with this method", and was written by R. D. LeMert. The distorted images are because the magazine was too brittle to scan without damaging it, and had to be photographed. Here is another article about their single sideband transmission.

Newcomb Weisenberger, who was a student at the First National Television school in the early 1930s, visited his friend at radio station KPMC in 1935. Here are his recollections:

Jasper McCrillis helped me find my TV school and a place to live in Kansas City, and he met me at Union Station in Kansas City when I arrived to attend First National. He was several months ahead of me so left before I finished First National TV.

When Jasper finished FNT, he went to work for KPMC in Bakersfield, California.  A friend of De Forest, Ralph Lamert, was operating television station W6XAH for KPMC.

When I visited Jasper in Bakersfield, he was working for KPMC in the same building where the television station equipment was placed. I missed seeing Dr De Forest and Lamert who were in and out of there.

As we entered the KPMC building, we saw a near life size picture of DeForest holding his triode.

Jasper showed me a booth with a window opening into the projection room. The opening was framed by a four-sided light trough with clusters of bare bulbs. Head and shoulders would show in the window. The intense light reflected into a photoelectric cell through the spinning disk.

The other camera was a more conventional flying spot scanner. Jasper and I preferred the cooler flying spot. One advantage was that the photoelectric cells were open all the time gathering the sparse light. This also allowed two banks of cells to watch at once. These were at the focal point of concave reflectors the size of auto headlights of the period. Five or six reflectors and cells made up a bank.

The effect was that one bank collected illumination from the left side and one from the right side of the object. An operator manned each bank so as to balance the image. They moved the banks laterally, along overhead tracks and pivoted the banks as one would adjust spotlights on a stage. Problems included narrow bandwidth amplifiers and limited broadcast channel width.

When everything was operating at optimum, one could recognize a familiar face. (if it was solo) a quartet was unrecognizable.

The TV station may have been off the air when I visited KPMC, but the equipment was still there.

The equipment pictured below was found in a Bakersfield antique shop in 1996, and is reportedly from W6XAH. Udelson  indicates that they were using a 96 line mechanical system. However, the equipment in the pictures appears to be for a 60 line system. If you have any comments or observations, please contact us.

Scanning disk housing

Rear view of scanning disk housing with motor and gear drive

60 line lens disk

Scanning disk housing parts

Huge Variac

Mirror drums

Mirror drums and power supply chassis

Three mirror drums

Arc lamp housing

Pictures courtesy of Eric Stumpf