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Tele-Visionaries

Sat, 09/30/2006 - 8:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph. D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

I just finished reading "Tele-Visionaries, The People Behind the Invention of Television," by Richard C. Webb, IEEE Press. This is a relatively new book, published last year. I highly recommend it for a number of reasons discussed below. But I would caution that this is not the whole story and it has a well-defined point-of-view. This book preserves some important aspects of television history and that signals to me the importance of collecting the cable industry's technical history. We have a fine contribution from Archer S. Taylor in his "History Between Their Ears" and "Pioneer Tales from Cable TV History." But we need to do more while we still can.

Walter Ciciora
Why do I recommend the book? Television is the technology upon which we've based our life's work, but it is all too easy to take it for granted. The second chapter of "Modern Cable Television Technology, Video, Voice, and Data Communications" has about 50 pages on how analog television works, followed by the third chapter on digital television. Because of space limitations, these chapters skip the history and human drama of the development of television technology.

"Tele-Visionaries" covers more of the history and the human dynamics of the evolution of television from very early mechanical television through fully electronic television. Yes, I said mechanical. The earliest experiments and even transmissions of television were done with rotating discs with patterns of holes to scan the image. You can see such a device in action at the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio. (See http://www.earlytelevision.org/scandisk.html)

You can actually have your image scanned mechanically there. Some of the early experiments had a mechanical camera feeding signals to a primitive picture tube (cathode ray tube, or CRT). The book then discusses the breakthrough technology of all-electronic television. After all-electronic monochrome television began to be popular, mechanical methods made a comeback. Early color television was done with a rotating disc having three primary color filters: red, blue and green. An alternate version used a rotating drum with the same colors of filters. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) actually approved such a system, which was not compatible with the existing monochrome television, in the late 1940s. After the Korean armistice in 1953, the FCC reversed itself and approved an all-electronic version of color television that was fully compatible with monochrome service. That might lead you to think this was the end of mechanical TV–but not so fast. A mechanical color wheel was used on the early color television cameras that went to the moon. And, more recently, products have been introduced that contain a mechanical color wheel that you can purchase at consumer electronics stores. These devices use the Digital Light Processor (DLP) chip with a micro-mirror for each pixel, to produce the television image projection. The DLP operates at least three times faster than the television image rate so that it produces, in turn, red, blue, and green images as the color wheel rotates. The human eye fuses these three images into one color image, except when there is fast motion. Under those circumstances, the colors can turn into a rainbow.

Mechanical innovations have also changed the way in which television is used. Rotating mechanical magnetic discs in personal video recorders (PVRs) have fundamentally changed the way television is consumed. Some have predicted the end of "linear television" as a result of the PVR phenomenon.

The Tele-Visionaries book is only 170 pages long (actually 150 pages without the appendix). And many pages are filled with pictures, so it is a fast read, well worth the time.

Now for the promised caution. An important lesson I took from this book is that a story like this has many sides and many points-of-view. Dr. Webb worked for the Sarnoff Labs of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and writes from that perspective. The book tells the television story almost exclusively from the perspective of RCA and its dynamic leader, David Sarnoff. The book is almost a hagiography of Sarnoff. But David Sarnoff is a controversial figure. Some of his business practices and approaches have left others with a different viewpoint. And it is not fair to assume that only RCA made contributions to television technology. Having worked for Zenith Electronics for 17 years, I am a bit biased, but I know that others made important contributions as well. My bookshelf has a long row of television technology history books. They document a wide array of contributions to the technology of television.

The book has a fascinating chapter on early digital television in the late 1950s for use in the White House for security purposes. It is hard to find things that are truly "new."

As we boldly march forward with cable technology, each year introducing new developments, we are in danger of losing the history of our technology. Efforts have been made in the past to gather aural histories and interview technical contributors as they retire and move on. But more needs to be done while these early pioneers are still around and able to relate their experiences.

Have a comment? Contact Walt by e-mail at: wciciora@aol.com

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