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1948 Zenith  - USA 

(CBS Mechanical Field-Sequential Color)

Brief Early History of CBS Mechanical Color System

Peter Goldmark was a young Hungarian television engineer who worked for CBS beginning in 1936.  He had a Ph.D. in physics and pursued the concept of mechanical field-sequential color television in the CBS labs.  This system used a  spinning tri-color (red-blue-green) filter wheel in front of a cathode ray tube --  to reproduce the colors seen by the camera lens.

On January 31, 1946, a prototype of this system was demonstrated to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).  The FCC was impressed with the quality of the images, but were hesitant to go ahead with the commercialization of color. 

RCA waged a public battle against CBS, pointing out that the mechanical system of spinning color wheels was incompatible with existing black & white sets, and that a compatible all-electronic color system would be best for the public (which they were researching).

On January 30, 1947, the FCC proclaimed that the CBS system was premature, and would require further testing before it could be approved.  RCA proceeded to flood the market with black & white sets, knowing that each set they sold would make it more difficult for CBS to bring their system to market.  Owners of B&W sets would have to purchase bulky and expensive ($100+) adapters to receive the CBS color pictures.

In 1948, Goldmark was approached by the pharmaceutical house of Smith, Kline & French, with a proposal to use color television as a teaching tool for surgery.  Goldmark accepted, and on May 31, 1949, the first live operation in front of color television cameras took place at the University of Pennsylvania.  In December 1949, the Goldmark team took this system to the American Medical Association's annual meeting in Atlantic City.

Operations taking place in Atlantic City Hospital were televised to 15,000 viewers (1,000 at a time) in the convention hall.  The response from viewers was tremendous, and some people were fainting, when they witnessed the realism of surgery delivered through the power of color images.

The 1948-built Zenith color television set you see above, was one of the 20 specially-built receivers for this medical demonstration.  The screen size is a mere 16 inches diagonally.  This unit is marked serial number 16, and is part of the television-set collection in Dunedin, Scotland.  [Click photo above to see chassis view]

1949 Magazine Article "Surgery In Color Television"

1949 Article about Color TV Surgery (156K bytes) (156K)       May 31 1949 - Doctors & Color TV  -USA- (128K bytes) (128K)        1949 Color Surgery - Screen Image (148K bytes) (148K) - Screen Images

John Mackenzie - Television director for the Smith Kline & French (1956)


In 1955, Mr. John Mackenzie was appointed to the position of television director for the Smith Kline & French (now Glaxo Smith Kline) closed-circuit medical color-TV unit #2.  He held this position until 1958.

John contacted me, to let me know about his web pages on the SK&F Medical Color Television Unit.  He provides an insider's view of the history, equipment, and operation of this pioneering group.  John has also posted more than a dozen photographs,   taken from 1954-1956, of the early mobile color television system, which gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like back then.

SK&F Video Tech - Zenith set visible, top right (1955)


John also provided the following comments in a January 2003 e-mail:

I believe Peter Goldmark gave the surgical boom camera to SK&F in 1948 or 49. The studio cameras were added during the next several years.

I wasn't hired until 1955 and that's when most of the photos were taken. The color unit was proving exceptionally popular and sought after by most of the major medical associations. They found that live color telecasts substantially increased their convention registrations. And SK&F was getting some good press that didn't hurt drug sales. Because of the increased work load, additional crew was hired and I came on as the director. We had about eleven guys when I left in 1958. And we often hired local techs in each city.

SK&F converted to the RCA system in 1956. The idea being that we could originate live telecasts and get local stations to carry them. Which, in fact, we did by televising live heart surgery in Seattle. Also spare parts for the CBS system were getting more difficult to locate.

For the record, the original photos are going into the archives at The New York Academy of Medicine.


My sincere 'thanks' to John for sharing his knowledge and information.  If anyone has further details on this subject, please contact me.

See another Hospital Color System of 1953


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