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Golden Age, 1930's through 1950's

I-was-televised souvenir card and Industry-is-born flyer from TV's formal U.S. debut at the 1939 New York City World's Fair: click for more information about these images 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:

coaxial cable and trenches dug for them: click for more information about these images

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.

Peter Goldmark and his color television system: click for more information about these images

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 1970’s.

Cable Subscribership Chart and Microwave Relay Tower images: click for more information about these images

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 1960’s.

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 high-quality 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.

1956 Ampex Demo Of First Remote Control and Commercial VTR: click for more information about these images

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.

telstar images - first active communication satellite: click for more information about these images



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last reviewed/updated on 11/21/05 


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