Thursday, September 13, 2012

This is only a test


(From Ask MetaFilter):

An old memory of color TV? Color on a black and white TV? What?! (1950s filter).

My dad was born in 1952. Recently, we went out to lunch. The conversation covered a variety of topics. At one point, he recalled a tale from his youth...

Essentially, this: He grew up outside of Detroit, and he positively recalls that his family owned a black and white television set. He says that periodically the television network or local broadcast partners would attempt to deploy new technologies that might transmit a color signal to a black and white set, and that these attempts would be prefaced with an on air announcement. Essentially, "We will be trying to send color to your black and white TV sets. If anyone sees color, please call us and let us know."

I find many aspects of this story super strange, and also potentially fascinating. However, parts of it also don't add up. Like... what!? Does this ring a bell to anyone? Perhaps there's a kernel of truth buried inside a story that has otherwise "grown" a little bit over time?

(From Some Science Forum Thingie)

Something happened that reminded me of this tonight, and I think I have finally made sense of something seen as a kid. For some odd reason it just hit me. When I was fairly young and living in the Los Angeles area, there was a test done one night on a local TV channel that was supposed to produce a color picture on the black and white TVs commonly in use. And I can recall seeing some color; I think mostly green. From time to time I have thought about this and wondered what it was that I saw. In fact at times I have doubted the memory as it didn't make any sense, but I can remember the event very clearly. Tonight it occurred to me what they were probably up to. I bet that they were strobing the white to produce a false color image, as is done with alternating black and white dots on a rotating wheel [I don't recall the name of the effect]. The idea is that each pixel on the screen would be strobed at the frequency required to produce the desired color for that dot. Does this make sense? I'm not sure what the strobe rate is that produces the false color effect, or if this was doable on B&W televisions, but it is the only thing that has even threatened to make any sense here. Is there any other way that one can imagine producing color on a B&W screen?

Why do I remember these things? I must have been an
embryo or something, or else very very little. The
TV both fascinated me (it was a magic box that was just about
the only thing that could pry me out of boredom) and scared
the living bejeezus out of me cuz every so often, there
would be a Test of the Emergency Broadcasting System, with
a terse-sounding announcer coming on to say, "This is
ONLY a test". There would be this Godawful official-
looking logo on that said CD, probably for Civil Defense,
then for half a minute or so there would be this BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
sound that gave me nightmares. I would literally wake
up screaming,my head dripping with sweat. This "only a
test" stuff, routine as it was supposed to be, seemed to
escalate at certain times, which I new see coincided with
things like the Cuban Missile Crisis. My brother "played
war" all the time,which was no doubt his way of coping
with it all, but too often I was the one playing the
prisoner, further stoking my tiny paranoia.

But this, this - I really thought I had dreamed
this! My TV was always doing strange things, like
cancelling Howdy Doody, flipping like crazy, or refusing
to broadcast anything but a tiny dot of light so
that the TV repairman had to come over and replace the
picture tube.
But this was even more bizarre. An announcer
would come on - God, how far back I must dig to
retrieve this one! Anyway, an announcer would come on,
and as he talked a picture would come on of, say,
a scene in Hawaii with palm trees swishing
around, and around the border of the shot would
be a strobing, flashing pattern. The announcer
 would say, "Do you see color on your TV?"
(I guess assuming no one had color TV at that point,
maybe because it was 1958).

I don't know if I saw color, but the flashing,
strobing patterns and the stupid meaningless
Hawaii scene scared me almost as much as the announcer,
whom I was sure was THE SAME GUY who did those
Civil Defense announcements.
Now I find these two posts from science forums
(note, one of them would not post because it turned
completely transparent on the page - heh-heh, no
ghosts here - so  attempted to re-paste it in color,, and
good luck reading it), you know the type, done by guys
with glasses held together with tape, and they're saying,
maybe it was real. But everyone has the same feeling: I
probably imagined this, it probably didn't happen.
There is even a sense of embarrassment about it: it
must've been a joke, I was fooled, I made it up! The
memory always seems to be hazy and there is a weird
feeling of unreality, even isolation.

We got all the Detroit channels, so the
mention of "outside of Detroit" (if you can read
it) seems significant. They were always doing
weird things in Detroit, like rioting and broadcasting
Poopdeck Paul and Milky the Clown. Now at least I know
I'm not completely insane to remember this.

I wonder what they proposed to do: frame
the black-and-white shows with dancing borders
of flashing color? Sounds like about as much
fun as having a migraine to me. I think maybe I did make
this up. Or maybe the memory was implanted telepathically into
several thousand brains by evil Russian scientists:

"This is only a test."


Hype and hard rubber

Since I like to do things bass-ackwards, I'll spoil the
surprise right off the top. This is what you got.
When you sent away for them.

They came in one of these-here things.
A brown cardboard box with a suspicious rattle.

Close-up, they appeared larval, like this thing.
Looks a bit like the Elephant Man with a hat on.

It was this thing, see, this ad, this - didn't you used to read comic books, or what? How old are you? All right. I DO remember this ad, though since I didn't like dolls to begin with, I never sent away for them. Plus I could never scrape together a whole dollar anyway. My allowance always went on things like Lik-M-Ade, wax lips with red syrup in them and those sherbet fountains, the powdered stuff you sucked up with a liquorice straw. Once I bought a Hercules ring modelled after the Trans-Lux cartoons, but it broke the first day.

But to get back to these things, these 100 Dolls for a Dollar. I was suspicious. Just what were they talking about? What the hell was "Lilliputian cuteness"? (Jonathan Swift might have had a problem with that.) Was this just another Sea Monkey caper, another X-Ray Specs con? Another Grog Grows Own Tail? How many little girls were they disappointing, anyway - sending in their damp crumpled dollar bills in eager anticipation - only to get something that wouldn't caper, spec or grow?

As with the mind-boggling sex manual I just translated, I will attempt to make the grainy type from 50 years ago more decipherable:

100 Little Dolls all for $1.00

100 Dolls made of genuine styrene plastic and hard synthetic rubber only $1 for entire set. You get BABY DOLLS, NURSE DOLLS, DANCING DOLLS, FOREIGN DOLLS, CLOWN DOLLS, COWBOY DOLLS, BRIDE DOLLS, and many more in Lilliputian cuteness. And made not of paper or rags but of STYRENE plastic and hard synthetic rubber. If you don't go wild over them your money will be promptly refunded. Send $1.00 plus 25 cents for postage and handling for each set of 100 Dolls you order to: 100 Doll Co., Dept. 315, 285 Market St., P. O. Box 90, Newark, N. J.

People still have them, obviously, as these photos illustrate (and don't they just look like boxes full of dead insects?), and I would imagine that  a complete set of 100 might fetch a handsome price on eBay or Craigslist, but what the hell would you DO with them? For that matter, what did little girls do back then when they received these rattling toothpicks, looking something like those plastic things you stick birthday candles into?

The fact that they seemed to come in two colors is confusing. The pink is no more fleshlike than the sickly Chee-toh orange.

But wait! Though it looks almost the same, THIS ad has completely different copy. It's effusive, it's gushing, it's pure Madison Avenue in the '60s: Peggy Olsen might have written it during her coffee break with her feet up on her desk, chewing Wrigley's spearmint gum:

Don’t shake your head in disbelief! This is TRUE! For only 1 PENNY EACH you can give that little girl the most thrilling present of her life. This set of ONE HUNDRED DOLLS for only $1 – 1 penny A PIECE!
 Baby Dolls – Nurse Dolls – Dancing Dolls
Costume Dolls – Ballerina Dolls – Mexican Dolls
Indian Dolls – Clown Dolls – Cowboy Dolls
Bride Dolls – Groom Dolls – and many more.
 The wonder of this unprecedented offer is that every doll is made from beautiful high-quality Styrene plastic and hard synthetic rubber. You get BABY DOLLS, NURSE DOLLS, DANCING DOLLS, FOREIGN DOLLS, CLOWN DOLLS, COWBOY DOLLS, BRIDE DOLLS and many more in Lilliputian cuteness. Your daughter or your niece or the cute child next door will love you for this gift. She will play with them for months and not grow weary of them. What a family for a little girl! Just think of it – 100 exquisite little dolls – in beautiful high-impact styrene plastic and hard synthetic rubber at this unbelievable price!

So fill out the coupon below. Order as many sets as you have little girls to give them to. Enclose $1 for each 100 doll set you order. And even at this amazing bargain you take no risk. If you don’t go absolutely wild over this bargain, just send the Dolls back and we will promptly refund your money.
(But don't go away, there’s more – to the ad, I mean! This freakin’ thing goes on forever.)

People seeing our ad, and not believing we can give such value, write us to ask what our 100 Dolls are made of. “Are they paper dolls, or rag dolls?” they ask. NEITHER! Each and every one of our 100 dolls is made of GENUINE STYRENE and SYNTHETIC RUBBER, expensively molded in true dimension – Height – Width – Depth! Every doll has come out of an individual mold, manufactured out of high-impact styrene to resist breakage, and is life-like in its proportions. They are truly delightful dolls!

How many times can you read the word "styrene" without puking? These people were obsessed with it. And all that hard rubber makes me worry. If these dolls had been a little less Lilliputian, if they had been, say, life-sized, think of the sin they might have spawned. But then they wouldn't have fit into that little brown box, would they?

And just what happened to the 100 Doll Company in Newark, New Jersey? Is it still there? Why did they only manufacture one thing? What sort of dolls would they be turning out in 2012: the kind that appear on TLC shows like My Strange Obsession?

Life slides me into tender melancholy, virtually daily, because I always think it was Better Back Then, more magical. It probably wasn't - I couldn't wait to grow up and get the hell away from school and my parents - but such is the power of nostalgia, a word that literally means "Don Draper pitching bullshit to a bunch of Kodak executives".

To be fair to the 100 Dolls Company, and to clarify any residual confusion, we should define Lilliputian once and for all.

Noun 1. lilliputian - a very small person (resembling a Lilliputian)
small person - a person of below average size

2. Lilliputian - a 6-inch tall inhabitant of Lilliput in a novel by Jonathan Swift Adj. 3. Lilliputian - tiny; relating to or characteristic of the imaginary country of Lilliput; "the Lilliputian population"
3. lilliputian - very small; "diminutive in stature"; "a lilliputian chest of drawers"; "her petite figure"; "tiny feet"; "the flyspeck nation of Bahrain moved toward democracy"

bantam, diminutive, flyspeck, midget, petite, tiny

little, small - limited or below average in number or quantity or magnitude or extent; "a little dining room"; "a little house"; "a small car"; "a little (or small) group"

3. lilliputian - (informal) small and of little importance; "a fiddling sum of money"; "a footling gesture"; "our worries are lilliputian compared with those of countries that are at war"; "a little (or small) matter"; "a dispute over niggling details"; "limited to petty enterprises"; "piffling efforts"; "giving a police officer a free meal may be against the law, but it seems to be a picayune infraction"

fiddling, footling, niggling, picayune, piddling, piffling, trivial, petty, little

colloquialism - a colloquial expression; characteristic of spoken or written communication that seeks to imitate informal speech

unimportant - not important; "a relatively unimportant feature of the system"; "the question seems unimportant"

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