Wednesday, 12 March 2014

An Evening in Front of a 1930 Television

The early 1930s saw the rise of the Golden Age of Radio. The Golden Age of Television came along some 20 years later but there was television in the early ‘30s, too. In fact, a number of TV stations had signed on in the U.S. during the late ‘20s. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle story of May 12, 1929 revealed W2XCR in Jersey City was now broadcasting short films. By November it was on the air weekdays from 3-5 in the afternoon and 8-10 at night (and changing frequencies because of interference from other stations).

So what was on TV back then? We can get a pretty good idea from the New York Sun of August 16, 1930. Perhaps more interesting than the anonymous writer’s description of programming is the description of his television set. 1930 was still the era of the mechanical TV which didn’t use a cathode ray tube to emit the tiny pictures. It picked up signals with a scanning disc that matched what had been scanned at a studio. And those of us around in the ‘50s and ‘60s thought we had it bad waiting for the tube to warm up.

So, let’s take a trip back to 1930 and turn on the “radiovisor,” as people sometimes liked to call it back then.

Suppose we spend a few moments together and tune in on a television program from the Jersey City station. It's just 8 o'clock in the evening, the time when W2XCR begins its broadcasts. Seats for five persons are arranged in front of the radiovisor. It's just a trifle too light in the room, so that shades are drawn to make it as dark as possible. No light must strike the disk or the large magnifying glass through which we look to see the pictures. The size of the pictures we will see are not over an inch and a half square, so the eyes must be concentrated at one spot, that is, at the center of the six-inch magnifying glass in front of the disk.
First the switch controlling the motor is snapped on and the disk gains speed rapidly. Being mounted on a ball bearing shaft there is practically no noise. The motor is allowed to attain a speed of about 900 r. p. m., so as to be in step with the disk revolving at the transmitter. Then the short-wave electric set is turned on and the tubes allowed to warm up. A knob is turned on the front panel of the set to put the loud speaker in operation in order to hear announcements. The dial on the receiver is tuned to about thirty degrees. We hear the announcer telling his audience what the station has to offer for the evening.
“And now, lookers-in,” he continues, “our first half-tone movie this evening is called ‘The Big Fight’—one moment, please.” The next sound is that of the television signal, a succession of intermittent dots. It is tuned in as strong as possible on the loud speaker and then another knob is turned and the signal is put through the neon lamp behind the rotating disk. The flickering light passes through the holes in the disk and before us and we see plainly the title of the picture. Then there appears on the small screen the ringside. In each corner of the ring we see the fighters receiving last minute instructions from their trainers. The fighters get up, move to the center of the ring, are introduced by the referee and they shake hands. The fight is on.
A sub title appears "First Round." Then there is a flash back to the ring again. We see the two fighters engaged in a lively battle. The round is over. A large gong strikes and we see it on the screen. Then comes the second round, a lively one, which ends in a clinch, the referee stepping in to separate the fighters. At each round a sub-title is shown announcing the round and the gong is also shown. The fourth round ends in a knockout. The loser is carried to his corner and the winner's hand is raised by the referee. It's a short movie in silhouette, the figures appearing black against a pinkish background. Some nights I have tuned in the same fight picture with the sound broadcast and heard the match described as the picture progressed.
“Our next offering,” says the announcer, “is the singing of the television song showing the artists in half-tone, and if you will tune in on 187 meters to W2XCD you will hear the artists as they appear before you.”
The image of a young woman appears on the screen and in the loud speaker we hear every word she sings clearly. In a few moments a male voice is heard, and then this soloist appears before us. Finally, the two soloists appear as they sing together. The effect is very interesting. The lips of the soloists as they sing are perfectly synchronized with the words heard in the speaker.
Following the song, there is a short talk on television, which we hear on the loud speaker. Then a half-tone picture of Dr. Lee DeForest, inventor of the audion and "father of radio," is put on. Dr. DeForest's short address is also heard on the loud speaker. The half-tone pictures generally have good detail and the high lights and shadows show up splendidly.
Another half-tone movie called “Dr. Pain” is flashed on the screen. This is a very funny picture concerning a man who did not want to go to the dentist, although he was suffering terribly with a bad tooth. We see Dr. Pain strap his patient to the chair and with a long pair of pliers he pulls the tooth. I might mention that the sub-titles during the various pictures are remarkably clear with large letters, short words being used so that one can get their meaning quickly.
Col. Charles Lindbergh's face is reproduced on the screen by means of a movie film. He is seen making an address. The motion of his head and lips is quite plain. Then there's another movie called "At the Beach," which shows a little girl who runs away from her mother, falls into the ocean and is rescued by a life guard.
All of these half-tone pictures are interesting and often repeated. While some nights they do not come over clearly, there are times when the detail is unusually good.

W2XCR’s brief glory days were still ahead. The station moved to New York City in 1931; Popular Science Monthly reported on the event in its July edition, and with some wonderful pictures. But it was still really too early for television. W2XCR’s owners, Jenkins Television Corporation, who had been granted the call-sign in 1926, went under the following year.

The Sun article concluded with the words: “No one knows what the next six months will bring about in television but the public will soon find the television set at home as commonplace as the broadcast receiver is today.” It wasn’t “soon” but it did happen. By then, W2XCR was long forgotten.


  1. There's a certain irony in that we've gone from the days of W2XCR and the 1 1/2-square inch image to people watching television on their 6-square-inch cellphone screens.

  2. Eric O. Costello12 March 2014 at 15:49

    There's a book called "Please Stand By: The Pre-History of Television" that goes into this matter in great detail.