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First-Hand:Early Developments in T.V. Broadcasting

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Submitted by John Shaw

My interest in engineering began by osmosis. I cannot remember any time it was not a "given" that I was going to be an engineer.

We got our first television set in 1936 when I was in my early teens. Yes, I said 1936! My father was Dr. G. R. Shaw (Fellow IEEE). At the time, he was Chief Engineer of RCA's Tube Division. So for the next several years, we had a succession of the latest TV sets to evaluate. Our first one had a twelve inch green (Wolframite) tube. The set itself was designed to look like a piece of furniture with no screen or knobs visible so no one would ask questions. The tube had to be mounted vertically because it used electrostatic deflection. The lid of the cabinet (containing a front surface mirror) was opened to forty-five degrees to view the tube and access the fourteen knobs.

RCA engineers had installed an antenna on top of the Empire State Building for W2XBS. I remember Bill Hickock telling of climbing a ladder to adjust the antenna and having to break an inch of ice from each rung as he went up.

(Bill Hickock got me started building radios by patient advice and generous donations from his personal store of radio parts. I astounded my high school classmates when I built a radio inside a book cover using the "peanut" tubes [IR5, IT4, IS4 and IS5] while they were still in development.)

Broadcasts began at eleven p.m. (for security reasons) and ran to one a.m. So we went to bed early and got up for those two hours to view (mainly) a "Felix the Cat" cartoon and newsreels of the 1936 Florida hurricane. My prime duty was to record horizontal and vertical resolutions from the test pattern. Exact dates are hazy but soon NBC was broadcasting during weekends and we were visited by many RCA engineers working on the development. Names I recall are Dee Wamsley, H. B. Law, Stan Umbreit, Ed Herold, Wally James, Otto Schade, A. D. Power, Tony Lederer and, of course, Vladimir Zworykin.

I learned to never say never when Otto Schade told us he had picked up an English TV station the day before. The experts around our TV agreed that it must be due to an unusual Heaviside layer condition and that regular transmissions from Europe would, of course, be impossible.

About 1939, the TV secrecy wraps came off, programs were better and were shown during the day. At first the visitors who came to see it were Dad's business friends so I got to meet people including Allan Dumont, his chief engineer, Tom Goldsmith and Claude Shannon of Bell Labs. Also the neighbors began to drop in for a look. One weekend I tallied fifty visitors. When I left for the University of Wisconsin in 1941, Dad had one of two projection sets (Sarnoff had the other) which used a five inch TV tube pointing downwards into a Schmidt optical system. It was actually quite good.