Virtual Gallery

The Mechanical TV Era

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"Mechanical TV: Pioneering Experiments"

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According to Business Week in 1931, television broadcasters admitted "that interest in their efforts is confined almost entirely to the experimenter-the young man of mechanical bent whose principal (sic) interest is in how television works rather than in the quality of images received." William Boddy, 1991

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Fred Hammond, VE3HC, is a veteran Radio Ham who has been on the air since 1929. During the early 1930's, he was one of a handful of radio experimenters in Canada to become interested in mechanical television, building his own mechanical kit vision receiver. As an active Radio Ham, he was able to audibly monitor the various mechanical television signals. This video is an excerpt from the exhibition "Watching TV".

Always a sensation, television was hardly an overnight success. In 1926, New York Times radio editor Orrin Dunlap called the new medium "an inventor's will-o'-the-wisp." A year earlier, a Scot, John Logie Baird, and an American, Charles Francis Jenkins, generated the first live pictures by pairing (or synchronizing) primitive mechanical scanning discs at transmitter and receiver ends. These demonstrations, soon conducted at department stores, trade fairs, and before invited audiences of scientists and government officials, attracted the curiosity of press and public.

Especially interested were some of the quarter-million amateur "wireless" operators, whose numbers grew during the early 1920s, when "radio mania" swept North America. These hobbyists were among the original producers and consumers of both radio and television. In 1928, Jenkins began irregular broadcasts of the crude silhouettes he called radiomovies. He described the thrill for his amateur audience as they "fished" for his signals on homebuilt contraptions: "thousands of amateurs fascinatingly watch the pantomime picture in their receiver sets as dainty little Jans Marie performs tricks with her bouncing ball, Miss Constance hangs up her doll wash in a drying wind, and diminutive Jacqueline does athletic dances with her clever partner, Master Fremont."

At its inception, radio "listening-in" was an active, mainly male pastime, requiring technical know-how, and constant adjustments to the set. "Lookers-in" to early mechanical television patiently fished for signals. Sometimes they caught tiny, indistinct images. A separate radio set could be used to tune in sound with the picture.

Radio entered most households only after it was domesticated. This meant that it came to resemble furniture instead of a gadget, became easier to operate, and could be enjoyed by more than one person at a time. Television followed a similar route into the home, but its complex and expensive assemblage dictated a lengthier experimental period before costs came down, and before the invention of larger screens and clearer pictures could domesticate "seeing at a distance."

Despite these early limitations, the pioneers of crude mechanical television demonstrated basic principles of picture scanning and synchronization of transmission and reception. They also glimpsed the medium's potential for storytelling. In 1928, the first live drama broadcast, a three-camera production called "The Queen's Messenger," was received on a General Electric Octagon set in Schenectady, New York. In 1931, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) broadcast experimental signals from the Empire State Building, featuring a familiar cartoon character, Felix the Cat. The first TV star was born.

By 1935, mechanical television had reached a dead end in North America. Image resolution remained low, at best reaching 120 lines of picture definition. Transmission and reception standards were nonexistent. Available programming was unpredictably scheduled. Lacking an audience, advertisers were reluctant to purchase commercial time.

Canadians were mainly enthusiastic onlookers in the development of television. Amateurs wrote to Jenkins reporting on their reception of his radiomovies, possibly because of the geographical proximity to the US border, and the vast distances traversed by mechanical TV signals (which broadcast on short-wave frequencies). During the early 1930s, demonstrations by Canadian Television Limited, Western Television, and Peck Television were held at department stores in Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg. In Toronto, Foster Hewitt, later Canada's "voice of hockey" played master of ceremonies at the unveiling of Western Television's display at Eaton's. Despite public interest, the capital required to build sets domestically could not be raised.

An excerpt from "Watching TV: Opening the Doors of Reception" by Liss Jeffrey, Acting Director, MZTV Museum. Technical research by Gary Borton, Consulting Curator, and Iain Baird, Researcher, MZTV Museum. p. 14-15 of the Watching TV: Historic Televisions and Memorabilia from the MZTV Museum catalogue accompanying the exhibit of the same title at the Royal Ontario Museum November 18, 1995 to September 15, 1996.

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