Monday, September 28, 2015

Time machine: the birth of TV

As you've probably guessed by now, this isn't exactly an educational blog. If you want to learn everything about the birth of television, go on Wikipedia NOW:

There. I promise you that this Wiki entry is a small book that goes on for many thousands of words, without too many pictures. And pictures are what this blog is all about (if it's about anything - I'm still trying to figure that out). 

I love everything about early TV, because it constitutes my very first memories. I swear I remember sitting in front of the TV on the floor, my fat little legs splayed out, left on my own because those flickering black-and-white images from the DuMont network were a convenient babysitter. This is a body memory which  places me at around age two. Mid-1950s, in other words, so my recognition of Ernie Kovacs decades later proved that he wasn't just a nightmarish fantasy.

Though most prototype TVs looked like big radios with a round eye, this one looks like some sort of bird house, or maybe a barn. I wonder what sort of programming they had back then, and how close you'd have to be to the screen to see anything at all.

For some reason people were less intimidated by TVs that looked like radios. Early newspaper headlines talked about being able to "see the radio", a bizarre concept. This one, handsome as it is, still has a pretty small screen, but something is visible there that might even be people.

Viewtone must have become obsolete at some point, like my beloved DuMont Teleset with its swinging cabinet doors that were used to hide the bloody thing during the day when there was no signal. Slowly, slowly the screen is getting bigger, the cabinet less radiolike.

This is either John Logie Baird, or someone posing for John Logie Baird, an early television pioneer who experimented with trying to broadcast the image of a face. To me, it looks like Dylan Thomas after a night on the town.

And it looked. . . something like this. Please forgive the large colour watermark, but I can't crop a gif. I like that vertically-striped effect which sliced and diced the picture. It was no worse than the constant flipping which always afflicted our set, nearly as bad as the picture tube "blowing" which necessitated a visit by the TV repairman.

It is said that Felix the Cat was the first TV star. He sat on what looks like a turntable for days on end, some time in the late 1920s I think (look it up!). I don't know if the broadcast image was this clear. Probably not. The audience for this sort of programming was likely small, because no one had a TV set or even knew what one was.

"Her face at first just ghostly. . ." These are spectres, and no doubt the people behind them are long dead. I don't understand the bottom one however, as the picture was usually divided into vertical slices, and these are horizontal. Another experiment, perhaps.

I am sorry to have to include this, but according to the early TV site I lifted it from, it's an image of - WTF??? Looks like an ultrasound gone terribly wrong, or an xray of a woman who left her IUD in for 26 years.

How close to the TV would you have to sit? Even closer than we did when our Moms screamed at us, "Don't sit so close to the TV! You'll ruin your eyesight!" (Fortunately, my eyesight was already ruined, but I won't say by what.)

This is the first image I could find of actual entertainment on TV. Probably on the DuMont network, which featured Milton Berle doing sketches on a stage with curtains and everything. Well, that's how you did things, wasn't it? This isn't the radio, for God's sake. Get back on that stage where you belong!


This lovely little sucker, the G. E. Octagon, surely must have been some sort of prototype rather than a model people could use in their homes. Unless their eyesight was a hell of a lot better than mine.

Like the Dumont Teleset, which had a screen about 100 times larger than this one, the Octagon (made in the late 1920s) had foldout doors like a cabinet. Why? Inside were spindles, perhaps speakers, perhaps not, and two indescribable "things" that looked a bit like drawer handles.  I love things that baffle me just because I like to be baffled.

As far as obsolete technology is concerned, this is about as good as it gets. You'd have to treat this like a veritable microscope and put your eyeball right down on the glass.

People still rebuild these, refurbish them, and somehow get them going again, no doubt pulling in signals from Clara Bow, Ben Turpin and Harold Lloyd. Only problem is, there'd be no sound.

This is called the Octagon "motor", but how could a TV set have a motor? This whole scenario just gets weirder and weirder. Looks like a deformed metallic elephant to me.

This looks like a gramophone from Mars, or a meat grinder that can walk, but apparently it's some sort of experimental device for sending pictures. 

This thing - no, it's not a coconut cake shaped like a juke box, it's a TV of some sort. This is from a fantastic site about the history of television, but the thing of it is, it's all in French. Still. I'll post the link to it in case you're French, or only want to look at the pictures.

Call this the badda-boom. I keep finding ever-more-bizarre things about early TV, the guts of which looked like some kind of sewing machine with a spinning disc full of holes. The image projected - somewhere - was a disembodied head named Stooky Bill. (So much for the Felix the Cat legend.) John Logie Baird looks proudly on his glass-encased Sleeping Beauty of a machine which, beknownst to him, will change society forever. If he was smart enough to build this, he was smart enough to Know.

This is the Wizard of Oz of television invention, pulling levers and throwing switches. Chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, it went, as if driven by a giant hamster. 

I realize I've come at this subject in abstract fashion, but it's imagery I'm after, not history. Consider it an archaeological dig with the layers somewhat scrambled. I never much cared for chronological order anyway, and always walk through museums backwards, starting with the present moment and ending with the Dawn of Time. The invention and development of television is nothing less than a spectacular feat of human evolution, as important as the wheel, stone tool-making and harnessing fire. There were, of necessity, lots of experiments, lots of things thrown away, and things that look pretty goofily godawful to modern eyes. But to me, it's all beautiful: John Logie Baird and his creepy dummy head, all those sliced-'n-diced, quiveringly surreal, disembodied ghost-faces, viewing screens a couple of inches across, obsolete companies like Viewtone (a nod to radio, no doubt) and DuMont. And a glowing, flipping, flickering eye that raised me while my parents were off doing more important things.

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