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The UK had gone through hell during the Second World War, and its early postwar years were bleak. “Austere” was the accepted, understated way of putting it. Food and heating fuel were expensive and scarce. In 1952, Princess Elizabeth became Queen when her father died. This was formally confirmed in elaborate rituals throughout England and Scotland, leading up to her grand coronation in June 1953. It had been eight years since the end of the war. The UK economy was finally looking up. The English were ready to kick up their heels a little. So they staged what amounted to the first worldwide television spectacular.
With the Queen’s acquiescence—in fact, her insistence—the BBC’s cameras were permitted to observe almost all of a ceremony once held to be all but sacred. Announced long in advance, the Coronation resulted in the purchase of millions of TV sets, no longer exclusively associated with the upper classes. The live television signal was microwaved across the Channel to France, where it was broadcast in Paris and relayed onwards to Holland and Germany, whose viewers also watched the ceremonies in a growing number of fortunate private homes, and thronged the many bars and meeting places that already had television sets.
That’s as far as the live signal reached in 1953, eight years after Arthur C. Clarke published a proposal for communications satellites, and nine years before the first transatlantic satellite television broadcasts actually took place. Except under rare, freakish conditions of nighttime shortwave propagation, North America and Europe could not broadcast television directly to each other.
An island nation long accustomed to proudly leading the world was now fighting to maintain its positions in “future” industries it helped pioneer: electronics, aviation, and atomic energy. In many cases, its leading overseas export competitor was its good friend and recent ally in victory, the USA. New York took over from London as the world’s banker. US audiences have always been sentimental suckers for the royals (Ironically enough, given 1776 and all that) and our three major networks competed to broadcast first-day filmed accounts of Coronation Day, as close to live coverage as possible.
To accomplish that, television—a British invention of the 1920s—would be combined with jet aircraft—a British invention of the 1930s. At London’s airport, TV sets covering the day’s pageantry were filmed, image and sound, by special cameras (kinescoped). The undeveloped black and white film was hustled onto an RAF jet equipped with film chemical processors, so the long delay of the flight was put to work. The plane landed at Gander, Newfoundland, where a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter jet took the film to CBC TV Montreal. The Empire was becoming a Commonwealth, and the RAF-RCAF brotherhood still had a lot of resonance.
The Canadian shortcut saved hours of flight time to the US. Their CBC broadcasting system linked via Bell Canada’s direct coaxial cable connections to CBS and ABC in the United States. (NBC’s own lab-equipped jet to New York had mechanical problems and returned to London). By now, it was midnight in the UK, but only 7 p.m. on the US east coast, time for the evening news. Events this important were relayed live to the west coast, which as of the previous year were permanently connected to the eastern and central time zones (CBC wouldn’t reach the Pacific until December).
This was pretty hot stuff in 1953; for the first time in history the same big news event was visible to viewers on the same day (local time), all the way from Berlin to San Diego, the same way radio had been, 20 years earlier. A persistent dream of science fiction, worldwide television and the annihilation of distance, was becoming more real.*
In 1962, AT&T’s Telstar satellite, only in low Earth orbit, allowed roughly ten minutes of live TV transmissions between North America and Europe, every ninety minutes. By 1965, orbiting 22,000 miles higher allowed continuous, 24/7 color TV connections between Europe, America, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan. The Coronation, only a dozen years back, seemed like a long, long time ago by then.
Here’s a different example of what seemed like electronic magic in the ‘50s. Imagine a TV studio, the kind of small set a local station would use for news. But there’s no television camera in sight. The lights hanging from the ceiling never go on, even though they’re covered in red, green, and blue filters for color television. The entire news or talk show is conducted in ghostly near-darkness, with only the faintest purple glow to see by. And yet, if you manage to make your way off the set without tripping over anything, the on-camera people who you can barely see are chatting happily away on the video monitor, seemingly well-lit and in full living color. Is it magic? Nope, it’s a typical afternoon at WITI-TV in Milwaukee, Wisconsin between 1956 and 1959.
The country was in the middle of a snail-slow, boom-less “boom” in switching over to color television, very expensive at both ends, the station and the living room. WITI’s strange studio equipment was made by TV pioneer DuMont and adopted by only a handful of stations. It was the cheapest possible way to present live color TV. It was called Flying Spot Scanning.
Here’s how: In classic era, normal TV, the light bouncing back from a subject is focused onto a light-sensitive surface at the back of a camera tube. It is continually scanned and read by an electron beam, zipping up and down thirty times a second (this oversimplifies it, but just a little) and from side to side 15,750 times a second.
Suppose, instead, those normal procedures were turned on their heads. Suppose instead of an electron beam in a vacuum tube, a streaking light beam “coated” an otherwise darkened room as many times and for as many lines as a regular TV picture. That light source was a specially brightened cathode ray tube, a super-bright blank picture focused by a lens. Many stations already owned one, in the form of a film scanner, and those with Du Mont equipment could purchase a prism/mirror setup that projected that beam outwards into a dark studio. The seeming “lights” on the ceiling were actually photocells in scoop-shaped metal reflectors. Adjusting the balance between the voltages of the red, green, and blue pickup tubes gave a surprisingly lifelike picture of something that you couldn’t have seen with your own eyes.
Eventually, even ingeniously cheap WITI-TV had to bow to reality and give up its daily seances. But it didn’t make the costly jump to conventional live color. It went back to full time black and white, at least for local origination, and like most local stations it enjoyed black and white’s lower costs, stretching out its investments in late ‘50s studio gear, until close to the TV industry’s promotional “1965, the Full Color Year.”
* It’s funny how stories echo themselves over the decades, in this case, a story about how a geographic shortcut consisting of only one thin wire helped settle a speedy race to bring news across the Atlantic. An Edward G. Robinson film of 1940, A Dispatch From Reuters, is about the 19th-century entrepreneur of carrier pigeons who built a press wire service empire, shrewdly exploiting the novelty of telegraph networks. The movie story, though fictionalized, has some basis in fact; the first transatlantic cable in 1858 failed almost immediately, so by the time of our Civil War, fast steamships carrying vital news eastwards across the Atlantic often stopped in Ireland ahead of landing in England, where they could instantly telegraph news to London. Julius Reuter triumphed when his competitors and enemies accused him of crashing the London stock market with allegedly fake news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
That’s the last time in history that could have happened, because in 1866 a better-constructed cable succeeded, allowing eight words per minute to be sent across the ocean. By 1900, wireless telegraphy further ensured continuous communication between the Old World and the New.Published in