Early Television
Early Television
Early Television
Early Television
Early Television Early Television

Early Electronic Television

The Dawn of Modern, Electronic Television

By Nat Pendleton

(Presented at the March, 2001 meeting of the South Carolina Historical Association )

     Television, like any modern invention of complexity, did not simply appear-it evolved.  Much of its technology was and still is based on previous inventions as well as methods used by radio.  It is not within the scope of this paper to present the history of the telegraph, telephone and radio-suffice it to say that each of these technologies built upon its predecessor. That such was the case can be noted in that the first telephones were briefly referred to as "speaking telegraphs;" likewise that during the first years of radio communication, terms like "wireless telegraphy" and "wireless telephony" were common.  And in the 1920s, when experimenters first dabbled in transmitting moving pictures, the popular press and hobbyist magazines used names like "radio with pictures" and "radio movies".

     The beginnings of television make for a complicated yet fascinating story.  Perhaps its complexity is what has kept any details of television's origins out of most of the textbooks; whereas histories of other inventions such as the telegraph, telephone or automobile have been popularized, simplified and turned into famous historical legend.  It is impossible to honestly attribute the "invention" of television to a single individual or corporation, nor can one say that it was "invented" in a given year.  Rather, television's evolution is marked by a series of milestones; and several inventors, scientists, artists, financiers, corporations and even nations contributed to its progress.

     First, this paper will focus on early international efforts to establish a functional television service that brought clear, steady black and white pictures to the public on a regular basis.  Second, it will look at various stations, their programming and the public's reaction to "this new wonder."  Television with high-quality recognizable pictures and regularly scheduled broadcasting was achieved in the late 1930s.  England, Germany and the United States led the industry; followed by France, Russia, Italy and Japan which all conducted limited experiments and sporadic broadcasts.  The method used in each country's system in the latter half of the 1930s was completely electronic.  That is, the studio or other program images were scanned by an electronic camera, transmitted and then received by cathode ray (picture tube) television receivers.  Television today works under these same principles, only using many improvements such as color, stereo sound and closed captioning.

     Before this modern, all-electronic system was developed, mechanical systems were developed.  Based on series of late 19th and early 20th century inventions by such luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell, Paul Nipkow, C. Frances Jenkins, and John L. Baird, these mechanical systems used spinning discs with a spiral of holes passing in front of an electric eye to create a scanned image.  The pulses were transmitted and received in the home by a bulky set that used a disc with an identical spiral and a flickering neon bulb.  The discs in both the studio's camera and in the home would run at the same speed.  The sets at home produced images with anywhere from 30 to 60 lines of resolution-one line per hole in the scanning spiral of the disc.  Needless to say that in comparison to the 525 lines used by American television today, this was a very blurry and low-definition picture.  But the novelty was so great for the times, 1928 to 1933, that sets were actually sold and several businesses-mostly existing radio stations-set up studios and broadcast crude programs.

     The mechanical system ultimately failed because the novelty of its low-quality pictures soon wore off.  Low quality programming, with images that could not easily be seen and often looked like silhouettes, could not sustain the sales of new sets nor attract advertising dollars.1   By 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, the five-year experiment had come to an end as the last stations shut down their studios and many went back to their laboratories.  Indeed, by the end of 1930 RCA had already seen the writing on the wall:

      Television must develop to the stage where broadcasting stations will be able to broadcast regularly visual objects in the studio, or scenes occurring at other places through remote control; where...these objects or scenes...(will be)...clearly discernible in millions of homes; where such devices can be built upon a principle that will eliminate rotary scanning discs, delicate (temperamental) hand controls and other moving parts...2

     Although many might view mechanical television as a "false start," the work laid much of the groundwork necessary for the future method of all-electronic, higher definition television.  "Similarly, it provided a rich source of studio design and programming concepts extensively drawn upon by the latter endeavor.  In many ways, electronic television did not develop simply parallel to the mechanical method, but often climbed upon its shoulders."3

     Electronic television also climbed on the shoulders of radio broadcasting.  It comes as no surprise that British television became a state run affair.  Just as with the BBC state-run radio, no advertising was used and revenue came instead from the listener and viewer who had to pay an annual licensing fee or tax to have their set.  The case was similar in Germany for radio but, whereas the British had managed to sell about 20,000 television sets from 1936 to 1939 around the London area4 , the Nazi government, under the auspices of the Post Office, chose to keep theirs.  Germans could watch television in Fernsehstuben-special dimly-lit TV viewing theaters-located adjacent to several post offices around the Berlin area.5

     In the United States, television operations were at first subsidized by the corporate proceeds of their parent organization, but with the final intention of introducing advertising, as with radio, when the FCC gave its approval.   Thus companies like RCA, GE, Philco, DuMont or Zenith all ran television studios in the late 1930s and early 1940s financed by the proceeds of their radio and electronics industries.  A total of nine television stations operated in the United States before entry into World War II.  Each station was considered an investment in future technology and no profits were made until the late 1940s.

     It is important to point out that, although in competition with each other, much of the early television technology and patents were shared between the various American companies, the British and the Germans.  One of the German technical journals illustrates how television cameras covered the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.6   The journal gives details of how both Vladimir Zworykin's Iconoscope camera pick up tube and Philo Farnsworth's Image Dissector camera pick up tube were adopted and operated in German cameras.  In 1936 Zworykin, a Russian Jew, was working for RCA labs and Farnsworth, a Utah Mormon, was working with Philco.  Both would have been persecuted for their religious and ethnic backgrounds in Nazi Germany, and yet their inventions made television cameras possible in all countries.

     It has been reasonably argued that the Third Reich used the 1936 Olympics as a great propaganda stage.  The presence of large Fernsehkanonen or "television canons" at the side of the stadium's track couldn't help but attract international, public attention due to their six-foot length.  Although the all-electronic system had only been perfected to 180 scanning lines of resolution7,  the Nazi government was eager to get their new, still not fully developed achievement out into public view.  Whereas other countries confined their lower definition pictures and early experiments of the mid-1930s to the laboratory, the Nazi propaganda machine was willing to parade the crude, 180-line pictures before the public.

     The German system did improve later on so that by the fall of 1937 a 441-line system was in operation.8   This standard remained in effect in Berlin until 1943 when the television tower was destroyed in an air raid.  Even more surprising is the fact that the Germans took their television system to occupied France.  From 1942 until their retreat in 1944, the Germans broadcast live programs-mostly cabarets-newsreels and short films from their captured transmitter on the Eiffel Tower.9   During the war both the Berlin and Paris transmitters were used almost exclusively to televise programs for wounded soldiers.10  There were about 500 French-made television sets plus about a hundred German sets in Parisian hospitals.11

     In England, the BBC operated a 405-line station located at the Alexandra Palace in northern London.  Public programming started on November 2, 1936.  The British claim this to be "the world's first regular public high definition television service."12   The term "high definition" was used in contrast to the earlier low definition images achieved by the defunct mechanical scanning systems.  In many ways, the BBC's claim is true.  Although RCA and Philco in the United States were transmitting 343 and 441 line images from 1935 to 1938, the service was not yet public.  No American sets went on sale until 1939.  And the Germans, although they publicly demonstrated their system, it remained at 180 lines until late 1937 and did not qualify as "high definition."  Because the British sold about 20,000 sets all tuned to this single station the service was truly public.  Sadly, the station was ordered to shut down on September 1, 1939 at the outbreak of World War II.  Fear that the Luftwaffe could use the BBC's VHF transmitter as a homing beacon prompted this move.  The station remained off the air until 1946, but much of its staff remained busy as radar technicians and developers during the war.  Although England had only the one BBC television station in London, that station was an exemplary leader with many "firsts" in both programming as well as live, remote coverage:

     Between 1936 and 1939 the English television audience had seen variety, drama, music, and educational programs from the television studios. They had seen the Coronation procession of King George VI, plays telecast directly from the stage of London theaters, the English Derby from Epsom Downs, the Oxford-Cambridge boat races, tennis at Wimbledon, and many other outstanding events.13

     What set the United States apart from the other nations involved with television development was that several competing companies with no governmental financing were involved. Whereas Germany, England, France and Russia had only one government run station each, the United States had a total of nine on the air shortly before and during the war; three in New York City, two each in Los Angeles and Chicago, and one in Philadelphia and Schenectady.

     Most of these early television stations, both in Europe as well as in the United States, had already conducted experiments during the late 1920s and early 1930s using mechanical scanning disc systems.  As the science developed and improved, these stations switched over to all-electronic systems.  During the earliest years they concentrated on increasing both the number of lines and the rate of scanning to improve the quality of the picture.  The first all-electronic American systems in 1932 used only 120 scanning lines at 24 frames per second.  This produced a blurry image with visible, thick scanning lines and a noticeable amount of flicker.   RCA transmitted from both their Camden, New Jersey laboratories as well as from atop the Empire State Building to a handful of experimental television receivers located within a few miles of both areas.14    In Philadelphia, both Philo Farnsworth and the Philco Corporation operated stations.  Philco placed its studio and transmitter right in its Tioga Street radio factory and Farnsworth joined Philco.  In Los Angeles, Don Lee operated a private TV station that paralleled these experiments back East.  Don Lee financed the operation from his nine-station radio network on the West Coast.

      The number of scan lines quickly increased to 240 lines in 1933 and a great improvement was observed in 1934 when a system using 343 lines at 30 frames was introduced by RCA.  This 343-line system-and Philco's slight variation of 345 lines-was the first to employ interlacing.  By interlacing, first the odd numbered lines are scanned and then the even ones are scanned.  By interlacing and scanning at the faster rate of 30 frames (or 30 complete scans of both odd and even lines), all noticeable flicker is removed. 

     The year 1936 marked the first public demonstrations of television.  As already mentioned, the Germans televised the Olympic games in Berlin using their 180-line system and the English inaugurated their 405-line service.  In the United States, RCA, Philco and Don Lee all started giving public demonstrations to the press and various radio executives.  Up until that time television had been considered a dark secret with many jealously guarded trade secrets and patents.  As it turned out, most of the patents were shared.  Although several components were indeed patented, traded and purchased, it would have been as difficult to patent a television set or the concept of television as it would have been to patent an automobile. 

     The demonstrations of 1936 used the 343-line system and not more than 1000 people saw all of them combined.  In July 1936 when RCA held its first demonstration exclusively for radio executives, there were only three television receivers in the area15 outside of those few in the studio.  By November 1936 there were only about forty to fifty experimental television sets in the New York area, and Philadelphia and Los Angeles had even fewer.  All public demonstrations were by invitation only and from 1936 until the spring of 1939 the three pioneer television stations were literally broadcasting to themselves.  When public demonstrations were given, it was usually the press, radio executives and the FCC who were invited.

     Not all of the demonstrations went uncriticized.  Although the pictures were far superior to the outdated mechanical scanning systems seen only a decade or less before, they were still small.  "The greenish-hued pictures measured 7 ½ by 10 inches on a screen called 'the largest yet employed which is capable of commercial adaptation.'"16   The small "greenish-hued pictures" was a result of early phosphors used in the picture tube.  It was always noticed by even the most casual of observers, most of  whom had grown accustomed to large-screen black and white motion pictures.  Although a green picture had been fine for laboratory experiments, public displays were another matter.  One reporter observed the improvement made by Philco on February 1937 in Philadelphia when he wrote:

     Also, the greenish tint that has characterized television pictures in the majority of past demonstrations has been overcome.  Black and white advances telepictures closer to the cinema, but television has a long way to go to equal the movies in clarity.  The sound part of the television show, however, is already equal to the best broadcast receivers&ldots; (and) the pictures, now measure 7 ½ by 10 inches.  There can be no doubt that television must eventually offer larger pictures to possess real entertainment value and to lure the eye as do the movies.17

     The brighter, larger pictures did not come until the early 1950s.  The picture tubes were made of delicate glass and were limited to a small size due to their delicate structure, a vacuum and risk of implosion.  With few exceptions, a 12-inch diagonal picture was the largest available and many sets used 9- and 5 inch tubes.  Another reason early television may have failed to "lure the eyes as do the movies" was because of early, experimental production values.  The same reporter commented on this at an earlier demonstration made by RCA in November 1936:

     These modern television machines have entertainment value, all who watch agree, but even during a forty-minute demonstration it is noticed that spectators become restless, especially if an act is on the screen too long.  The eye is not as easy to entertain as the ear.18

     The same report goes on to say that newsreels and short films were the most popular programs viewed.  One can easily draw the conclusion that films were superior because they were previously edited and ready to show.  Television performances on the other hand were live and did not flow as smoothly as film for several reasons; among them, lack of editing, too few cameras, long pauses and lack of experience by production staff to keep the action moving.  What resulted were often stilted images caused by not enough camera movements or changes.  Viewers often saw the same person standing or singing with no change for several minutes.  The comments made by viewers, especially newspaper reporters, were heeded and the production quality increased dramatically in the subsequent years as television became available to the public.

     Technical standards also improved.  In late December 1936 Philco moved up to 441-lines followed by RCA in January 1937 and Don Lee later that summer.  This 441-line standard was adopted throughout the United States and remained in use until July 1, 1941 when the 525-line standard, still in use today, was adopted.

     The original intent of these field tests and pioneering broadcasts was to establish a commercial television system.  As the standards evolved, RCA and DuMont in New York were especially eager to manufacture and sell television sets.  This happened in 1939 when RCA, GE, DuMont and a handful of others introduced the first sets for public sale in the New York area.  RCA, parent corporation of NBC at the time, announced that their station would initiate a regular telecasting schedule commencing with the opening of the New York World's Fair on April 30th.19   With the gradual increase of the number of television sets, the interest in broadcasting spread to other corporations.  Philco, which up to then only had conducted field tests, committed to a regular schedule in October 1939.  General Electric, who had previously conducted mechanical television experiments in the 1920s, resumed broadcasting in Schenectady, New York in November 1939 using the new 441-line standard.  GE pioneered television relay and in 1940 they joined RCA and Philco in the first network telecast-the Republican national convention in Philadelphia.  The program was televised in Philadelphia by Philco, relayed over a coaxial cable by AT&T to New York City and broadcast there by RCA's NBC station.  General Electric picked up the NBC signal on a huge, rhombic antenna and retransmitted the program in Schenectady.  Other uses of this pioneering three-station network included coverage of King George VI's visit to New York City, parades and sporting events.

     Each station made a series of contributions to either the technology or studio production techniques or both.  RCA and DuMont led in technology and many firsts in the production field.  Some of the key devices were the iconoscope pick up tube used in most cameras in the 1930s until 1945 when RCA introduced the far more sensitive image orthicon.  General Electric developed studio lighting.  CBS in New York, WBKB belonging to the Balaban and Katz theater chain in Chicago and Don Lee in Los Angeles all developed studio production techniques.  Don Lee started sporadic broadcasts in the early 1930s, but maintained 10 hours per week of live or film programs as early as 1939.  

     Philadelphia's Philco station added much to television circuitry and along with RCA's NBC station in New York, pioneered live, remote coverage.20   Starting with the 1940 fall season Philco covered all home football games played by the University of  Pennsylvania at Franklin Field.  They also placed cameras in the Convention Hall and, as previously mentioned, covered the 1940 Republican national convention.  They even installed a camera and relay in the tower of City Hall and broadcast the January 1, 1941 Mummers' Parade.21   Although outdoor and remote coverage was only for special events, the 500 to 1,000 Philadelphians who did have a television set were able to enjoy about 10 and later 20 hours per week of programming, mostly consisting of films or amateur acts from the studio.

     New York City was the most active place for early electronic and wartime television.  Not only did they have a large, Broadway-based talent pool to draw from, but by 1941 they had three competing stations: CBS, NBC and DuMont.

     Thousands of set-owners throughout the world-in London, Berlin, Los Angeles and other major cities, have witnessed television performances in their own homes, but last Tuesday, [July 1, 1941] for the first time in history, more than one program was available to any television audience.22   

  July 1, 1941 also marked the FCC authorizing the start of commercial television and the full conversion to the 525-line standard.  Most of the nine stations were broadcasting over 20 hours per week and some had plans for expansion.  Don Lee had filed for a permit to build in San Francisco and NBC had plans to go on the air in Washington, DC by January 1, 1942 and in Philadelphia by June 1st of that same year.23   Delays in paperwork and, more significantly, the Second World War, postponed those plans.  However, the facts that commercial service had started, TV sets were being sold and existing stations were looking towards expansion and network-building indicate that television had finally arrived.

     Although World War II put American television on hold, it did not kill it. Stations were authorized to broadcast four hours of programming per week in an effort to keep the fledgling industry alive.  Further, they "did their part" in the war effort by televising air raid drills, first aid lessons and military maneuvers as well as films, the occasional sporting event and live drama.  The war brought many technological improvements to television mostly through radar and microwave developments.  Starting in 1946, the number of stations and new television sets started to increase and a boom followed which lasted well into the 1950s.

     This is just an overview of television's start.  Although most of television's early electronic history remains hidden from the general public's eye, the sources do exist.  More research awaits, especially in areas that may highlight some of the lesser-known ventures such as the other stations in Chicago, Los Angeles or overseas.  Each made their contribution and thrived on each other's competition.  More importantly, they set the foundation for what became nationwide and worldwide television.



1 Joseph H. Udelson, The Great Television Race: A History of the American Television Industry 1925-1941 (Tuscalusa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1982), 77.

2 David Sarnoff, Annual Report of the Radio Corporation of America (Camden, NJ: RCA, 1930), 26.

3 Udelson, 77-78.

4 D.P. Leggat, "80 Years of British Television" in International Conference on the History of Television (London: Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1986), 9

5 Dieter Holtschmidt, Fernsehen-Wie Es Begann (Hagen, Germany: Halass Satzstudio GmbH, 1984), 25.

6 Franz Fuchs, "Die 13. Große deutsche Rundfunkausstellung," in Hochfrequenztechnik und Elektroakustik, January 1937, (Akademishe Verlags GmbH, Leipzig), 5-7.

7 Ibid., 6.

8 Franz Fuchs, "Die 14. Große deutsche Rundfunkausstellung," in Ibid., January 1938, 7.

9 The Germans had used closed-circuit cables in Paris from 1941 until 1942, then they repaired the sabotaged, French-built transmitter in the Eiffel Tower in 1942.

10 Michaela Krützen, "Das Fernsehen im dritten Reich," in Das Virtuelle Fernsehmuseum (Univesity of Cologne, 1997) Available on Internet at


11 Michael Ritchie, Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1995), 182

12 Andrew Emmerson, Old Television (Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications, 1998), 5

13 Thomas H. Hutchinson, Here is Television: Your Window to the World (New York: Hastings House, 1950), 347.

14  E.W. Engstron, The Birth of an Industry (Camden, NJ: RCA, 1939), 4-7.

15 "Television Stages First Real Show," in New York Times, July 8, 1936

16 "Television Show Seen by 200 Here," in New York Times, November 7, 1936

17 Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., "Television Show Reveals Current Stage of the Art," in New York Times, February 21, 1937

18 Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., "Television Flashes Pictures Through New York's Air," in New York Times, November 15, 1936

19 Udelson, 127

20 William C. Eddy, Television: the Eyes of Tomorrow (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945), 17-29.  Eddy gives a good overview of early station operation and contributions to the field.

21 E. N. Alexander, "A review of Television Progress," in FM, August 1941, 28-32.  This is part of a two-part article in the July and August 1941 issue of FM which later became FM and Television.

22 "Novel Commercials in Video Debut," in Broadcasting, July 7, 1941, 10

23 "Adam Hats Shows its Faith in Television," I Broadcasting, August 25, 1941, 56