TV History: Television in the 1930s

Television might have come to the American home much earlier; fifteen to twenty years earlier, in most cases.

Here's history as it was: A relative handful of rich or fairly well to do people had TV in their homes before World War II. (One of them was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a set at his Hudson Valley estate.) The price of a television set had dropped since they first went on sale in 1939, but it was still roughly half as much as a car. Of the roughly 5000 U.S. sets sold by late 1941, about 2000 were in the New York City area, more than half of them in bars or a handful of other public places like hotel lobbies, department stores, or the YMCA. The other 3000 were split between Schenectady-Albany, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. There, too, most people's first encounter with TV wasn't in someone's living room, but in a bar watching wrestling. Pictures were small—about the size of a 12 to 14-inch screen today—but clear enough to be seen halfway down the bar.

The war froze TV in place, like many other civilian industries that used strategically important materials. When the war ended, it took years to get television going. As late as 1950, most homes did not have TV, and many if not most people outside of major cities hadn't seen it yet even then. The times when that all changed across America was the subject of last week's post, and the national, coast to coast television culture that rose afterwards in the Fifties played a major, lasting role in shaping American politics and history. Suppose all of that happened in the Thirties instead of the Fifties. It could have happened.

Herbert Hoover, in 1927 still only the Secretary of Commerce, spoke in Washington and was seen in New York in the most well publicized of early TV demonstrations. In 1928, when the National Broadcasting Company was not quite two years old, its visionary boss David Sarnoff declared that the United States could have a workable television system, complete with strong stations and affordable home receivers, ready by 1932. We now know that in reality it would take another seven years just to get a start, and another twenty years—1948--before a combination of much cheaper sets and more available stations began the real television boom. Between these years, of course, there were two major shattering events that Sarnoff could not have predicted: the Great Depression and World War II. They were the most important reasons why TV, anticipated for so long, took so long to arrive in most people's homes.

1930s electro-mechanical televisionBut they weren't the whole reason. Another major reason was rising expectations of what kind of picture quality the public would accept. By the early Thirties, electro-mechanical television, the kind that used a spinning disc to create a business card-sized picture, was literally fading from the picture.

Mechanical picture scanning at the TV station would hang on longer, but by 1931 it was understood that television would reach the home with picture tubes; silent, not nearly as prone to go out of adjustment, and bigger than a scanning disc's picture. Not hugely so; a five- or six-inch round tube, looking much like an oscilloscope's, would have a picture about the size of a postcard. You could have a small screen on the face of a table radio, about the size of the loudspeaker, or in a radio-style large console for the living room. To make the picture bigger for family viewing, the tube was placed facing straight up, underneath a hinged lid, like that of a phonograph. The bottom of the lid was a magnifying mirror. FDR's set was one of those.

Here's a lineup of sets ready to offer to the public in 1931, the end of the mechanical television mini-craze, and by now almost all of them have cathode ray “roundie” screens of the kind we described.

Prohibition era TV showroom

This Prohibition-era TV “showroom”, probably at a tradeshow, was already obsolete because Depression business conditions were about to send television back to the laboratories. What if Wall Street's Black Friday, Tuesday, etc. arrived a few years later, or hadn't been as cataclysmic? What if we'd settled for the kind of TV picture that would have been affordable in the Thirties, Depression or not?

Televisor ad 1929Those dawn-of-television sets had a picture of 120 vertical lines and were shortly to jump to 160. That's a cruder picture than we're used to, but this is 1932 we're talking about, and the smallness of the screen minimizes the defects. Lower picture detail means you can send it with less bandwidth, so the FCC will allow a frequency in the shortwave bands, way down where the entire country could tune in a signal, as opposed to the Very High Frequencies where TV would end up, signals that can only travel as far as the horizon. Networking wouldn't even have been needed for superpower, clear channel stations with regional or even national range. “Low def” TV would have been much cheaper, for broadcaster and home viewer alike. Prices of electronic goods in that period tracked vacuum tube counts pretty closely. The most popular American radio chassis of 1935-55 used 5 tubes; RCA's postwar mass-produced VHF set would use 30 tubes to produce a 525-line picture. A 160-line set in 1932 could have used a dozen tubes. A TV set would have been twice as expensive as a radio, not six times as much. It would have been easier for families to get in on TV, and it would have caught on faster. Above all it would have caught on earlier, with unpredictable historical effects.

Television would have grown up more or less alongside radio, probably by merely being there to broadcast a comedian's monologue with sight as well as sound. Political candidates would have discovered the uses of TV a generation earlier. Would a man in a wheelchair have been able to get elected if the 1932 election had been televised? TV defenders say, of course, because the all-seeing Eye of the tube would put all of his positive qualities on even greater display. I'm not at all sure that's true.