Capturing The Air: A Forgotten Television Experiment

8 Mar

Frame from alleged 1938 television image

Is this a frame from the earliest film of a television image? If not, it still looks early enough to be fascinating, for a TV-history fanatic like me...

by Rachel Newstead

One of the first television sets to be available for purchase, when TV was officially introduced to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair, was the RCA TRK-12. It was a large, rather unwieldy affair, its 4-foot-long cathode ray tube mounted vertically so as not to take up most of the space in one’s living room. (It contained a hinged lid with a mirror to allow a person to see the image). Very few people could afford to buy one, as they retailed at $660, a rather hefty price tag for the average Depression-era consumer. One fortunate soul who did buy one, however, ended up making history.

On the night of Aug. 31, 1939, this anonymous fellow aimed his home movie camera at the picture tube of his brand-new TRK-12 and filmed portions of a teleplay called The Streets Of New York, broadcast over NBC’s experimental station, W2XBS. Discovered in an attic in the 1990s, this film is generally considered to be the earliest motion-picture record of a television image.

Or was it?

Before videotape, most programs aired live, their images dissipating in the far reaches of space, never to be seen again. If a person put in a brilliant performance, it existed only in the memories of those fortunate enough to have seen it as it happened.Programs originating on the east coast would have to be performed twice–once for east-coast viewers, and once for those on the west coast. As this was cumbersome and costly, almost from the very beginning TV technicians worked to find a way to reliably record images–not easy considering the difference between film shutter speed and a TV’s scanning rate. Anyone who has ever attempted to photograph a TV image would know what I mean.

Starting in the late 1940s, NBC began to make the first of what came to be called “kinescopes” or “kinnies”. Basically a somewhat more sophisticated version of what that fellow with the home movie camera did in 1939, it captured images right from the television screen and recorded them to film–which is where the subject of today’s post comes in.

The YouTube clip I’ve embedded below is a 1949 NBC promotional film, explaining the workings of its kinescope filming system to TV stations and–I presume–potential sponsors.

Nothing seems particularly extraordinary about it–it’s a rather dry, talking-head presentation–until about a minute and 19 seconds in, when the host shows what he says are early experiments in capturing television images.  One is a clip of the second Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight from 1946, complete with the original audio commentary.

The ones preceding it, however, are two brief silent clips from, we’re told, 1938–which would pre-date the Streets of New York film by a year. The footage, like the 1939 film, is sped up, a bit like an old silent movie, but the image of a man talking as a woman knits, and one of couples dancing in a ballroom, is easily discernible.

Are these early scenes in fact from 1938? Hard to say. They certainly look as if they were filmed off one of the primitive receiving tubes of the day, unlike most contemporary newsreel footage concerning early television (filmed footage would be spliced in to make it look as if it were coming from the set). There’s clearly no trickery of that sort here, as the images have the crude, fuzzy (yet still amazing, for the time) quality of the stills shown on this site, which were taken off  one of Vladimir Zworykin’s Iconoscope picture tubes. (Even more incredible is that the images in question were taken between 1933 and 1934, which gives one an idea of how far television had already advanced).

Then again, if some of those scenes are from a 1938 television broadcast, why haven’t they received more notice? The answer to that may be as hard to find as information about the clips themselves, but to someone who’s fascinated with what Michael Ritchie calls the “prehistory” of television, they’re still irresistible.

(Note: anyone wishing to see the 1939 footage of Streets Of New York can find it at the Paley Center For Media site here, though you’ll have to download their player to view it).


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