The "Errors" of Television

SOMETIME in the middle of 1938, television sets may be put on sale in the is United States. The date is still a guess, but it is not unreasonable; it is the only guess made by experts in the field and they never use an earlier date; sometimes when a problem becomes difficult or an experimental programme shows up some weakness, the date is pushed farther ahead. As television will be, in effect, a combination of the radio and the moving picture, it has an exceptional importance; and since the early programmes of television will be based on the experiments now being made, the citizen may well begin to think about television now instead of neglecting it for twenty years as he neglected radio and the movies. Twenty years from now will be much too late for complaints.

There are three separate sets of problems in the launching of television: the problems of engineering, of financing, and of entertaining; and each of these will determine in part when television is to be started, for whose benefit, and with what materials.


About seven and a half million dollars have already been invested in experimental television and perhaps half a million will be spent annually before any income will appear. In return for this investment, the promoters have machinery which, they seem to believe, may be improved, but will not have to be fundamentally altered in order to give reasonable satisfaction. The potential buyer of a receiving set will not need to know the technical details of this machinery; he can be assured that any receiver he buys will give him the telecasts sent out by all the major systems of transmission. That is because the principal experiments now being made all use the same basic principle. In each one there is an apparatus usually called the 'scanner' which 'photographs' an object; in each one the lights and shades of the object are transformed into electronic impulses; these impulses pass through the air as those of ordinary radio do and the receiving apparatus turns them back into the highlights and shadows which compose a picture. Actually the picture is formed on the end of a cathoderay tube in the receiving set and we see it reflected in a mirror which becomes on a small scale our moving-picture screen. The areas of light and shade are traced with great rapidity in a straight line as if an invisible pencil were making lighter or darker dots, and a delicate mechanism sends the pencil back to the beginning of the line at the right moment; on the screen, which is about seven inches by ten inches, four hundred and fortyone lines are drawn for each picture. These pictures follow each other so rapidly that, by the persistence of vision in the human eye, they seem to be moving.

In the early days of television, the number of lines traced by the imaginary pencil was anywhere from thirty to three hundred and fortythree. With thirty lines, the resultant picture looked like a puzzle made up of white dots on a black background. At one hundred and eighty the picture had the kind of crosshatched background familiar in the first newspaper photographs transmitted by wireless. The four hundred and fortyone line standard, which has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, gives the clarity and sharp definition of the usual halftone illustration. Although telecasts observed this spring show that pictures tend to be distorted at top and bottom of the screen, the engineers do not believe that this is due to the limitation of the number of lines to four hundred and fortyone; for every increase in the number of lines, a disproportionately larger part of the available wave lengths must be given up, and the engineers are fairly well satisfied that the present standard will be satisfactory.

The differences between the major systems will become important to the consumer if television runs into the kind of patents litigation which disturbed the movingpicture industry for ten years. At present the principal experiments are being made by the Radio Corporation of America, utilizing the inventions of Zworykin, and by Philo Farnsworth, working out his inventions at the laboratories of the manufacturers of Philco radio sets. In various ways these two experimenters are on excellent terms. Philco is licensed under RCA patents; when RCA is ready for commercial television, it will undoubtedly use the National Broadcasting Company, which it owns; but NBC's chief rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System, is one of the principal customers of RCA for radio equipment. A patents fight does not therefore seem inevitable. Moreover, the Federal Government, which brushed aside all technicalities at the time of the World War and consolidated all the available information for radio broadcasting, may have considerable influence on television. Various government agencies are anxious to take over parts of the shortwave band on which television operates. (In Germany the whole business of television has disappeared from the public domain into the secret laboratories of the War Department.) If the promoters of television have to bid against Federal departments, they will in all probability attempt to make a united front.

The first question on which all the promoters might agree would be when and at what level of technical perfection television should be commercially offered. Mr. David Sarnoff, the President of Radio Corporation, has said, 'In the broadcasting of sight, transmitter and receiver must fit as lock and key.' This means that the moment receivers are sold transmitters cannot be altered or improved in certain fundamental respects, because if they were the receiver would be utterly worthless. There is a danger that television may be made rigid at the beginning when it should be most flexible, and this danger is all the greater if no sudden surprises from a rival need be anticipated. Because early receiving sets will cost about five hundred dollars, the producing companies will not dare to let them become rapidly obsolete; the method of yearly models will not apply until sets are actually in mass production. In this way the consumer will be protected, but it may be at the cost of continued improvement.

As a consumer, I can imagine another way of selling television sets, but I am not sure that it is practicable. Television could be offered to the public frankly as an experiment. The price of the receiver would be high and the amount of entertainment at the beginning would be limited yet such a conditional invitation is a possibility. The buyer would be warned in advance that after a specific period the apparatus might be useless that is, he would gamble; as a pioneer he would take his risk for the pleasure of being among the first to enjoy the new entertainment. This would make for flexibility and would give both the engineer and the promoter an additional period for experimentation; moreover it would remove early television from the dominance of the sponsor, who would naturally tend to freeze the system at a given level. In a sense there is a choice between giving a limited guarantee to the public and giving it to the sponsor. Each of these will pay back part of the investment in television, the public by buying sets and the sponsor by buying time on the air; each will wait upon the other; and the promoters will have to make delicate decisions.


The second series of problems, which I have called financial, rises from the relation between television and radio. In brief, the dilemma is this: the promoters of television dare not withhold it and at the same time they hardly dare promote it. All the leaders in the field are involved in the business of radio broadcasting or in the manufacture of radio sets, or both. In these enterprises the investment is many times greater than the already large investment in television experiments. Moreover, the commerce of America now rests in part on radio advertising; as business men themselves say, their factories are 'geared' to a level of production which would inevitably fall off if the power of radio advertising diminished. That is why almost every official statement about television is sure to contain the word 'supplementary.'

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In