April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
On May 11 radio station WGY, in Schenectady, New York, began America’s first regularly scheduled television broadcasts. The programs lasted from 1:30 to 2:00 P.M. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Most of the viewers were on the technical staff at nearby General Electric, which had designed the system and was using the broadcasts to refine its equipment, but a handful of hobbyists who had built their own sets were also able to watch. Those who tuned in had to make constant adjustments, turning two knobs at once to keep the blurry picture discernible on their three-inch-square screens.
Although television was still in the experimental stage, it was making rapid strides. Before the decade was out, British researchers would demonstrate prototypes of color and three-dimensional television and make transatlantic broadcasts. The technology was already mature enough that by the end of 1928, 17 more stations around the country began scheduled broadcasts.
At first the programs they showed were truly about nothing, designed to test the apparatus rather than attract viewers. WGY showed outdoor scenes, skyline shots, and men boxing. Over the next year or two some stations began occasionally showing movies, short plays, and vaudeville-style acts. Lee de Forest, the pioneering inventor of the Audion electron tube, envisioned wondrous things from the new medium: “thrilling lectures on solar physics” and perhaps “a weekly talk by some earnest police traffic officer” about highway safety.
Unfortunately, the television boom was over by 1932. The stock-market crash, the rise of commercial radio, and the waning of the novelty all had something to do with it. More fundamentally, however, the television technology of the day had reached its limit, and it wasn’t good enough.
Television works by breaking a picture into horizontal strips, known as lines, and scanning the pattern of light and darkness in each one successively. Most 1920s systems used a rapidly spinning wheel with a spiral pattern of holes near its edge; as the wheel spun, the holes scanned the picture from side to side. The best this system could ever hope to achieve was about 60 lines, which looked impressive only to people who had never seen television before. The development of fully electronic, nonmechanical scanning, which today delivers 525-line pictures, would be necessary before broadcast television took off again, for good this time, in the late 1940s.