This gallery explores the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair as a pivotal moment in television history – especially North American television history.
In the context of the Fair and the RCA television exhibit at the Fair, we will explore the state of the fledgling television industry in 1939 and the immediate factors that influenced its development.
On Sunday April 30, 1939, the New York World’s Fair opened just east of New York City in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
The Fair’s established theme, “Building The World of Tomorrow”, heralded the optimism of innovation and international cooperation, but its true emphasis was on new and exciting consumer products – many seen for the first time at the Fair by its 45 million visitors.
Many historians argue that the “introduction” of television took place as a series of anticlimaxes, or slow moving stages. However, the 1939 New York World’s Fair marked the commencement of regular television broadcasts in North America and was the first opportunity for a large public to see a television in operation. At exhibits by General Electric, Westinghosue Electric, the Crosley Radio Corporation and, most notably, the Radio Corporation of America, the television industry presented the exciting new medium as something that would revolutionize public communication and private life.
Since the mid-1920s, the public had been aware of an invention called “television”, so it might seem strange that inventors and manufacturers were racing to formally “introduce” television in 1939. However, throughout this developmental phase, television had been primarily an inventors’ medium. In general, the only people who had any real contact with the technology besides the inventors were the investors, the technicians and the recreational ham radio operators. Television needed national and international publicity in order to become a full-fledged industry.
Ten days prior to the Fair’s opening, David Sarnoff, the President of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), made the dedication speech to open the RCA Pavilion. Staging this event prior to the World’s Fair opening ceremonies ensured that RCA would capture its share of much desired newspaper headlines and publicity.
In addition to the audience members who were located at the front of the RCA pavilion, only a few hundred people would have been able to watch the ceremony on television.
Although the figure is debatable, there were roughly several hundred sets in the New York area. While some viewers would have watched the ceremony on their won television sets, most of these viewers congregated inside the RCA Pavilion at the fairgrounds, and some watched the receivers on the 62nd floor of Radio City in Manhattan.
Upon entering the RCA Pavilion, the first thing visitors saw was the Phantom Teleceiver, now a prized piece in the MZTV Museum Collection. Not only was this television set accented by an extraordinary futuristic mural that communicated a fascinated excitement about new technologies, it was also bathed in sunlight from a spectacular glass curtain wall. As for the capabilities of the set itself, people were amazed by the quality of the television pictures on this extraordinary unit. The great majority of visitors had never seen television before, and the set’s transparent Lucite cabinet removed any doubts that magic or trickery was involved in achieving the pictures.
Exhibits within the RCA Pavilion dramatized the use of television in the home, and documented RCA’s experimental breakthroughs. The ‘Radio Living Room of Tomorrow” was created by Turkish-American industrial designer John Vassos. It was outfitted with contemporary built-ins such as a combination radio/television/record player/record recording set, a facsimile receiver and a sound motion picture projector. To illustrate how television could be integrated into existing décor, Vassos designed a “Radio Living Room of Today”.
This display featured period furniture complemented by separate cabinets that contained the same electronic components as the futuristic exhibit. The RCA “Television Laboratory” exhibit featured a display of Vladimir Zworykin’s experimental television camera tubes (Iconoscopes) and picture tubes (Kinescopes).
As visitors traveled farther into the RCA Pavilion they could enter the “Hall of Television” that contained thirteen of RCA’s finest TRK-12 receivers. These receivers displayed images almost constantly in order to allow each visitor to sample the new medium. Also in this room was an experimental projection television receiver, which used a very bright five-inch cathode ray tube and a large lens to project television pictures onto a special light reflective screen. The pictures generated by this unit are believed to have been at least three feet high and four feet wide. A large Nipper the Dog statue (that familiar dog who listens to “His Master’s Voice” on the RCA logo) overlooked the room from a pedestal.
In the Hall of Television, visitors crowded together to watch National Broadcasting corporation (NBC) broadcasts or internal closed circuit demonstrations.
NBC was RCA’s broadcasting wing. It began regular US television broadcasting on April 30, 1939 with an historic event: a telecast of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opening the Fair. The event was the first televised Presidential address in the United States.
The logistics of the broadcast were quite complex, especially considering the newness of the television broadcast industry. The signal was sent by Telemobile (RCA’s mobile television van) to the Empire State Building transmitter and then rebroadcast. David Sarnoff claimed FDR’s address was the first televised news event in the United States.
Programming was broadcast from the NBC studios (or the mobile camera trucks) to a transmitter that was connected to an aerial at the top of the Empire State Building. Programs included operas, cartoons, cooking demonstrations, travelogues, fashion shows and footage of skaters at Rockefeller Centre. DuMont Televents posters from 1939 and 1940 promote films, live events and sports. There were also numerous live telecasts relayed from within the Fair itself.
RCA offered four types of television receivers for sale in 1939: the TRK-12, the TRK-9, the TRK-5 and the TT-5. The set prices, ranging from $199.50 – $600 US, were considered high. Advertising was initially aimed at the wealthy, depicting viewers who were dressed in suits and evening gowns while watching their TVs.
John Vassos designed all of the RCA sets during this period. The hand crafted, highly polished wood cabinets took their cue from the newly popular “streamline” style. The sets received channels 1 to 5 (the frequency for channel 1 had not yet been taken over for military use).
The RCA sets were offered for sale in Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Wanamaker’s department stores in the New York Metropolitan area. Although shoppers were curious, prices were high and the ensuing sales in 1939 and 1940 were disappointing for retailers and manufacturers.