allen dumont and the origins of television -- 4/16/21

Today's selection -- from The Box: An Oral History of Television from 1920-1961 by Jeff Kisseloff. In the earliest days of television, picture tubes, those quaint, flattened bulbs on which the picture appeared, did not last long enough for television to be commercially viable:
"Allen Balcom DuMont's basement garage was an unlikely source of electronic miracles, but no more so than Philo Farnsworth's loft, John Logie Baird's garret, or Steve Jobs's garage, for that matter. In fact, so many great strides have been made in such improbable venues that even today's byte-oriented pioneers still might want to consider unused closet space for inspi­ration before hustling off to the great corporate laboratories.

"In the case of Allen DuMont, his Upper Montclair, New Jersey, garage produced a mod­ern electronics version of the biblical Hanukkah story. That ancient tale found the Hebrews partying hearty for eight days in a light miraculously provided by a single drop of oil. In the DuMont version, he and his three assistants were able to produce a picture tube that would last one thousand hours, ten times longer than the standard, thus springing television from the laboratories and into the home.

"Within a few years, he went into television manufacturing and into network broadcast­ing. The excellent DuMont receiver was the first all-electronic set on the market, quite an achievement in itself considering the head start enjoyed by both Farnsworth and RCA.

"Television's first self-made millionaire was born on January 29, 1901, in Brooklyn. His fa­ther was an executive with the Waterbury Clock Company, makers of the Ingersoll watch, a dollar timepiece known for its extraordinary accuracy. Young Allen and his two brothers all contracted polio as children. Then eleven years old, Allen was confined to bed for nine months. His father bought him a crystal set to keep him occupied. By the time he was able to leave his bedroom, the young man had taught himself enough about radio to build his own receiver-transmitter.

"He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute with an engineering degree in 1924 and went to work for Westinghouse where he modernized their radio tube manufacturing machinery. He went on to do the same thing for Lee DeForest, the legendary radio inventor. While employed at DeForest, DuMont came across the television equipment that had for­merly belonged to Charles Francis Jenkins. DeForest had purchased the equipment after Jen­kins's television business went bust in the Depression. Curious about television, DuMont began experimenting with the Jenkins machine but realized quickly that Jenkins's Nipkow system was doomed.

"He approached DeForest about investing in an all-electronic system, but the elder DeFor­est, once a pioneer himself, refused. So there was his young prodigy at the crossroads age of thirty ready to make his move in life. Although he was so cautious he wore suspenders and a belt at the same time, and he had a wife and child to support, he left the security of a fifteen-­thousand-dollar-a-year job in the depths of the Depression to set up shop in his garage.

"When he opened for business, DuMont could count one thousand dollars in capital, some secondhand manufacturing equipment, and three assistants, two of whom were part-time. The third was a full-time apprentice machinist, whom he paid ten dollars a week. However, he also had an unsurpassed knowledge of tube making and knew that if television was ever to become commercially viable, the cathode ray tube had to be improved dramatically. So far no one else had succeeded in doing it.

"Very quickly he started increasing the life of the tubes. That first year he even sold two of them. His business grossed seventy dollars. By 1933, the company did twelve thousand dol­lars' worth of business, mostly selling tubes for use as oscillographs, invaluable laboratory diagnostic equipment. That year the company finally moved out of the garage and into a building in town. By 1935, they were incorporated as Allen B. DuMont Laboratories. The next year, after adding Dr. Thomas T. Goldsmith, a brilliant young engineer, to his staff (the DuMont station WITG was named for him), he made his first moves into practical television research.

"While business was solid, DuMont still did not have the capital to compete with Farns­worth or RCA. The problem appeared to be solved when he negotiated a stock deal with Paramount Pictures. With Paramount's cash, DuMont not only began manufacturing and marketing his own sets, but also went into broadcasting. He received a license for an experi­mental station W2XVT in February, 1939. The fifty-watt station operated out of the Passaic factory from twelve midnight to nine a.m. That spring, he was granted a permit for another station, W2XWV at 515 Madison Avenue, in New York City. It later became WABD, the flag­ship station of the DuMont network. It went on the air that spring. The kid from Brooklyn was about to go big time."



Jeff Kisseloff


The Box: An Oral History of Television from 1920-1961


ReAnimus Press


2013, 1995 by Jeff Kisselof


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