When Television Was Born
By Al Owens
Television has always been the source of great fascination to me. I’ve watched
it most of my nearly 60 years. I’ve even made my living while appearing on it.
Yet, I still marvel at how it is possible that I can sit in my home and still
witness events that are occurring around the world, in space and even on the
moon at the same time.
All it takes is to push a button for me to be transported to the scene of events
that could, someday, be written into our history books – and I can see those
events with startling clarity.
Television, for all of its flaws, has become the world’s diary. But it didn’t
start out that way.
Upon close examination, I discovered it had little prospects of playing such an
important role in our lives in its earliest state of development.
In the 1870’s, scientists had discovered a chemical known as selenium, which
would respond to varying degrees of light. (Even today, that’s all television
is. A display that receives varying degrees of light from some external source)
That discovery was first made in 1873. I’ve found an article printed in the
Marysville (Ohio) County Journal on December 28th, 1876 which theorized about
the possible use of selenium in the development of an artificial eye. “We wish
we that we could add that it gives vision to the blind; but we can not, though,
perhaps, it gives promise in that direction,” claimed the scientist Dr. C.W.
It was some years later, but still over a hundred years ago, that the word
“television” (or seeing at a distance) was used by those people who were still
experimenting with selenium.
In the Sunday edition of the New York Times on February 24th, 1907, there
appeared a long article about the experiments of Dr. Arthur Korn, a physics
professor at the University of Munich (Germany).
Korn had successfully used selenium to transmit the image of the Kaiser over a
telegraph line a thousand miles away.
Suddenly, there was hope that such an experiment would lead to, “Lovers
conversing at a distance.” Or that “Doctors will be able to examine patient’s
tongues in another city.”
There were no predictions of a show like American Idol. Something, perhaps that
would have given Dr. Korn pause about proceeding with anymore experiments.
Over the next few years, scientists across the world began experimenting with
selenium, and, at the same time, they were coming up with some rather odd
applications for which the television could be used.
In 1910, a German scientist was quoted as saying, “A death-bed scene, a last
look at some dying dear one, would even be within the range of possibilities.”
(I’m thinking that could be the only thing WORSE than nightly episodes of
American Idol. But that’s just me)
Two years later, there came word of a new method of placing electrically
transmitted images onto a screen – the cathode ray tube. That is a method that
is still in wide use today in computer monitors and in television sets.
By 1923, while inventors and scientists frequently predicted that television as
an essential element of home life was “only a year or two away,” there was only
a hint that television wouldn’t be transmitted by telegraph line or by telephone
– but through waves, similar to methods used in broadcasting radio signals.
In July of 1923, the Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times expressed a great deal
of apprehension about the possibility that television would eventually be used
to broadcast live sporting events. “The owners of baseball grounds and
prizefight promoters, looking out for their own financial interests, would put a
stop to the broadcasting of their programs altogether,” wrote a writer with a
decidedly imperfect crystal ball that day.
He probably had no idea that the owners of every major sports team and fight
promoters could hitch their fortunes to the success of their sporting endeavors
by using something else that had not yet been invented – the television
commercial. (The first officially sponsored television program is said to have
taken place in 1930 in Passaic, New Jersey. That, by the way, was the same year
the first store was opened that sold only television sets, in Evanston,
In 1924, there had been a demonstration of a television broadcast in New York
City. In 1925, the Uniontown Morning Herald reported that a few high ranking
government officials sat in a Washington laboratory and watched a moving
windmill five miles away on a television screen.
In 1927, after experimental television broadcasts had taken place between Europe
and the United States, the Morning Herald published a cartoon that reflected a
rather unsettling version of that event. It showed Uncle Sam on one end of a
telephone saying, “We love you dearly.” He’s talking to a female Europe with a
club in her hand that reads: HATRED.
That cartoon appeared one day after it was announced that nightly broadcasts
were about to be sent out over an American syndicate that had rights in this
country, as well as in Canada and Mexico. Those broadcasts, according to the
Morning Herald, would show the head and shoulders of a person speaking directly
into a microphone.
Television was not yet practical, but it had certainly, by then, become more
than a mere dream.
But practicality was well on the way. The Morning Herald reported late in 1927,
that there were estimates that the average television set for the home use would
be about 150 dollars.
In September of 1927, the Morning Herald was brimming with anticipation. “Who
can tell how soon the time will come when waiting thousands will be able to
stand before some form of screen and see as well as hear the “blow by blow” and
“play by play” and the great national and international events,” asked the
editorial writer. But that writer asked a question that would even be quite
These days, with the high definition images, and crystal clear audio that is
available on hundreds of television outlets, I can only echo the words of that
Morning Herald editorial writer had about the, as yet to be fully realized
invention known as the television – “Truly we live in an age of miracles and
I’ll have much more about the development of television – and the impact it has
had on our lives - in the near future.
With television sets supposedly coming to homes across America in 1027, the
Uniontown Herald Standard had its own theories about how the new technology
could be used.
How about weddings? On April 12th, it published an article with the rather odd
possibility that television could be used to hitch couples in matrimonial bliss
who were in different cities, with the person performing the service in yet
another city. Fortunately, that kind of thing never really happened.
(In 1929, Cora Dennison of Chicago and James Fowkles of Kansas City, Missouri
did become the first people on record to get married on television. But they
were in the same room at the Chicago Radio Exposition.)
Meanwhile, a writer for the Uniontown Daily News Standard was trying to figure
out what term a viewer would use when they would watch television. (He’d said
that radio listeners would “tune-in” their programs. But no term had quite been
established for what a television viewer would do). The writer settled on the
term “spy in.” Fortunately, that term didn’t stick.
In August of 1928, the Uniontown Herald Standard reported a major television
breakthrough that took place only a few miles away – in East Pittsburgh.
Engineers at Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company broadcast an entire
movie to a screen 30 feet away.
Television developers and reporters watched the demonstration on a tiny screen
eight inches square.
It was also announced, that despite the fact that nobody really had television
sets in their homes yet, KDKA in Pittsburgh would soon begin regular
transmissions of movies.
Nothing, it seems, could stop this march forward by technology and science. Not
even the Great Depression. The Morning Herald certainly wasn’t going to let
something like a stock market crash deter its enthusiasm for what television
On November 27h, 1929 (just days after the stock market crash) readers were
treated to a bit of humor – with television as part of the punch line, by an
eager writer. “Television will be perfected within five years, we read. Now what
stocks should we buy on this tip and what will we use for money?”
The editorial page of the Herald Standard advanced even more speculation. It
surely must have been something that mystified readers – color television. While
only in its earliest stages, there was talk of color photographer, films in
color and of course color television in that year.
That editorial concluded with the words, “The eyesight of the future citizens
had better be good. There will be much to see.”
And there would be much to see. But as television sets and television broadcasts
showed continuous progress over the years, there was a natural – if unfounded –
fear that TV would eventually lead to the extinction of America’s favorite
family entertainment – the movie theatre.
In December of 1937, the Uniontown News Standard asked its readers; DO YOU THINK
THAT TELEVISION WILL SUPPLANT MOTION PICTURES? There was no shortage of opinion
on the matter.
Some local residents thought television was a long way from being “perfected,”
so it wouldn’t have much effect on movies. While one reader, John Lewis of East
Main Street in Uniontown said, "Of course it will. Motion pictures are just a
temporary substitute for the wonders that television will bring."
Television did have some peculiarities back then. Blondes, for some strange
reason, appeared to be bald. In 1938, it was announced that phenomenon had been
corrected. People with light colored hair, would no longer appear to have no
hair at all.
Despite the various shortcomings of television, movie theatre owners across the
country still braced themselves, anyway, with all manner of new developments to
stave off the influence of that new technological kid on the block - TV.
First, in 1927, with the motion picture, The Jazz Singer, came sound. Then movie
theatres were refitted with wider screens, with air conditioning and a variety
of special events designed to lure families away from their easy chairs and to
their box offices.
While television still mainly focused on providing live events to limited
viewers (the first live baseball game in 1939, and the first live coverage of a
national political convention in 1940) there appeared to be a growing rivalry
between television and movies.
In February of 1944, the Uniontown Morning Herald announced a new wrinkle. CBS
proclaimed it was broadcasting regular color television shows, on special
stations, in New York City.
In March of 1948, just seven months before I was born, the Morning Herald
reported that representatives of General Electric met with local radio dealers
at Uniontown’s White Swan Hotel, to announce that television was heading to the
area. A local radio dealer, William Henzly, had already conducted tests at Mt.
Summit, by picking up transmissions from Cleveland with encouraging results.
The following year, E. Milton Cohen, an interested patron, bought and had a
television installed at Ben Franklin Junior High school in Uniontown. He’d had
it installed just in time for a presidential inauguration.
In December of 1949, it was reported that the owners of Philadelphia’s two major
league baseball teams (The Phillies and the Athletics), were thrilled with
television. They jointly called television “the greatest thing to happen to
baseball since the invention of the radio.”
Meanwhile, the same year, Uniontown’s movie theatre owners made their own
advancement. Uniontown’s voters gave their approval to allow the city’s movie
theatres to open on Sundays.
But in 1954, there were signs that the “war” between Hollywood and the
television industry was about to come to an end - at least for a time.
In Uniontown, a thousand people showed up at a Union Supply company on South Mt.
Vernon Avenue to view the first local broadcast on color televisions in the
But in Hollywood, movie studios actually joined forces with television producers
so they could share talent and resources. That way, the stars of Hollywood could
easily appear on both venues.
That’s when a rising star named Lucille Ball, with her monumentally popular
television program – I Love Lucy – could reap the benefits from own her
production company and she could still help lure eager movie fans to theatres –
while starring in feature films.
Since that time stars like Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis,
Eddie Murphy and Burt Reynolds followed Lucille Ball’s lead.
They had all started on television and supplied the motion picture industry with
a steady stream of talent that has kept both industries vibrant.