From the archives: When the U.S. first caught TV-fever

From the archives: When the U.S. first caught TV-fever thumbnail

To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation–with an added hint of modern context. Explore the entire From the Archives series and check out all our anniversary coverage here.

The Radio Corporation of America, or RCA–with its Victrola logo, and iconic Nipper the dog mascot–was at the center of many technology disputes during the 20th century. The claim to television’s invention was the most controversial. While Philo Farnsworth, a farm boy from Utah, was officially awarded the first television patent in 1930, Vladimir Zworykin, who fled Russia during the country’s revolution, filed years before him, in 1923.

In February 1947, Popular Science Associate Editor George H. Waltz, Jr. interviewed Zworykin–then director of RCA’s vast NJ-based laboratories–for “Television on the Job.” By then, a court battle had given Farnsworth invention credit, but Zworykin’s RCA-funded delivery system (National Broadcast Company or NBC) sent TV into American homes, licensing Farnsworth’s design.

When Waltz’s story ran in February 1947, TV was still a novelty. RCA had introduced TV to America eight years earlier at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but WWII paused its rollout. By the late ’40s, only a few dozen cities offered programming, most with only one station, one channel, and just a few evening shows. By the end of 1947, however, the World Series was televised for the first time, and monthly TV production rate had quadrupled.

Waltz captures TV-fever that gripped the nation: “Television…means more than an amusing accompaniment to radio’s sound. Its practical uses are more dramatic than its role in entertainment. He described “installing a television camera inside a thick-walled metallic bathysphere;” seeing “close-up views within chemical reaction chambers; and equipping assembly lines to be controlled by TV control rooms. Zworykin even imagined broadcasting “the moon, stars” (he was able to see the lunar landing televised).

“Television on the job” (George H. Waltz, Jr., February 1947)

It extends vision to the depths of the sea, into furnaces, and through factories.

Television has added overalls to its dress clothes. It is ready to go!

Television has always been a promise to us of entertainment in our living rooms. We can enjoy the best seats at sporting events, boxing matches, and stage plays, without having to sacrifice our budgets. Television’s current phase is over, but the future of television goes beyond the simple prospects of animated quiz shows or soap operas that you can see.

Television is like radio. It’s a versatile tool. Today, only a small fraction of radio waves around the globe carry music and comedy to our loudspeakers. Many of them serve more important missions. Radio is essential for us to travel and do business. Without radio, scheduled large-scale air travel would not be possible, sea travel would slow down, crime prevention would be compromised, and news coverage would be cut. International business and diplomacy would also be limited.

Television is also more than a fun accompaniment to radio’s sound. Its everyday uses are more dramatic than its role in entertainment.

I discovered this when I had a firsthand view of television’s future at Princeton, N.J.’s large-scale modern laboratories of Radio Corporation of America. I asked Dr. Vladimir K. Zworykin (director of the laboratory’s program of electronic research) questions. He was one of the men who helped to raise television from its humble beginnings to its current status.

It was easy to get Dr. Zworykin talking about television. It is something he thinks, dreams, experiences, and shares with his parents.

After he showed me his laboratory, he explained that

“Television was an extension of our vision. It allows us to see things in a way that is easy for most people to see. Television can show us many new things if it is used correctly. Television can open up new avenues for research and knowledge.

“Undersea Exploration is an excellent example. Few divers can descend more than 200 feet. Television can allow us to see the depths without putting our bodies at risk. The deepest ocean floor can easily be explored by skilled observers who are seated comfortably on deck in front of a direct wire television viewer.

As Dr. Zworykin elaborated on his idea, I realized that it would not be difficult to construct a television bathysphere. It could be similar to Dr. William Beebe’s diving ball in his undersea observations. With thicker walls to withstand greater pressures, it would otherwise be simpler, since a television camera, unlike a man, requires no oxygen and would be unaffected by the near-zero temperatures 600 feet under.

Since scenes were televised under the dim light of candles, illumination would not be a problem. Another Zworykin-guided development is the Image Orthicon tube television camera. It is as sensitive as the human eye to light, so underwater television exploration floodlights would need to be no brighter that those needed for human observation. Remotely controlled motors embedded in a supporting gimbal can turn and tilt the bathysphere’s “eye” to scan its surroundings. The bathysphere could also be lowered via cable. The bathysphere could be used for underwater salvage, to guide the placement of drilling gear for subsea oil wells, and even to test the myth of lost Atlantis. The sphere’s metallic shell would limit the depths that can be plumbbed.

Similar to Dr. Zworykin’s claim, television cameras can provide close-up views of what happens inside chemical reaction chambers, in fiery furnaces, and behind thick lead walls that surround atomic fission experiments. It gives us a third eye that is not affected by radiations, heat, or lethal fumes.

It is still unclear what happens inside glass furnaces and smelting furnaces. The heat is so intense that temperatures must be measured from a distance using optical pyrometers. Only quick glances through jet-black glasses are allowed to make any observations. A closer view would burn the flesh and blind the eyes.

Television cameras placed at strategic points inside the furnaces could show pictures of the fiery mass to a person in the plant engineer’s office. He could observe the entire process from beginning to finish without any hassle other than switching between cameras. He could literally “walk around” in the furnace. The glow of molten metal and glass would provide enough illumination to illuminate the camera, while liquid-cooled jackets would protect it.

Dr. Zworykin sees television as a super-supervisor for the large factory of tomorrow. One man could control, monitor and protect the entire plant from a central location with television cameras placed in various areas of a manufacturing plant. He would be able to see exactly what was happening in the factory’s nerve centers through rows of television viewers. His master control room would function as an industrial equivalent to the CIC (Combat Intelligence Center), which coordinated our fighting forces on the various fronts during wartime. This system would increase production and protect life and property.

A similar setup could be used to manage the flow of automobile assembly lines. At present, it requires the services of a corps of men to supervise the 25 miles or more of subassembly and main assembly lines that snake their way through most big automobile plants. The entire problem could be brought under the supervision of a main supervisor by setting up television cameras at the feeder lines and along its length.

Dr. Zworykin believes

Television could change the way we think about educational methods. This is especially true in medicine, where the student’s view of an operation is limited to what he can see from the operating-room amphitheater. Television can give him a surgeon’s-eye view. A television camera mounted in a cluster of lights above the operating table and wired into classroom screens would allow students to see the entire operation from a close-up. It would also allow hundreds of students to view the demonstration, rather than just a few. Students in medical schools across the country could witness the operation if it was broadcast live.

Long distance diagnosis is another option. Television allows doctors and patients to access the expertise of specialists a thousand miles away. Television visits could be made by public health doctors to outlying health clinics. The delivery of special health lectures could simultaneously be offered to groups scattered across the country.

There’s no reason why students won’t one day be able to see the moon and stars from the Palomar telescope, take part in important experiments at world-class research centers, and “attend” any of these firsts in science and exploration. Schools all across the country could host famous educators and lecturers.

Television was used as a teaching tool in New York City during World War II. The television camera was used to show first aid and fire-bomb fighting methods to volunteer air-raid wardens. A single group of civilian-defense specialists was able to demonstrate air-raid procedures in New York City to more wardens than could have been possible within the city’s largest auditorium. This was possible because viewers set up at various air-raid stations throughout the city. Plus, every warden was able to see the demonstration in detail.

I asked Dr. Zworykin whether it was possible to equip news reporters using lightweight television cameras to allow them to broadcast live on-the-spot coverage of accidents, fires, and other news events. He showed me a compact, lightweight television camera designed for use in a guided missile. Weighing only 34 pounds, and no larger than a suitcase, it may well be the forerunner of the newscaster’s “walkie-lookie.” It would have to be changed only slightly. Its small transmitter and power supply could be stored in the reporter’s car to transmit the scene to a main broadcasting station. A picture editor would be seated in front of a bank viewers, showing the individual pickups from a dozen reporters. Then, the station’s television audience could rebroadcast the events to their viewing public.

Several department stores are using direct-wire television to display merchandise to customers. Special skits, fashion shows, and displays showcasing kitchen and garden equipment are televised to customers and piped to them from the store’s windows. In a sales test run by one large Eastern department store a poll of the customers showed that nine out of 10 felt television was an aid to their shopping.

Television billboards have become a new advertising trend. A Boston, Mass.-based outdoor advertising company designed the plan. It calls for large outdoor screens that display television sales programs. The television billboards will be placed on rooftops and sides of buildings and offer entertainment, interspersed by commercials.

A New York bank is looking to install a direct-wire TV system to simplify and speed up customer identification. An individual viewer will be installed at each teller’s counter and connected to the camera at the identification card files. This will allow him to verify signatures and verify bank balances without ever leaving his window. A network similar to that of the national police force would allow for faster identification of criminals using photos and fingerprints.

Dr. Zworykin believes that new developments in the laboratory, such as full-color and three-dimensional pictures, will extend television’s use even further. For example, full-color television will make it much easier to match colors in the paint, dye, and textile industries.

In the meantime, television as it is today can help industry solve its problems.

From the archives: When the U.S. first caught TV-fever
The February 1947 cover of Popular Science imagines the exciting depths where television would one day take us.

Some text has been modified to conform to current standards and style.

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