Television History in the News and on the ‘Net

by Alexander B. Magoun, David Sarnoff Library

The invention of television has been in the public eye as much in the last six months as it ever will be. Much of the publicity, seen in national book reviews, National Public Radio broadcasts, and at the Emmy™ awards, cen-tered on the 75th anniversary of Philo Farnsworth’s alleged invention of the first all-electronic system on September 7, 1927. Three writers have published and promoted books in the last six months on the invention of electronic television, and John Logie Baird's son recently has published a biography of his father. We may rest assured that the centenary will take place with less fanfare, because this commemorative moment is tied to three unique and influential factors: the transition from analog to digital broadcasting, baby boomer nostalgia for the monochrome shows of their youth, and the survival of the widow of a claimant to the title of television’s inventor.

These events raise or revive a number of issues for historians of technology and historians in general. They begin with why “firsts” matter, a question subjected to some correspondence in recent issues of Antenna following Pamela Laird’s Fall 1999 editorial. They continue with what defines a first; the role of technical knowledge in such definitions; the persistence of myths as frames for the popular understanding of, and conflicts over, history; and the relative power, or lack thereof, of academic historians in setting the terms or resolving the conflicts of popular historical debate.

The issue of pre-eminence is one that academic historians avoid assiduously. For example, in the latest study of television, Jennifer Bannister explicitly avoids it. We are trained to be objective and balanced; yet with the dream of objectivity taken down a few notches in recent decades, history becomes exceptionally indeterminate in its analyses. The history of technology highlights not accomplishments, but contingency; not the second-guessing of old disputes, but the tired theme of social construction. Self-consciously aware of our innate subjectivity, we bend over backwards to avoid judgment and therefore retain the dispassion that drives good scholarship.

Or does it? Balance and discipline have their merits, but by choosing indecision rather than judgment over a popular question, SHOT scholars leave a vacuum. Culture, like nature, abhors a void, which in this case is filled by corporate and romantic versions of the essential history of our field, the origins of things.

Television, like radio, offers a popular case study of this phenomenon for students or, perish the thought, your friends at a slow party with a fast web connection. It’s worth our time and reputations to take a reasoned stand and provoke a scholarly argument or, failing that, a trip around the web. There we can see various portraits of a technology, and how those portraits can enable those in our charge to understand the complexity of being first. Students can explore the questions or issues posed above through sites and pages lumped in the following categories: researcher advocates, corpo-rate advocates, researcher nonpartisans, collector researchers, col-lector restorers, and recreator restorers.

Researcher Advocates.

Paul Schatzkin deserves most of the credit for pushing Philo Farnsworth into the public eye as the inven-tor of television as we know it today. His site, “Farnovision,” http://www.farnovision.com/, builds a mythology around Farnsworth based almost entirely on his widow’s recollections. Is it good history? No. Does Schatzkin understand any of the “black-box” issues of the technology that might support his position? No. Yet in the absence of any contrary argument, the author of the privately published The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion persuaded PBS (www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/technology/bigdream/index.html), NPR, and finally the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to accept his version of the priority of invention for television, much to the disservice of several other primary candidates, and much less the other people and groups who deserve credit.

Schatzkin dismisses John Logie Baird’s work, while Baird’s son Malcolm has worked steadily over the last six years to illuminate his father's career online, first in articles found in the spring and fall 1996 online issues of Kinema (www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/FINE/juhde/kinemahp.htm, and more recently at http://members.allstream.net/~antenna1/Baird.html, where one can also order copies of his new biography.

Glen A. Williamson, an electronics engineer, sponsors www.ntsc-tv.com/ntsc-main-01.htm. His site features some confusing if impressive graphics that explain the operation of analog and digital television. It also reproduces a 1981 history of U. S. television standards with some second-guessing and comments on the future under digital formats and increasing processing power.

Hardly noticed by Schatzkin (or almost anyone else outside of Hungary) is the work of Kalman Tihanyi. RCA bought his 1920s patents for an electronic television system at the same time as the company’s entanglement with Farnsworth over priority. Tihanyi’s daughter, Katalin Tihanyi Glass, scrupulously documents her father’s patents and their relation to Zworykin’s progress or lack thereof in electronic camera design: www.sci-tech.hu/history/tihanyi/.

Corporate Advocates.

Corporate histories on the internet are becoming more sophisticated. The unusual attention to detail sug-gests that individuals actually wrote the content.

RCA, “a Thomson Business,” provides an episodic history at www.rca.com/content/aboutmoreindex/0,2809,CI263,00.html?.

Zenith Electronics Corporation offers more illustrations, highlighting its invention of the wireless remote control and membership in the HDTV Grand Alliance: www.zenith.com/index.asp?url=./sub_about/about_index.asp

Researcher Nonpartisans.

Some sites embrace the history of television while balancing advocacy and information. The David Sarnoff Library, for which I take responsibility, has a web-site, www.davidsarnoff.org/, that features annotated print and on-line bibliographies, galleries of images related to Sarnoff and RCA technologies, annotated references, and linked timelines. The site aspires to provide a variety of li-brary and archival resources, but some devil’s advocacy, stated as such, might also provoke visitors to engage questions of invention, regulation, and market capitalism more seriously. Net-ready undergraduate projects that help to fill openings on the site are welcome.

Andre Lang, a French-Canadian scholar, presents the spectacular “Histoire de la Télévision” in multiple languages at http://histv2.free.fr/. The site documents what might be called the prehistory of the technology in the 19th century, and its relationship to the broader culture.

Clarke Ingram offers “The DuMont Television Network Historical Web Site” at http://members.aol.com/cingram/television/dumont.htm. The fourth television network and its inventive founder enjoy over ten chapters of linked content and a bibliography that does not account for the interviews that Ingram carried out.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago offers a variety of commercially sponsored exhibits, an enormous catalog of broadcast shows and ads, and its Encyclopedia of Television in the Archives and Education pages at www.Museum.TV/index.shtml.

“The Video Veteran” provides a history of television in Chicago at www.chicagotelevision.com/, which is one way of tracking the technology and culture’s evolution.

The IEEE History Center offers my history of the invention of monochrome-compatible, electronic color television in its Milestone section at www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center/milestones_photos/colortv.html. Interviews with three of RCA’s leading television researchers—Harold B. Law, Paul Weimer, and Vladimir Zworykin—are also available at the RCA Oral Histories page: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center/oral_histories/oh_rca_menu.html.

Collector Researchers.

Less artifact-based than those devoted to restoration, these sites provide documentation as they acquire it. Ed Reitan, Jr. hosts “The Following Program is Brought to You in Living Color” at www.novia.net/~ereitan/, which focuses on the invention of the Ameri-can analog color television standard between 1945 and 1954. Reitan argues, based on documentation, for more credit to the rest of the television manufacturers in developing the analog color television standard based on RCA’s system.

Steve Restelli started his site, “The Restelli Collection” or History TV.net, with Vladimir Zworykin’s scrap-book, and has added sections with other acquisitions re-lated to RCA’s work in the 1930s: http://framemaster.tripod.com/.

Collector Restorers.

These people collect a wide array of TV memorabilia and restore many of the sets that they acquire. Tom Genova offers the best of these sites at “Television History—The First 75 Years” at www.tvhistory.tv/index.htm. This is an exceptional documentary site, organized by era and year, cross-referenced to sections in each with arti-facts, ads, photos, documents, patents, articles, and im-ages by country and inventor. The site is sometimes slow to load.

MZTV, the Toronto-based museum based on Moses Znaimer's collection, shows how a collection can become an institution of interest to more than other col-lectors. It offers several exhibits at www.mztv.com/.

Steve McVoy has applied much time and money to developing the Early Television Foundation, www.earlytelevision.org/index.htm, and its museum in Hilliard, Ohio, outside Columbus. The site is a monument to the wide array of TV sets that he has acquired and restored. It also includes information about production quantities and TV stations. The sets are now installed and demonstrated at his museum.

Finally, photos and some technical data for television camera and display tubes are available on five pages at Tubepedia: http://www.earlytelevision.org/index.htm.

Recreator Restorers.

We should be in awe of those who build Nipkow-disc televisions in the spirit of Baird or who make a fifty-year-old color television work again. Peter Yanczer maintains the richly detailed Experimental Television com/Tour/home.html. This offers nonpartisan histories and illustrated lessons on building your own 32-line flying spot scanner. Its British cousin, The Narrow-Band Television Association at http://www.nbtv.org/ is less detailed but well-linked.

The relentlessly enthusiastic Chuck Pharis documents a variety of restoration projects at www.pharis-video.com/p21.htm. He specializes in cameras and studio equipment more than receivers.

There are two affiliated groups working on the first RCA (http://home.att.net/~pldexnis/restoration_menu.html) and Westinghouse (http://home.earthlink.net/~marlinmackley/westlist.htm) color sets from 1954. Both illuminate the complexity of the state of the technical art two generations ago, as well as the continuing collaborative nature of making a technology work.

Some larger questions.

The larger question that arises with these sites and pages is, who are they for: their creators or some public? And if so, why, and which public? We can joke at the obsessive dimensions of the collectors and the advocates, their attention to all details in the first case and selective grasp in the second. We might remark at the audacity, the ego gratification, the cost in time, money, and missing relationships. But we might also remind ourselves that these people care about history as deeply as we do, albeit in ways quite different than our own. As a result they help recreate the inventive process of the past. For better and worse, the quality of their work and the attention gained by their presence on the web leads to two suggestions. These are the sources, along with televised documentaries, to which the public increasingly resorts for their understanding of the past. Scholarly historians need to engage them critically and, secondly, post more of their work on-line as both a counter and a complement.