Reflections on a (Teeny) Phosphor Screen: The RCA Television Field Trials
By John C. Alsedek:
Back in the 1970s, when I was a kid discovering the world of late-night syndicated television, I was especially enamored with the old black-and-white shows. The Twilight Zone was my very favorite, of course (just like now!), but its lead-in at 11:30 p.m. on weeknights was in a way even more interesting to me. That show was the classic Jackie Gleason series The Honeymooners, and I loved it not just for the masterful comedy but also because it felt so primitive—the grainy picture quality, old-timey clothes, and spartan sets made it seem like The Honeymooners dated back to the dawn of time, or at least to the dawn of the television era. Little did I know that The Honeymooners was a whole lot closer to the then-current year of 1975 than it was to the invention of television.
There’s a common misconception that radio was around for decades before the first television signal was sent. But in fact, there’s only about eleven years between the first successful radio transmission (by Canadian-American inventor Reginald Fessenden in 1895) and the earliest precursor to today’s television. That precursor was the brainchild of Russian scientist Boris Rosing and his student, Vladimir Zworykin; they used a mechanical mirror-drum scanner to transmit images over wires to a receiver equipped with a cathode-ray tube (called a "Braun tube" by Rosing). Limitations in the technology kept them from transmitting moving images, but the process itself was sound and just needed further development. By 1928, the technology had been advanced sufficiently to conduct a landmark in TV history: the RCA Television Field Trials.
Side note: The first person to do a true broadcast (i.e., live transmission of images with continuing variation in tone) was Scottish engineer John Logie Baird in 1926. Since he used a mechanical system rather than an electronic one, I haven’t included him here, but Baird is well worth a future column for his pioneering work in television.
For those under the age of forty, the name "RCA" probably doesn’t mean a lot, since it now only exists as a trademark; it hasn’t manufactured anything since 1986, when it was purchased by General Electric and had virtually all of its assets sold off. But once upon a time, the Radio Corporation of America was the leader in home electronics, such as radios, phonographs, and, yes, television. The company’s involvement with TV began way back in 1928, when the previously mentioned Vladimir Zworykin convinced RCA president David Sarnoff that his prototype system could be developed into a viable commercial television within a year or so for a total investment of $100,000. Well, Zworykin would turn out to be a decade and millions of dollars off, but RCA, of course, didn’t know that at the time. And so, they plunged into the still-largely hypothetical world of television.
RCA first began its experimental TV transmissions in 1928, broadcasting from its experimental (i.e., non-commercial) station W2XBS, first in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park and then moving to the ten-story New Amsterdam Theatre Building on 42nd Street in Manhattan. These were positively primal by today’s standards, consisting of 60-line pictures transmitted on the 1–2 mHz waveband that had been allocated to the nascent television industry and then captured on receivers with a tiny two-inch screen. The subject of these daily 2-hour broadcasts? A 13” papier mâché figure of the popular cartoon character Felix the Cat, which was set up on a phonograph turntable. By 1930, the test broadcasts had expanded to include speakers, newscasts, and musical performances, as well as the standard test patterns that remained in use for the next half-century or so. But with its next step, television would be heading up—way, way up!
The Empire State Building had just finished construction in May 1931; at 1,250 feet tall from base to the top of its roof, it surpassed the 11-month-old Chrysler Building as the tallest in the world. As a result, it was an ideal broadcast location, and RCA leased the 85th floor as the new location for its experimental television broadcasts. They were issued the call signs W2XF (for the "sight" channel) and W2XK (for the "sound" channel) by the Federal Radio Commission, with the respective transmitters both being broadcast via a pair of vertical dipole antennas at the top of the building. The technology involved was at a bit of a crossroads, with the receivers being electronic but the camera system still being mechanical. But at least the picture quality had been bumped up significantly from the first tests three years earlier.
RCA went all-electronic in 1933, which allowed not just greater detail in the image but also a level of portability that made broadcasting from outdoor locations viable. This led to the 1936 RCA Field Trials, which transmitted from the Empire State Building but were actually broadcast from a recently converted radio studio in the RCA Building (known colloquially today as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or "30 Rock"). Studio and transmitter were connected by two links: a mile-long underground coaxial cable and a radio link. This series of field tests began on June 29, 1936, with programming being broadcast to around 90 (later about 200) receivers located in the homes of RCA staff, the lobby of the RCA Building, and in a special "viewing room" located on the 52nd floor of the RCA Building. These viewers were the next step in the evolution of the modern television set, with a 9” picture that used the 4:3 aspect ratio that would become the standard moving forward.
Over the next several years, further advancements were made. RCA started manufacturing the RR-359B receiver, which took the picture size from 9” to 12” and increased the picture quality to 441 lines. The range covered by the trials was now up to fifty miles, covering all of New York City, as well as much of northern New Jersey, southern Connecticut, and western Long Island. Combined with RCA’s remote coverage trucks, which began operating in New York City in 1937 and led to a number of television firsts (including the first live news event covered by a mobile unit and the first live telecast of a presidential speech), television was ready to introduce to the public. That introduction came at the 1939 World’s Fair, and to say it was a hit would be a major understatement. Following additional testing, including a broadcast series of one-hour plays during 1939, the first commercial television station, WNBT, went live on July 1, 1941 (simultaneously with CBS station WCBW, which is a whole other story). If not for the U.S. entry into World War II just five months later, TV as we know it might have come into being several years earlier.
Anyway, that’s the very basics about the RCA Television Field Trials. If you are interested in the subject of television’s earliest days, I wholeheartedly recommend www.earlytelevision.org, which proved to be an invaluable resource for this story!
Going back to that earliest test broadcast, remember “TV’s first star,” Felix the Cat? We’ll be talking about the cheery, cheeky black feline next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.