Bright Signals: A History of Color Television

Bright Signals: A History of Color Television

by Susan Murray


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First demonstrated in 1928, color television remained little more than a novelty for decades as the industry struggled with the considerable technical, regulatory, commercial, and cultural complications posed by the medium. Only fully adopted by all three networks in the 1960s, color television was imagined as a new way of seeing that was distinct from both monochrome television and other forms of color media. It also inspired compelling popular, scientific, and industry conversations about the use and meaning of color and its effects on emotions, vision, and desire. In Bright Signals Susan Murray traces these wide-ranging debates within and beyond the television industry, positioning the story of color television, which was replete with false starts, failure, and ingenuity, as central to the broader history of twentieth-century visual culture. In so doing, she shows how color television disrupted and reframed the very idea of television while it simultaneously revealed the tensions about technology's relationship to consumerism, human sight, and the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371212
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Series: Sign, Storage, Transmission Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Susan Murray is Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, the author of Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars: Early Television and Broadcast Stardom, and the coeditor of Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture.

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"And Now — Color"

Early Color Systems

As others have long argued, television is distinguished from other visual media, especially film, by its claims to liveness,immediacy, and extension of vision. The notion of "seeing at a distance" — seeing through walls, through space and time, witnessing things as they happen elsewhere — has been the primary promise of television since the late nineteenth century and is the frame through which early research into television is discussed. The notion of television entered the public imaginary as a possible, or even probable, form of seeing device that would add pictures to the already existing sound-based communication media of the telegraph and telephone, often retaining the point-to-point function of those parent media. Conceptualizations of technologies similar to what would come to be known as television were often represented as an improvement on or completion of the sensory experience of the telephone (in the form of what came to be called two-way television), enabling geographically distant individuals to share time and space in a state of simultaneous virtual presence. Television imagined in this manner would provide a complete replication (through sound and image) of another place or person to be experienced by a viewer. In fact, in drawings and descriptions of early models of technologies prefiguring television, it is as though the person before the camera is being transported, appearing before the viewer not within the confines of a receiving set, but existing in real space as a kind of apparition (see figure 1.2).

Even though "natural" color processes (as opposed to tinting or hand coloring) were not yet available in color photography or motion pictures, it was assumed color would eventually be a feature of a device such as television, since it would surely be essential for the realistic experience of virtual presence. While there had been conceptual proposals for color television systems as early as 1880, the first patent application describing a rudimentary system, which included the use of color filters, tubes, selenium cells, and a mirror drum, was put forth in 1902 by Otto von Bronk for Telefunken in Germany. Six years later, Armenian engineer Hovannes Adamian patented his own mechanical system in Germany, Britain, and France, and then in Russia in 1910. In 1925, Vladimir Zworykin filed a patent for a television system that included a color screen; Adamian demonstrated a three-color system (an advancement on his earlier two-color model) in the United States; and Harold McCreary, an engineer for Associated Electric Laboratories in Chicago, used cathode ray tubes to design a system of simultaneous color transmission, which meant that it would transmit three colors — red, blue, and green — at the same time. Yet a working color system that was able to reproduce images with a decent level of fidelity was proving to be far more difficult to develop than a black and white system, so the race to be first in television was one that focused primarily on monochrome.

As do many discussions about the process of invention, histories of television technologies often become bogged down in descriptions of "firsts." These histories can be helpful in the construction of chronologies and in tracing the complicated path of innovation; however, they also bear the marks of what Wiebe E. Bijker refers to as "implicit assumptions of linear development" of the technology over time. This type of narrative can also obscure the labor of particular individuals and the economic, political, and social structures that enable one inventor or lab to come out on top in the race to claim ownership over a particular technology. The early history of color television has been traditionally framed as such a history, and various nations have laid claim to being the site of the invention of color television, including Scotland (inventor John Logie Baird) and Mexico (inventor Guillermo González Camarena). In truth, there is in this history no singular narrative resulting in an ultimate moment of innovation. We can best understand the history of color television as an invention that came about through research into a number of various technologies, including monochrome television, color photography, telephony, radio, and telephotography (the transmission of still images via telephone wire).

During the mid-1920s, inventors such as John Logie Baird, Charles Francis Jenkins, Ernst Alexanderson, Herbert E. Ives, Ulises Armand Sanabria, Vladimir Zworykin, and Philo T. Farnsworth were experimenting with, demonstrating, and filing patents related to television. Their systems and devices were first conceptualized and then realized as both monochrome and mechanical (meaning they operated through moving parts rather than cathode ray tubes), although two of those individuals, Baird and Ives, demonstrated color systems at decade's close. In a 1954 presentation, Elmer Engstrom, head of research at RCA labs, claimed that "it has always been the objective of those engaged in television research to achieve television in color. ... Color was considered as a natural step to follow black-and-white television." Putting it another way, Frank Stanton, who served as president of CBS from 1946 until 1971 and was an early champion of color television, asserted in 1946 that "any discussion of television's future must be based on one incontrovertible and well-documented fact: that, at best, black and white television on the lower frequencies can constitute a temporary service." This is certainly how color television is described in retrospect: an inevitable and predetermined move toward the perfection of the technology. This familiar refrain is both a result of the narrative of linear progress that underscores so much of technological innovation and a discourse specific to television that has to do with veracity and vision.

The framing of "seeing at a distance" through television acts as an analogy as well as indicating television's role as a kind of prosthesis. Those working on early models of television would describe the apparatus both in relationship to how it engages with the human eye (persistence of vision, for example) and how it mimics the eye's basic functions, including color reception. Doron Galili's research reveals that this relationship between the electronic eye and the human eye was assumed from the very earliest moments in which television entered into the "technological imaginary." These nineteenth-century conceptual models for a technology that would later become television represented a unique form of electrical sight. Early experiments with selenium cells, a photoconductive chemical element that was a component of a number of early proposals for television, were especially resonant with the idea of a technological replication of the eye, as the way in which the cells responded to light and color closely aligned with contemporary beliefs about how the retina functioned. As Galili notes, this metaphorical connection was also a consequence of the way that synapses and neural pathways were already being conflated with the functions of electricity in the 1860s and '70s.

An experiment by Baird — a Scottish engineer and inventor who early in his career worked on prototypes of thermal socks, rustless razors, and pneumatic shoes but who would be written into history as one of the primary inventor-founders of television (both color and monochrome) — provides an example of television as prosthetic eye that takes the analogy a step further. Working with an actual human eyeball acquired through somewhat questionable means from the chief surgeon at Charing Cross Ophthalmic Hospital, Baird later told the New York Times that the "eye of a London boy helped him to see across the Atlantic," as the organ was part of an experimental machine for testing television's "long-distance vision." He went on to describe his acquisition and use of the eye in detail:

I had persuaded a surgeon to give me a human eye which he had just removed, in order that I might try by artifice to rival nature. ... As soon as I was given the eye I hurried in a taxicab to the laboratory. Within a few minutes I had the eye in the machine. Then I turned on the current and the waves carrying television were broadcast from my aerial. The essential image for television passed through the eye within half an hour of the operation. On the following day the sensitiveness of its visual nerve was gone. The eye was dead, but it had enabled me to prove an important theory on which I had been working on for some time. I had been dissatisfied with the old-fashioned optical dodge of a selenium cell and lens, and felt that television demanded something more refined. The most sensitive optical substance known is the nerve of the eye, called the visual purple. It was essential to get some of this visual purple in the natural setting of the human eyeball in order to use it as a standard of perfection in completing the visual parts of my apparatus.

Despite the probability, as many have claimed, that the "visual purple" (rhodopsin, a light-sensitive receptor protein) of the boy's eye may not have actually revealed much of anything about Baird's "Televisor," the story is a fascinating example of the way that the contemporary understanding of the human eye was built into television's very technology. Baird's tale is vivid and gruesome, but it also leaves the reader with the image of technology's ability to beat out, to extend the life of, to replicate indefinitely the fragile and ultimately mortal human sensory system. That poor eye of the London boy of Baird's retelling gave up its last bit of life for the larger project of seeing at a distance. However it's not just the way that the eye functions that helps model television, but also how its seeing is a complicated and subjective process. As Anne-Katrin Weber argues, television's reliance on persistence of vision and other forms of "trickery" of the eye, such as enabling the eye to construct a cohesive image from a collection of dots or lines, "highlighted the difficulty of conceiving vision as unmediated or direct, as an 'exterior image of the true or the right,' and revealed the subjectivity of seeing, produced not outside but within the perceiving subject."

While the transmission and reception of black and white moving images was certainly a remarkable achievement, it did fall short of the ideal of replicating what one experiences in the process of seeing. Seeing in "natural color" at a distance in stereoscopic or 3D — advancements that were already in development at the time of Baird's experiment — was considered the closest one could come to replicating the human experience of seeing the world, and therefore was held up as an ideal for television. However, as mentioned briefly in the introduction, even if color was considered to be an essential component of the ultimate end state of television, it was also considered expensive and troublesome. It took up far more bandwidth than monochrome; the technology and lighting required were often cumbersome; there was more potential for problems with the image (flicker rate issues, instability, etc.); and the bar for "true fidelity" (especially when it came to the representation of human flesh) was set significantly higher for color, which meant that the technology had to be at a more advanced state of development to even be considered acceptable by viewers, consumers, and regulators. Consequently, the period of the late 1920s was primarily a time of experimentation with color systems that had little hope of becoming the industry standard and going on the market. In a 1930 paper in the Journal of the Optical Society of America, Herbert E. Ives, the head of Bell Labs' special research department (which focused on facsimile and television research), and A. L. Johnsrud acknowledged the expensive, complex, and often difficult nature of color television compared to monochrome, predicting that these features would mean that the technology would have to "wait much longer for its practical application." They would be proven correct on this point, as the color television project would largely be abandoned for the majority of the 1930s.

In the rest of this chapter, I will briefly detail the little known period of early experimentation with and demonstration of mechanical television in the late 1920s and the work done by CBS'S Peter Goldmark in the late 1930s on his mechanical field-sequential color system, which was largely considered a significant advancement on that of Baird's and Bell Labs' apparatuses. I will spend some time discussing the details of the early color demonstrations, how they were described and understood, and whether or not they were deemed capable of highlighting the features of electronic color imaging. Although there were breaks and gaps in this period of innovation, the scientific, industrial, and cultural position of color television during these early years would help shape the reception of the technology as it began to further penetrate the popular imagination in the 1940s and become a viable and standardized consumer good in the 1950s.


The individual credited with being the first to display a successful color system was Baird, who held a demonstration in London on July 3, 1928. His 120-line mechanical system employed a rapidly rotating Nipkow disc with three sets of holes cut into spiral patterns that were covered with red, green, and blue filters. When the disc spun, the images were scanned with alternating lines of the three colors — an interlacing scanning system that helped cut down on flicker (a detectable fading on the screen that occurs between scanning cycles). The receiver then picked up the scanned red, green, and blue images one color at a time and projected them onto a very small screen where the colors were blended. After a demonstration of what was then called daytime television (a monochrome screen that could be viewed not only in a dark room but also in natural or bright light) on the roof of Baird's Long Acre lab, Baird led his guests — mostly reporters and scientists — downstairs, where he had set up a room for the color system. What happened next was meticulously described by the Manchester Guardian:

The receiver in this case gave a somewhat smaller image, about half as large again as an average cigarette card but the detail was perfect. When the sitter opened his mouth his teeth were clearly visible; so were his eyelids and the whites of his eyes and other small details about his face. ... He picked up a deep red colored cloth and wound it round his head, winked, and put out his tongue. The red of the cloth stood out vividly against the pink of his face, while his tongue showed as a lighter pink. He changed the red cloth for a blue one and then, dropping that, put on a policeman's helmet, the badge in the center standing out clearly against the dark blue background. The color television proved so attractive that the sitter was kept for a long time doing various things at the request of the spectators. A cigarette showed up white with a pink spot on the end when it was lit. The fingernails on a hand held out were just visible and the glitter of a ring showed on one of the fingers.

Baird had begun working on his color television not long after he had successfully developed a black and white system, an experience he touted as "seeing by wireless." He also simultaneously worked on a number of variations and improvements on television between 1926 and 1929, including Phonovision (recorded television signals on a gramophone record), long-distance television, stereoscopic television (an early version of 3D), and "noctovision" (infrared television). Although he would not work to refine color television to any serious degree until the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he combined it with stereoscopic television, Baird's multiple demonstrations of color television in this brief period of his initial interest in color impressed government officials and members of the press. An article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts reported on Baird's successful demonstration of color to the British Association meeting in Glasgow in 1928:

The images transmitted, consisting as they did of only fifteen elemental strips [scanning lines], showed a surprising amount of detail: in the human face, the whites of the eyes, the colour of a protruded tongue, and the teeth were clearly reproduced. Mixtures of strawberries, raspberries and leaves were recognisable: not only the colour but the tones and shades of irises, poppies and marguerites [daisies] could be seen. The chief difficulty occurs, of course, with whites, in which the relative strengths of red, green and blue have to be carefully balanced: fortunately, the visual accommodation is large, however, and it is remarkable to what extent light may differ from white and yet appear but slightly tinted.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. "And Now—Color": Early Color Systems  11
2. Natural Vision Versus "Tele-Vision": Defining and Standardizing Color  34
3. Color Adjustments: Experiments, Calibrations, and Color Training, 1950–1955  86
4. Colortown, USA: Expansion, Stabilization, and Promotion, 1955–1959  127
5. The Wonderful World of Color: Network Programming and the Spectacular Real, 1960–1965  176
6. At the End of the Rainbow: Global Expansion, the Space Race, and the Cold War  217
Conclusion  251
Notes  259
Bibliography  293
Index  303

What People are Saying About This

Susan J. Douglas

“What a terrific, innovative book! In this pioneering study of the development of color television, Susan Murray brilliantly intertwines the technological evolution of the device with prevailing notions about how people perceive color and its affective impact on our subjectivity and how we view the world. Murray breaks new ground by tracing how an understanding of the human eye was built into the technology from the very start. Highly original, engaging, and, yes, eye-opening.”

MP3: The Meaning of a Format - Jonathan Sterne

“In Bright Signals Susan Murray tells a critical and previously untold story in the history of television—the advent of color television—and does so in an innovative way that will disrupt established theories of visual culture, media historiography, the cultural analysis of standards, and television-as-technology.”

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