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TELEVISION: Window on the World - Section G: Behold the Revolution

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.

Not since 1906, when Lee de Forest invented the world’s first vacuum tube (ushering in the “Electronic Age”) would the world of electronics and, in turn, television, be revolutionized as it would be with the invention of the Transistor and its derivative, the Integrated Circuit (IC). “Solid State” would allow for a myriad of electronic devices, including television, to not only reduce their size, cost and power consumption dramatically, but also allow them to perform functions simply not possible with the bulky, power-hungry vacuum tube. It was nothing less than a revolution. In the immediate postwar years, color television was the focus of most television R&D and had, by 1965, reached escape velocity; becoming a fixture in most American households. With the advent of miniaturized electronics and new display technologies such as LED (Light Emitting Diode) and, most importantly LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), “Hang-on-the Wall” TV had become the industry’s focus of attention. Starting with the first portable, transistorized, battery-operated television in 1959, a steady stream of advances in electronic technology would make flat-screen TV a reality by the 1980s. As well, the last quarter of the 20th century would see the rise of satellite TV and the era of High-Definition TV (HDTV) would begin in earnest. It was an interesting time to be alive.

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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