no one knew quite what television would be good for -- 5/9/17

Today's selection -- from One Summer by Bill Bryson. Before Philo T. Farnsworth's entry emerged as the successful version of the new technology, AT&T debuted its much inferior version of the television. But no one yet knew quite what it would be used for:

" In the spring of 1927 ... an arresting story appeared as the second lead on page 1 of the New York Times. As an indication of its significance, the Times gave it seven stacks of headlines:

FAR-OFF SPEAKERS SEEN
AS WELL AS HEARD HERE
IN A TEST TELEVISION

LIKE A PHOTO COME TO LIFE

HOOVER'S FACE PLAINLY
IMAGED AS HE SPEAKS
IN WASHINGTON

THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY

PICTURES ARE FLASHED BY WIRE
AND RADIO SYNCHRONIZING
WITH SPEAKER'S VOICE

COMMERCIAL USE IN DOUBT

BUT AT&T HEAD SEES A NEW
STEP IN CONQUEST OF NATURE
AFTER YEARS OF RESEARCH

"The accompanying report described how reporters and officials at AT&T's Bell Telephone Labs on Bethune Street in Manhattan had watched in astonishment as a live image of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover in Washington materialized before them on a glass screen about the size of a modern Post-It note.

"'More than 200 miles of space intervening between the speaker and his audience was annihilated,' marveled the anonymous reporter. Listeners could even hear Hoover's speech. 'Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance,' the commerce secretary intoned with gravity and pomp.

"'As each syllable was heard, the motion of the speaker's lips and his changes of expression were flashed on the screen in the demonstration room,' explained the Times man. 'It was as if a photograph had sud­denly come to life and begun to talk, smile, nod its head and look this way and that.' ...

AT&T President Walter Gifford in New York (left) watches the moving
image of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (right) in Washington, D.C.

"For all the effort and anticipation, no one knew quite what television would be good for. The general assumption was that the applica­tions would mostly be practical. Scientific American, in an article titled 'Motion Pictures by Radio,' foresaw television as a crime prevention device. 'A criminal suspect might appear simultaneously in a thousand police headquarters for identification,' it supposed. AT&T saw it not as an entertainment medium, but as a way of allowing people on telephones to see each other.

"Only Charles Francis Jenkins saw clearly what TV could offer. 'The new machine will come to the fireside ... with photoplays, the opera and a direct vision of world activities,' he predicted. Though forgot­ten now -- he doesn't even have an entry in the American Dictionary of National Biography -- Jenkins was an accomplished inventor. He owned over four hundred patents, several of them for successful products, some of which we use yet. If you have ever had a drink from a conical paper cup, you have used a Jenkins product. But one invention that was never going to work was his radiovisor, as he called it. Even if he got it working, which he did not, it could only ever transmit forty-eight lines of image, not enough to show objects as anything other than shadowy blurs. It would be like trying to identify objects through frosted glass.

"But this was the deliriously upbeat 1920s, and although Jenkins did not have a product to sell, or anything more than a vague (and ultimately unrealizable) hope that his system could be developed into something commercially appealing one day, he formed a corporation that was soon valued at more than $10 million."


author:

Bill Bryson

title:

One Summer: America, 1927

publisher:

Doubleday, a division of Random House

date:

Copyright 2013 by Bill Bryson

pages:

371-376

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