The first television sets were part electrical and part mechanical, consisting of spinning discs that replicated the action of a larger spinning disc in the studio. The first moving images – of a ventriloquist’s dummy – were transmitted by Scot John Logie Baird in 1925.
In 1927 the first tv show was aired. It was a demonstration by Bell Telephone
Labs and AT&T with contributions from various executives of these companies
and a speech by the secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover.
This was followed by many ad-hoc broadcasts from Whippany, N. J. These were
experiments and were picked up by just one tv set – at Bell Laboratories, New
York City. These broadcasts consisted of images transmitted using radio waves
and sound transmitted via cable. They were not entertainment shows – just
a few engineers and scientists testing out the new medium.
The first shows that aired to the public were those of WRGB (known officially
as W2XB but popularly known as WGY’s Television). Broadcasts were
beamed locally to Schenectady, N.Y. This happened to be the home town of
television (and radio) pioneer Ernst Alexanderson. Schenectady was also the home
of just four television receivers. The early WRGB broadcasts usually consisted of a
person sitting in a chair not doing very much except the odd hand or face
movement or a drag on a cigarette. In fact, watching people smoke cigarettes
seems to have been the main feature of early tv test transmissions!
The first scheduled tv shows, and from what I can make out, the world’s first
regular tv shows were farming and weather bulletins aired twice a day, 3 days
per week on WRGB. These broadcasts were simply extensions of the output of radio
station WGY. The first remote location broadcast, or outside broadcast, took
place in 1928, once again by WRGB. The subject of this broadcast was Governor Al Smith’s
acceptance speech of the Democratic nomination for office President of the United States.
Due to inclement weather, the ceremony was switched from outside to an indoor
location and the short notice didn’t allow enough time to test the lighting and
equipment. Hence the resulting live pictures were of poor quality. Meanwhile, in
Wheaton, Maryland, Charles Jenkins’ W3XK transmitter started tests followed by
regular programs in July 1928.
These broadcasts were never really meant or designed for wide public consumption,
however, some enthusiasts managed to build crude receivers and got to enjoy the
output. Charles Jenkins’ estimated that W3XK had an audience of 20,000.
Many incorrectly quote the BBC’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth from
1930 as being the first broadcast play, but it was actually The Queen’s Messenger,
written by J. Harley Manners and directed by Mortimer Stewart. This was aired on
WRGB in 1928.
It must be noted that in those early days television screens were about 3
inches by 3 inches. So small, in fact, that most output consisted of a person’s
upper body. “Radio with pictures” is what it was called, and that was
not far off! The images consisted of varying shades of pink or brown, depending
on the illumination used. The presenters and performers would often need to wear
dark lipstick and green makeup so that their features would not be bleached in
the extremely bright studio lights. True color television came later. The
spinning discs were eventually replaced by all-electric systems. All tv shows,
including dramas, were live to air – there was no videotape or digital recording
in those days!
These pioneering broadcasts were effectively experiments (and were licensed
as such by the federal government). Most viewers were either wealthy and curious
or were hobbyists. It is unlikely that television had any real worth as an
entertainment or information medium in these early days. The extent to which
television could expand and could be networked was severely hampered by a lack
of a national standard for telecasting. There were also many technical
difficulties not least with the revolving disc system. It wasn’t until the
forties when these issues had been ironed out that tv took off in earnest.
The rest, as they say, is history, but a very rich history indeed. Have a look
at bygonetv.com and you see what I mean.