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TELEVISION: Window on the World - Section A: The Age of Discovery

Jeffrey Syken

“Now, we add sight to sound”
David Sarnoff

When Sarnoff, president of RCA, formally introduced television to the world (from a podium in front of the RCA Exhibit Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair), he heralded it as: “the birth of a new art and a new industry, which eventually will provide entertainment and information for millions.” He was right. There were many others who would be instrumental in the development of “Seeing-at-a-Distance” (a/k/a “Tele-Vision”), some of them you’ve probably heard of such as Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, but there were many others whose names have been lost to history (i.e. Charles Francis Jenkins and John Logie Baird). Although David Sarnoff’s contribution was not technical, it was critical in that it was his vision of television’s potential (and his willingness to sacrifice millions of RCA dollars in pursuit of that vision) that would, ultimately, make the modern television industry a practical reality.

In its formative years, television - a derivative of radio, was seeking a path-of-least-resistance to commercial acceptance. By the mid-1920s, it seemed “Mechanical Television,” whereby a motor-driven spinning scanning disk formed images, was the answer. But there were those who realized the limitations of mechanical television and, instead, pursued an electronic solution, building upon the work of those who came before them. This would lead to the development and acceptance, by 1932, of “Electronic Television” as “the way forward.” Delayed by WWII, after the war monochrome (black-and-white) television would develop both technically and commercially into the fledgling industry David Sarnoff had foreseen. By the mid-1950s, the focus was on Chroma (color) television and, by the mid-1960s, color television had come-of-age. In the ensuing years, the “Holy Grail” would be “Mural TV” (flat-screen). With major advances in electronic technology, that too was made manifest.

However, to understand the “Story of Television,” we must understand its deep roots in the gestation and birth of the “Electronic Age.” It would begin with the first form of long-distance communication – Telegraphy - the transmission of electronic impulses by wire. This would lead to the invention of the telephone and, on its heels, would come Marconi’s “Wireless Telegraphy.” But the acorn that became the mighty oak first appeared in late 1906 when Lee de Forest introduced his great invention to the world: the “Audion” tube, which could be used as an amplifier; first for radio signals and later for long-distance telephone communications. Today, the advent of the Audion tube is recognized as the beginning of the Electronic Age. From it, radio, facsimile and television would be made possible. Until the development of the transistor, the vacuum tube was the most important device in electronic technology due to its ability to respond to changes in electrical voltage in extremely short periods of time. For his great contribution, de Forest is, rightly, recognized as the “Father of Radio.” It would be from radio that television evolved.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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