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The Electronic Side of Color Media

Color Television Was Almost a Frankenstein Monster – Partly Mechanical, Partly Electronic

In our previous installment, we looked at the history of color in film. Film color evolved over the years from hand painting directly on the film frames to various photochemical processes. At first glance, it would seem color video burst on the scene fully formed in December, 1953. That’s when the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the RCA Compatible Color Television system as the American color television standard. But that’s not how it happened. In fact, it wasn’t even the FCC’s first government approval of a color system.

As with film, television began in black and white. Both media were rooted in the same problem – the need to provide a recognizable image across a smooth grading of dark to light. Simply put, to create either film or television, black and white had to be worked out before color could be accomplished.

However, the complexities behind the initial rollout of black and white television were electrical and differed greatly from those of photochemical film.

Like film, television was born as still images and has its origins in other inventions. For instance, the desire to send pictures over wires or through the air was first realized in the form of what later came to be known as facsimile (FAX) machines. In 1846 a Scottish inventor, Alexander Bain was able to reproduce graphic signs using a chemical mechanical device.

Early FAX Machine

Thirty four years later, in 1880, an article appeared in the French publication “La Lumiére électrique” in which Maurice Leblanc, a French engineer and industrialist, correctly outlined the five functions required of a working television system. Film based imagery was just adding moving pictures about this same time. Even though Leblanc was never able to construct such a project, it could have been the inspiration for Paul Nipkow, a German engineer, to invent and patent the scanning disk in 1884.

Nipkow’s scanning disc breaks up the picture into tiny dots of varying light intensities which in turn varies the voltage output of a photosensitive tube according to the amount of light exciting it. Again, there is no record Nipkow ever produced a prototype to prove the idea would work probably due to other technical limitations of the time.

Finally in 1926, it was Scottish scientist John Logie Baird who proved the concept by developing the first crude but working mechanical television system able to reproduce a human face. The limitations of mechanical systems were obvious. To get anything more than 200 lines of resolution would require huge discs rotating at fantastic speeds. But Baird’s Televisor was a reality and mechanical television continued until the mid thirties when Philo Farnsworth invented his Image Dissector tube that did electronically what the Nipkow disk was doing in Baird’s mechanical system.

It should be noted that others working independently of each other were also experimenting with transmitting moving images through wires and through the air. Charles Francis Jenkins was probably the most noted American attempting to develop a mechanical system for the new media. However, today he is most remembered for the contributions he made to motion picture projection.

It was Baird who first adapted his system to color. Only two years after successfully showing his monochromatic image, on July 3, 1928, Baird demonstrated the transmission of a color image. To accomplish this, Baird modified the Nipkow disc so it had three separate spirals with each spiral having a filter representing each of the additive primary colors – red, green and blue. At the receiving end, a switch driven by the signal alternated the illumination of the correct color to be reproduced.

Only a year later, 0n June 27, 1929, the Bell Laboratories division of American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) under the supervision of Dr. Herbert E. Ives also displayed a primitive color system. The acquisition side used a beam of light to scan the subject. But for projection, instead of holes in a spiral disk with tri-colored filters, the AT&T version used banks of photocells with the appropriate filters.

Almost ten years later, on February 4, 1938, Baird made the first color broadcast by transmitting a 120 line mechanically scanned color image from his studios to a projection screen in London’s Dominion Theater.

But all-electronic television, even though it was only black and white, was capturing the world’s attention. Farnsworth’s Image Dissector and Vladimir Zworykin’s Iconoscope and Kinescope tubes from RCA had provided much higher resolution and would be the way the general public in America was introduced to television.

Research on color during the war was taking place quietly behind the scenes in the US and Great Britain. In 1940, Baird worked with an all-electronic television system to come up with a color television receiver that used a black and white cathode-ray tube with a rotating color wheel in front of it. Between 1941 and 1943, in the midst of World War II, Baird demonstrated three optical projection methods not only able to reproduce color but also three dimensional images as well.

Baird’s two color system reproduced human skin tones well. But just as Technicolor learned with film years earlier, all three primary colors must be used to reproduce a full color palette.

In October, 1944, the magazine Wireless World published an article about Baird’s latest achievement called “Telechrome,” a cathode ray tube built with two semi transparent fluorescent mica discs, one coated with orange-red and the other coated with blue-green. Like two strip Technicolor motion picture film, the pictures produced a limited palette but were able to portray human skin tones accurately. However, the camera side still required two spinning color discs in front of the pickup tube.

In 1940, the American CBS television network research department led by Dr. Peter Goldmark designed a color television system based on Baird’s 1928 designs. As explained in a paper written for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) by William F. Schreiber and Robert F. Buckley, the Goldmark/CBS system “succeeded in demonstrating remarkably good color pictures using quite practical equipment which was readily manufacturable at that time.”

Goldmark first demonstrated his system on August 28, 1940. According to Goldmark’s paper for the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), it employed “electronic scanning both at the transmitter and at the receiver” using a mechanical wheel spinning color filters at both ends. The test was broadcast for the first time over one of CBS’ experimental television stations in New York City, W2XAB. When the Goldmark demonstration took place, practical color television was thought to be much further in the future. But here was practical working equipment already built and good enough to be shown.

American commercial black and white television was authorized to begin in July of 1941, however, less than six months later, World War II intervened and by April of 1942, Goldmark and many others were instructed to cease all research and manufacturing for color television and turn their attention to the war effort. Neither monochrome or color television had not been able to make it to the marketplace yet. The phenomenon would have to wait until after the war.

As World War II ended, work at RCA/NBC quickly turned back to the development of a simultaneous or compatible color system. One that would allow all those black & white receivers being installed in homes all across America to continue to receive programs in black and white even though they maybe broadcasting in color. At CBS, Goldmark returned to his research, too. In addition, a third company, Color Television, Inc. (CTI), was at work on a system.

CTI was a company created to develop a color television system based on the patents of George E. Sleeper, Jr. of San Francisco and used a line sequential concept. Simply put, a camera with three lenses (with filters in each of the three additive primary colors – red, green and blue behind each lens) would scan the three images and create three side by side pictures on the pickup tube. The receiving tube would produce three images side by side that would then be superimposed on a rear projection screen.

But it was the battle between RCA/NBC and CBS that became the most contentious and controversial. The leaders of the two companies, David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA, and William Paley, chairman of CBS, were bitter rivals as each tried to best the other in the race to present television to the American public.

William S. Paley (CBS), left and David Sarnoff (RCA/NBC), right. Paley from Wikipedia, Sarnoff from David Sarnoff Library, Princeton, New Jersey

The U.S. population was weary from the rationing and sacrifice of war and ready to start a new life. This pent up demand was answered by companies re-tooling to a peacetime economy by releasing products made possible by re-purposing technologies developed as part of war research. From penicillin to plastics to kitchen appliances, World War II advancements to make life easier, healthier or better entertained were welcomed. As so many television sets were being sold so quickly, it was obvious black and white was enough to attract a large audience.

Up through 1949, it was estimated a cumulative 3,602,872 black & white TV sets had been sold in the U.S. The following year, 1950, when the color systems were competing for approval by the FCC, 6,132,000 sets were sold in that year alone, bringing the total close to 10 million. In one year, compatibility went from a small problem to a much larger one. Thousands of television receivers were flying off the shelves of stores everywhere. With so many black & white sets in use, compatibility for color quickly became a major issue.

But in its initial demonstration to the FCC, the RCA system, while compatible with black and white, was a disaster. Failures of the early RCA system are backed up in color television historian Ed Reitan’s color chronology. On October 10th, 1949, RCA presented their system to the FCC for the first time. Reitan’s comment is “RCA makes its initial disastrous demonstration to the FCC.” This would haunt RCA. An article in the trade publication Variety on October 12, 1950, said, “Results were surprisingly disappointing, compared to the crisp pictures shown at CBS demonstrations last week.”

Even so, when the FCC approved the CBS system in October, 1950, many were surprised and dismayed the Commission had opted for a non-compatible system noting that it was just a matter of time before RCA’s system could be perfected. Many argue the reasons were more political than technical.

In December, 1950, Popular Science magazine published an article, “Here’s Your Color TV” by Martin Mann that, in addition an explanation of how the CBS system worked, also offered an explanation for the choice that is generally accepted.

To the question why did the FCC pick the CBS system, Mann says, “The answer is simple. The Commissioners felt it was the only good one!” Overriding RCA’s compatible advantage, the FCC found many serious faults with the RCA system. Mann cites a few from the FCC’s report, “The color fidelity is not satisfactory… the picture was marred by mis-registration (colors failed to superimpose properly)… No practical converter (for putting color – not just black and white-on existing sets).”

Scene photographed off working CBS color receiver in 2014 at the Early Television Foundation & Museum. Photo by author.

Sarnoff did not accept the decision and legal teams from RCA and other companies supporting the RCA compatible system began filing for injunctions.

Launch of the CBS system was held up by these actions and most of the TV set manufacturers boycotted the system. The Supreme Court even got involved when they wouldn’t overturn the FCC’s decision because “courts should not overrule an administrative decision merely because they disagree with its wisdom.”

With each passing day, the television audience grew exponentially. CBS faced a the task of providing an ever growing number of inexpensive (read: cheap) solutions to converting monochrome televisions already manufactured and/or sold to receive any show including CBS network color productions in black & white.

It wasn’t just public relations. CBS had a financial stake in compatibility, too. It was a matter of the bottom line. Without the converters, if CBS produced a program in color, the network would be dark except for all but a handful of mechanical color set owners (actually gray lines is all anyone would see on monochrome sets). Rather than have millions watching a show, it be more like an audience in the hundreds. Owners of standard (unconverted) black and white televisions were growing exponentially. Advertising is sold on a basis of a certain amount of people watching. It is doubtful any advertisers would be drawn to programming that couldn’t be delivered to 99% of the potential audience.

On the manufacturing side, CBS was faced with a cumbersome moving part in the form of its color disc and finding a way to make the wheel sync with the electronic parts and avoid the two interfering with each other. No manufacturer wanted to be a part of this and even the company CBS purchased to manufacture its sets (Air-King) couldn’t deliver.

Back of a CBS field sequential receiver showing the color wheel drum assembly. This one was owned and maintained by color television historian, the late Ed Reitan. Photo taken at the Early Television Foundation & Museum by author.

In the end, it was the size of the black & white market and the complexity of the CBS color receivers that did in the system. Less than 1000 CBS color receivers would ever be built. Reitan puts the number at even less than that.

The needs of a war, this time the Korean conflict, required manufacturers to shift away from building some products for the private sector that required the use of scarce parts and concentrate their efforts on wartime production demands. It was generally accepted that CBS used this government edict to save face when it couldn’t deliver working receivers in a timely manner.

Reitan in his color television timeline entry for October 19th, 1951, tells it this way, “…the Defense Production Administration asks CBS “to conserve material for defense” for the duration of the emergency. CBS announces (almost too quickly) that it agrees and will also drop color broadcasts; color receivers are recalled and destroyed. Strangely, monochrome receiver production is not affected!”

The next day CBS broadcast its last color program using a mechanical color disc. The entire run of the system had lasted just under four months.

On March 25th, 1953, CBS officially threw in the towel. With 23 million black and white sets in consumer’s homes, CBS’s President, Frank Stanton admitted to it being “economically foolish for us single-handedly at this time to resume a large-scale broadcasting and manufacturing program.” CBS was ready to quietly let their system pass into oblivion.

By the time the FCC ultimately approved the RCA system, there were over 28 million black and white sets in American homes.

On December 17th, 1953, the FCC reversed itself for the first and only time in its history. It authorized RCA’s compatible color television standard, the system we refer to today as NTSC. By then, RCA was able to make enough improvements in their product to satisfy manufacturers and government officials and provided a system that allowed monochrome televisions already in the marketplace to receive color programs in black and white.

Improvements in RCA’s system brought its compatible color system close to the quality of the CBS system. From RCA Broadcast News, January, 1954

By the time the first color programs were broadcast after the RCA authorization, the number of television sets in the country was approaching 30 million. The delays Sarnoff had fought for in the courts also worked against RCA as well. It would take years for color to catch on. It wasn’t until 1967 that color receivers outsold monochrome for the first time. In 1973, color finally reached into more than half the households in the U.S. Throughout the period, NBC/RCA weathered financial losses as color programming went out to large audiences who watched them in black & white with only a fraction able to see the shows in color.

Acquisition of image today has changed radically since those days. Film is used only sporadically to acquire images. Even then, it is immediately transferred to an electronic/digital format for completion. NTSC video is gone, replaced with High Definition digital television. The “big iron” of Technicolor three strip color film cameras or the giant RCA compatible color television cameras has been replaced lighter, smaller equipment. In fact, there is no longer such a thing as a “film” camera or a “television” camera. Most modern production is agnostic to a distribution form. And color has become its own art form conveying mood and emotion.

In the beginning, the public was reticent to accept color. Black and white images were still a novelty, first in theaters then in living rooms. Early color on film and TV was not that good. But to to get to our world of today, black and white had to give way to color and go through its inherent growing pains. The photochemical film and analog video processes also had to pass through strictly manual or mechanical steps to get to the brightly saturated hues of Technicolor film or to a perfected RCA all electronic system for television.

In a media universe to come, the images we see will be more lifelike than ever. Imagers will more fully convey to our senses what the human eye is capable of gathering. The addition of virtual reality already allows us to stand on different worlds or interact with beings that do not exist. Hard to imagine it all being in black and white!


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Richard Wirth had barely learned to read when he began burying himself in anything he could find about that glowing box in the living room. The more he read (and of course watched), the more…

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Mark Triplett
Mark Triplett

No mention of Philo Farnsworth? His inventions beat out RCA’s “inventions” by at least 3 years. I put the work inventions in quotes because it was RCA that basically stole Farnsworth’s ideas and sold them as their own. RCA eventually settled with the Farnsworth family, but for pennies on the dollar.