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CICIORA’S CORNER: The Early Television Museum

Sun, 05/31/2009 - 8:20pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

We in the cable industry owe a lot to those who preceded us.

I just returned from the 2009 Early Television Convention in Hilliard, Ohio. It was an enjoyable and informative event. I would encourage spending some time on the museum’s Walter S. CicioraWeb site. But do it when you have time to browse because you could end up spending several hours without even realizing it.

Older readers of this column will recognize the name of the president of the Early Television Museum, Steve McVoy. He is an innovator in cable television technology and has a number of patents in the field. His passion now is the history of television, much of which predates the history of cable. This is a subject that should be of interest to anyone in cable. Our roots lie here.

There’s an interesting term used when trying to decide whether something is a patentable invention. That term is “long-felt need.” This term certainly applies to television. Innovators have been dreaming about and experimenting with various concepts of sending moving pictures from one place to another for more than 125 years.

Television is older than electronics. The first televisions were mechanical with no transistors, no vacuum tube amplifiers or picture tubes – nothing electronic. In 1883, Paul Nipkow invented a scanning method consisting of a rotating mechanical disk with appropriately located holes arranged in a spiral. As the disk rotates, only one hole is located on the image to be transmitted. As one of the holes completes a left-to-right scan, another hole commences scanning from the left slightly below the path of the previous hole. When the bottom hole completes its scan, the scanning disk will have made a full revolution, and the top of the image is again scanned. Nipkow was granted a German patent (patent No. 30105, applied for Jan. 6, 1884) on this invention but did not actually build the system. In 1923, John Logie Baird built a crude system based on the Nipkow scanning disk. A wide variety of enhancements were added to this basic system.

Amazingly, you can see several versions of the mechanical television system, some even in operation, at the Early Television Museum. A number of these come from other countries – many from Britain.

For me, the highlight of this year’s conference was a display of several field-sequential color television displays. Television history buffs will remember that the FCC approved the CBS system before it approved the current compatible analog color television system, usually called the RCA system. The first implementations of the field-sequential color television system used a black-and-white display synchronized to a rotating disk with color filters on it. While the red filter was in front of the display, red picture information was transmitted, and similarly for the blue and green filters. The museum has several of the old displays, and they were in operation during the convention.

Additionally, Cliff Benham, an enthusiast and experimenter, has built several of these displays and brought them to show to us. Picture quality was very good. Of special interest, he showed a two-color display, which looked surprisingly good. If the three-color display was not there for easy comparison, many ordinary viewers would not see much to complain about. Even more importantly, Cliff showed a modern shadow mask picture tube driven with the sequential color signal. This dispels the myth that the CBS system required a noisy color wheel in its receiver.

Several interesting lectures were provided in the afternoon. An engineer, Stan Lebar, who worked on the development of the color television camera that was used in the Apollo moon project, talked about its design and why a field-sequential system was used.

When the idea of taking a television camera to the moon was first proposed, some of the purists opposed the idea as having entertainment value only and making no scientific contribution, and said that every pound taken to the moon was precious. Forceful arguments were then made that the television camera would bring participation to the taxpayers who financed the effort. That argument won the day. Lebar described, in very human terms, the tension and anxiety he felt as he waited for the camera on the moon to show its first pictures. What if it didn’t work? Fortunately for all, he didn’t suffer that embarrassment, and we got to see history being made.

Other interesting presentations concerning television’s early history filled out the afternoon.

Of course, museums of this sort have limited appeal and support. We in the cable television industry owe a lot to those who preceded us and made television possible.

Without television, there would be no cable television. As a minimum, visit the museum’s Web site: http://www.earlytelevision.org. The site is comprehensive and includes links to other sites of interest. Better yet, visit the museum in person, especially during its next convention. DVDs from earlier conventions are available, which will give you solid motivation to be there next year. Consider becoming a supporting member of the museum. The cost is minimal but is very important to the cause.

wciciora@ieee.org

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