1937 British Report:
"Television in America"
BRITAIN, for once, has led the world in radio by giving a national television service. Is this a technical triumph or a heroic feat like the Charge of the Light Brigade? America is not sure. In a land where to be biggest and best and first is worshipped ideal, they are at least envious.
Everywhere I went admiration for being first was on all lips; but there was the unspoken suggestion that we had stepped in where they, angel-wise, had feared to tread.
Today we are still the only country giving a public service of television. To me it seems that might well be a reflection on us rather than a proud boast. Have we been stampeded into an unprepared service of doubtful entertainment value handicapped by, as yet, technically inadequate reproduction? Have we plunged ahead into a jungle leaving behind no organisation of communications? Probably America thinks so. Certainly I saw not the slightest sign of their following in our impetuous wake.
What Baird Did
Baird, of course, started it all. He gave the tremendous impulse to television which is now moving the heavy bulk of the world's radio companies. I say emphatically that, however inadequate his earlier results, he put the television clock forward ten or even twenty years. His 30-line service — however little it resembles modern television — was a start which also startled. Technical circles had been frankly skeptical. The problem seemed insoluble, the difficulties insuperable. The engineers who have done most for television were then inertia-ridden. They did not even want to tackle the problem; and the radio industry today still privately hates the idea of television as a disturbing element to radio sales and production alike. All that is changing, but who changed it? The answer is: Baird, the Post Office, and Big Business.
At what stage should an invention be exploited? Television came to us in the early laboratory stage. The Post Office, with a tradition for giving radio inventors a "break " (it was the British P.O. under Sir William Preece who encouraged Marconi), got the Baird 30-line system on the air via a reluctant B.B.C.
Was it all a waste of time? Psychologically, no. The amazing publicity injected strychnine into the veins of Baird's competitors. They were galvanised into action. Heads of such concerns as the Radio Corporation of America and its associates developed vision and made their engineers develop television. Plodding research was made to gallop. Men and money became available.
We are still conducting our experiments in public — experiments that could nearly as well be done in private and at far less cost. That's what America feels . But nevertheless there is something to be said for leaping before you can walk. It makes you speed up the necessary process of learning to walk.
When every defect is made public and fully open to criticism there is a tremendous incentive for the business sponsors and engineers to improve matters. Perhaps we have, in establishing a public service, flung out a front line without adequate reserves. But 1914 showed how rapidly those reserves can be prepared when the front line imperatively needs them. Moreover, to get the B.B.C. and Post Office committed to developing television is of incalculable value, moral and financial. None of that backing would be there if we waited patiently — and perhaps unendingly — while private interests slowly perfected television in their own laboratories.
The backing of the B.B.C. has no real parallel in the U.S.A. where there are no licence fees and where there is no broadcasting monopoly. I did not get the impression that the broadcasting corporations were in any hurry for television. They are doing very well out of their sponsored programmes paid for by advertiser; Those chiefly interested are potential sellers of television sets.
"Trying Our Cookery on the Dog"
In America television will burst upon the public. In Britain it is oozing. In America apparatus and service will be perfected (after a fashion) before being offered to the public. In Britain we are trying our cookery on the dog as we go along. There has been a good deal of canine indigestion, but the incidence lies been small. Few sets, comparatively speaking, have been sold.
Which system is better? In Britain — I think our own. People may gain a poor opinion of television to start with, but that will soon be wiped out when they see something really good. I am very conscious in Britain of a driving force behind television. Sir John Reith will undoubtedly put his broad shoulders to the wheel while certain commercial firms are more than keen.
Here in America there is not the same electric atmosphere. Outwardly there is very little doing. There are no services, although near the top of the Empire State Building — the highest (for the moment) in New York — the National Broadcasting Corporation has a transmitter which is reputed to have cost a million dollars (£200,000). It is, however, virtually a testing station for the R.C.A. interests. The Philco people at Philadelphia sometimes radiate a public television programme, but I do not know who picks it up. It is, like the Farnsworth's near-by station, a test station for their own work.
It is rather a coincidence that the three hot-houses for developing television are all within a few miles of Philadelphia. It is there that we have the R.C.A.-Victor plant with Dr. Zworykin, Philco with Mr. A. F. Murray as engineer in charge of television, and the Farnsworth Television Laboratories with Farnsworth himself in control and Mr. A. H. Brolly as Chief Engineer.
Philco's Huge Output
The first two are commercial firms which will sell television receivers in due course. The Farnsworth Laboratories are not — at present at any rate — a manufacturing concern. Their work is of a development nature and they would license others. Their business manager told me that their plans did not include the establishment of a factory — but "one never knew."
The R.C.A.-Victor people are regarded in Britain as the chief radio set manufacturing concern in the States. But actually this is not so. The Philco Corporation now does easily the largest business. A Radio Manufacturers' Association of America estimate puts the sales of Philco at 1,800,000 and R.C.A. at 600,000 for the last year, with Zenith third with about 550,000.
This huge output of Philco is all the more surprising when it is realised that they started up only in 1928 and before long were in the throes of the Great Depression. Their factory at Philadelphia was certainly humming when I went over it. Charlie Chaplin would have gone even crazier had he been compelled to test out, solder or otherwise man-handle receivers passing at an inexorable rate along the conveyor belt. The television department is run by Mr. A. P. Murray, who was most courteous and anxious to give me information. In giving some opinions culled at Philco I should say they were not all his, as I discussed the subject with others there. I raised my pet aversion to the small size of pictures. Those shown me were about 12 in. by 8 in., or perhaps a trifle less, and I asked Mr. Murray at once whether he was satisfied with this size.
He said that there was a definite market for this size of picture; that the extra cost of larger pictures would militate against sales; and that, anyway, what was wrong with this picture size? I asked him if he had a home movie, and what size of screen he used. He said he used a smaller screen than usual, but when I suggested 12 in. by 8 in., he admitted my point. He preferred the smaller screen because he got a brighter picture, but this was rather a reflection on his projection gear.
I see that no one less than George Bernard Shaw has been condemning the size of the British television picture, but all the television people in the States and not merely Philco feel rather hurt if you complain of the small size of the picture, and will tell you in half a dozen ways, technical and psychological, that 12 in. by 8 in. is quite all right, that the detail is the same in any size of picture, that the angle of vision is unaltered, and so forth.
A Depressing Attitude
Well, we shall see. I am convinced that the satisfaction with 12 in. by 8 in. or less is due to daily working with this size, and a vivid appreciation of the technical difficulties of larger sizes. When he knows he cannot do any better it is surprising how satisfied a technician becomes with what he offers. It hardly occurs to him that the public may throw out his best as not good enough.
In all my American contacts I found very considerable satisfaction with things as they were and the general idea that improvements lay only in refinements. This attitude depressed me, because I am used to engineers setting a higher standard than that which the public can appreciate. The reverse applies to television. Engineers are so gratified—and with every reason — with high-definition television that they lose touch with a public which automatically sets the cinema talkie up as their ideal. The pitiable showing made by television when compared with the "movies" is apparent to all who are not lost in admiration and blinded by the very real miracle of modern television. Many television engineers are much in the same position of the man who swears his loudspeaker is a king amongst speakers because he is used to it. Only an outsider with an ear for music and a knowledge of what's what realises how poor is the reproduction. But whereas some knowledge may be necessary to criticise quality of reproduction, almost anyone who can see at all can criticise a television picture.
In the case of all the demonstrations I saw, those present gave me the impression that they were satisfied, if not delighted, with what they showed me. Nowhere at all did I fully share their satisfaction, and the situation needed all the tact I possessed and a good deal that I didn't.
While on the question of size of picture, I ought to mention that the R.C.A. people (with whom E.M.I, in Britain are associated) have been demonstrating most effectively a picture about 3 ft. by 2 ft., which could be extended even to 10 ft., but with less success. The system used involves a cathode-ray tube, the picture on its end being sufficiently bright to permit its being projected through an optical lens system on to an ordinary screen. The rival interests whom I saw, and also the N.B.C. were all appreciative of this demonstration given before the Institute of Radio Engineers. They all agreed it was most successful.
The use of a cathode-ray tube ordinarily restricts the size of the picture. The cost of a tube rises rapidly with size, and the pressure of the air on the outside of the tubs may easily be over a ton. Nor is the shape of the tubs adapted to bear this enormous strain, and an implosion (the collapse of the tube) becomes increasingly possible as the picture size, and therefore the tube size, increases. A 15-in, diameter tube seems at present about a conveniently practicable limit. No increase in picture size is thus likely, according to present views, if the ordinary methods are adopted. The R.C.A. work of projection is thus intensely interesting.
How far these schemes with their increased cost will affect marketability remains to be seen. It is estimated that the lens system of the new R.C.A. arrangement would cost perhaps £15 sterling — a substantial addition. It is to be remembered, however, that the lenses used can be of a type optically inferior to those used in a good camera, and mass production would bring the price down. Philco felt, however, that price would become a main issue in popularising television, and that a comparatively small picture with good detail would be preferred to a larger picture given by a more expensive receiver. Personally, I disagree, but in this matter of picture size I was opposed by Philco, Farnsworth and National Broadcasting Corporation, all of whom felt that a picture about 9 in. by 7 in. would "go over."
I owe Philco my particular thanks for erecting their equipment, temporarily dismantled, for my especial benefit. They gave me a most comprehensive demonstration, which involved carrying out tests which they permitted me to stipulate. The broadcast was radiated to all and sundry (more sundry than all, I imagine), and the announcer informed his public that the afternoon's programme was dedicated to the "inventor of the S.T.75," who was present at the laboratories. I would have felt more flattered if I could have remembered what the S.T.75 was.* * It seems a very long way back. I don't seem to be able to live down these circuits, even in America.
The demonstration at Philco did not, unfortunately, involve
an ether link. I should have been happier if the transmitter had not been
connected directly by cable to the receiver, but Mr. Murray assured me that the
results by radio were practically as good, and certainly not less than 90
percent as good.
Film Stars "Stills"
About a dozen still photographs of film stars were received after the initial introduction by the announcer, to whom I had spoken earlier, and who, of course, was perfectly recognisable. These "stills" of "Ruby Keeler, Al Jolson, Kay Francis, and other celluloid idols, were really superb, and undoubtedly the best thing I have seen "on the television." . Afterwards I saw the photographs themselves, and the detail that came over was remarkable. The photography, of course, was good, and the personalities clear cut. But, apart from this, at none of the demonstrations I saw in America was there any attempt at showmanship. The announcers were quite ordinary looking (aren't we all?), and routine engineers don't usually use lipstick or mascara. A Miss Cowell or Mr. Mitchell would have been more effective as an announcer, but, after all, television in the raw is what I was after. And I got it. I have never seen such poor, difficult-to-reproduce films as those shown me at the different laboratories. Most of them would have been bad shown in a cinema in the ordinary way. There was no attempt at proper contrast, while appalling patches of unadulterated black or white were common.
A vastly better demonstration could in each case have been given if the material transmitted had been more carefully selected. The N.B.C. gave me a demonstration in New York of a film of a school of bathers under water (you may have seen this at the movies; I had already seen it, so I had an opportunity of making mental comparisons). The flicker and distortion of underwater photography hardly seem the best thing to demonstrate by television.
But engineers are universally honest and guileless folk and I appreciated the absence of any attempt to impress even by the legitimate choice of good material for television transmission.
There was never any trouble about synchronisation in any American transmission. Before I left for America I could hardly say the same for British demonstrations, but no doubt, that has been improved. I was shown by Philco a movie of fishing. This was a film intrinsically boring and containing plenty of sun glare on the water, very heavy shadows caused by trees and much splashing of water. The results struck me as good as a B.B.C. newsreel, but no better. The dark patches often appeared patchy — which is not what they should appear. They looked grey and foggy and the film was much inferior to the studio direct vision scenes.
Remarkably Good Detail
There was no flicker. An interlaced system was used, as was the standard (now adopted universally in America) of 441 lines and 30 pictures per second.
A "half-cousin" of the Iconoscope was used in the transmission room. The detail given by the Philco system was certainly remarkably good. I asked (by telephone) for a dollar note to be held before the "camera," and the serial number could be read. I then asked for a pocket watch to be shown. All the numerals were very clear and also the second-hand and the major markings of its small dial. The numbers (10, 20, 30, etc.) around the second dial could be seen but not read, but such detail cannot be seen by most people at 2 feet, using the naked eye.
I then had them hold up different pages of a copy of the "Wireless Engineer." The words, " Editor: Hugh S. Pecock," were readable, while in an advertisement of Claud Lyons I could make out words like "Type" and ''Catalogue," which were actually quite small print. Advertisements without small type were easily read, as were headings to articles. I give these actual details to enable any British television engineers to compare the detail they obtain with that given by Philco's arrangement. Newspaper headlines and sub-headlines were easily readable, but the ordinary type was not. A picture of Amelia Earhart in a newspaper was immediately recognisable. These tests were with the whole, or nearly the whole, front of the newspaper exposed and visible.
Philco's Special Claim
The 441 lines of American television is not, of course, the whole story. Ten percent of these are lost in synchronisation, while the uniform performance of the amplifier systems is a vital and very difficult matter. Philco make a special claim in this connection, saying they can cover 3-4 megacycles. A suggestion was made that the R.C.A. covered only 2-5 megacycles effectively. From another source this R.C.A. figure was admitted, but a suggestion was made that perhaps Philco were getting the advantage of a resonance effect and were not getting the full straight-line amplification claimed. I was unable to trot back to Philco and hear their rejoinder, but the important fact remains that of all the television I have seen in the States, that of Philco was undoubtedly the best.
But such a sweeping statement needs some qualification. It is quite possible that I did not see the very latest effort of the R.C.A.-Victor people. So progressive and secret is the work in television that probably no one outside these organisations ever sees the most recent results.
Lack of Enthusiasm
There is no great anxiety to show anyone anything. Any publicity to be gained thereby is almost valueless, as there is no service and there are no receivers. Beyond a general desire to show that America is not asleep as regards television, there is no enthusiasm about showing the television flag. For example, Philco told me that on only one previous occasion had they demonstrated their television (in 1934).
Neither Philco nor any other television authority I met felt television for the public was imminent in America. The fact that in England television is cut, if not completely dried, interests but does not excite them. Television will come in due course to the American public, but I do not believe there is any prospect of wide scale manufacture under two or perhaps three years. As far as I know, no one has made the slightest preparations for manufacturing sets. Even this communication band of wave frequencies is not allotted.