3) Towards Felix the Cat
“Invention breeds invention.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
When we climb into the family car we don’t think too much about it. We slip behind the wheel, turn the key, are happy it starts, and off we go. If we think about cars in a more expansive sense, it’s probably not all that expansive. When we start musing about how the old clunkers our parents used to drive evolved into the nifty little numbers with their sleek “airflow design” that we’re driving now, our musings probably don’t go very far. Our idea of automotive history may only extend back as far as Heavy Chevies from the ’50s, or maybe Model Ts from early in the century.
What we don’t think about are all those years and lines of unrelated research that eventually crossed and produced what we know of as a car. We don’t think of all the time, experiments, and theorizing that went into the development of the internal combustion engine (which eventually became the car’s power plant), or the development of vulcanized rubber (for the tires), petrochemicals (the plastic interior door handles), electronics (that mess of wire spaghetti inside the dashboard), wireless transmission technology (for the radio), refrigeration (for air conditioning), aerodynamic design (which is why so many cars these days all look alike), refractive lenses (for the headlight glass), or the experiments in electricity that produced the arc welder that’s used to do the spot welds that hold a car together. And let’s not even get into Global Positioning Systems and satellite radio and — … Well, you get the idea. What’s worth remembering here is that it’s a cinch that the fellow who dabbled with refractive lenses however many centuries ago (and it is centuries; Webster cites the year 1603 as the birth date of the word “refraction”) didn’t do his dabbling with automotive headlights in mind.
For every invention that we think of as having been sprung on mankind overnight, there lies behind it a long, little-known, meandering history of organized research, workshop puttering, and seemingly unrelated dabbling. Television’s no different.
Oh, there was a point at which the idea of television became clear in the minds of a number of tinkerers and inventors as something to aim at, but the components they would use to bring that idea to fruition had already been laying around for quite some time and many of them hadn’t been developed with the specific goal of TV in mind.
This is all by way of saying that if you’re looking for a birth date for TV, it gets a little hard. It depends on what you consider the beginning. It depends on what you consider TV.
It could just as well have begun with our Paleolithic friend from the Introduction, or it could have begun with another acquaintance from those pages, a Swedish chemist by the name of Baron Jons Berzelius.
The good baron isolated, for the first time in 1817, the element selenium. Because of its luminescent properties, selenium would later be used to create visual images in the early days of TV development, but at the time, all the baron was interested in was chemistry and physics.
Or, you could say things started rolling twelve years later when Michael Farady demonstrated what was, essentially, a primitive vacuum tube. Farady didn’t know it at the time, his main interest being simply to figure out how electricity worked, but the vacuum tube would be what made TVs and radios run before the transistor came along well into the next century.
Then there was Englishman Sir William Crookes who came along in 1878 with his development of something called the Crookes Tube. Crookes was another fellow interested in figuring out how electricity worked. He didn’t know that his work produced the first cathode-ray tube which is what served as a TV picture tube in the pre-flat screen era.
For those of you old enough to remember (or who might still have) a cathode TV screen, if you get your face right up to it, you can see the picture is made up of little pieces called “pixels”. The above gentlemen are just a handful of the pixels that compose the entire picture of the history of TV. The other pixels range from American inventor Philip Carey — who first used the “photoelectric effect” to transform pictures into various intensities of lights — to giants like Edison and Marconi, all of who laid down the early (and usually inadvertent) steps that led to television.
There was a point when the progression to television became inevitable because whether out of ambition, or sometimes simple curiosity (i.e. Berzelius, Faraday, et al), people are always looking for The Next Thing. When Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1835, it was the natural Next Thing to find a way of getting the human voice from one place to another by wire instead of just dit-dit-dit dah-dah-dah dit-dit-dit (Morse’s code for SOS). Alexander Graham Bell took care of that with the telephone. Once people started talking to each other over a distance, The Next Thing was, naturally enough, to get visual images from one end of the wire to the next.
Prior to 1884, fellows like Carey had managed some sort of visual transmission though one wouldn’t call it a picture, really. Carey and his fellow tinkerers could get a set of selenium photoelectric cells to transform a picture into various shades of light and then have that pattern repeated by another set of cells at the other end of the line, but it was hardly a representative picture.
If the successful transmission of an honest-to-God picture is what you’d consider TV’s birthday, then 1884 it is. Paul Nipkow was a German engineer who devised a way of transmitting a picture electrically for the first time with what he called his “mechanical scanning” system. This was not a moving picture, mind you, nor was it even a particularly good still Image in terms of quality, but it was a start.
Up until the 1920s, Nipkow’s scanning process was the basis for most television research. Then, along came a young Idahoan with the kind of name that usually gets you beaten up in school: Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was, besides being impressively bright, also incredibly precocious; he first laid out his idea for true electronic TV (no more mechanical scanning; it was TV like we know TV, more or less) on his high school chemistry class backboard in 1922. Within six years, young Farnsworth had created the first two-dimensional picture on his receiver.
Farnsworth gave TV researchers the key; now everyone interested in The Next Thing knew basically how TV worked. The next Next Thing was to make it work better.
By 1930, General Electric had shown off a prototype for the first home television receiver; Bell Telephone Laboratories had demonstrated a prototype for the first color television; the first variety show, first remote news report, and first TV drama had been aired by experimental TV stations; and a General Electric experimental station in Schenectady, New York had begun making regular broadcasts to the handful of equally experimental receivers being made available.
Of the significant developmental events which occurred during those eight years following young Farnsworth’s high school chalkboard doodling, a particularly significant significant event was the opening of an experimental television station in New York City. The year was 1928 and the first broadcasts of RCA’s W2XBS consisted of a small Felix the Cat (look him up, kids) statuette spinning round and round on a little turntable.
Granted, it wasn’t much of a show, but, then again, it wasn’t intended to be. Felix’s hours under the bright lights were to provide a subject for reception tests made by RCA (which was owned by GE) engineers in their very own homes scattered around the New York metropolitan area. Putting it more simply, the idea here was to answer the question: Is this gonna work?
The answer to that question was an obvious yes, but the technological demonstration of the practicality of broadcast TV was not what made Felix’s twirling notable. The importance here is tied to the fact that two years earlier RCA had formed the National Broadcasting Company for the purpose of distributing radio programming. The Felix broadcasts had now put NBC in the television business as well. The TV network was born; The Next Thing had arrived.
Next Week: Radio lays the groundwork