(Tele)Visions of Tomorrow

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Elliott Kalan

On April 30, 1939, a strange vision emanated over invisible waves across the city of New York. From Queens came drifting a hallucinatory dream received by the few adepts who had prepared themselves for a momentous revelation: The World of Tomorrow — massive looming forms of gleaming white, the triangular spire of the Trylon and the spherical Perisphere, because the Future would demand a new language as awe-inspiring as it was slightly silly and redundant.
What was to be made of this prophetic apparition? And why was it in black & white?
A few hundred early-adopters and guests of the National Broadcasting Company were witnessing the birth of the television industry at the grand opening of the 1939 World’s Fair. This was altogether right and fitting, because television was the perfect encapsulation of the Fair, delivering its message directly into the home while fitting neatly into the Fair’s ongoing struggle between inspiration and vulgarity. For beneath the divine forms of the Trylon and Perisphere, carny barkers advertised the divine forms of the lovely ladies at the Bendix Lama Temple girlie show.
The introduction of television to the American public has long been one of the most-discussed aspects of the 1939 World's Fair. But did anyone there realize how important this moment would be?
The Official Guide Book of the New York World's Fair expends only two sentences on television. More space is given to Nature’s Mistakes, a barnyard freak show featuring a bull with “skin so transparent that the veins are visible.” It’s possible that the editors, confronted with crazy items like Elektro the Moto-Man and a transatlantic “rocket gun,” assumed television was just another pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

The "latest picture of American television," care of NBC.

The "latest picture of American television," care of NBC.

But David Sarnoff, Russian-Jewish immigrant turned president of the Radio Corporation of America and the most powerful man in electronic media, knew better. Days before the Fair officially opened, he announced that the future had arrived in what was technically NBC's first broadcast.
While the BBC had been making regular visual broadcasts for years, not until the World’s Fair would Americans start considering “television” as “TV,” a presence in every home and the mirror against which we judge ourselves. As totalitarianism seemed poised to conquer the Old World, the New World would democratize the single most powerful means of mass communication ever invented.
Sarnoff notwithstanding, Americans would choose to remember the beautiful hoopla of the Fair’s April 30th grand opening as Television’s First Broadcast. Finally, a showcase (for those in the Empire State Building’s 55-mile broadcast radius) of TV’s possibilities: coverage of the Fair’s attractions, live speeches from the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the Smartest Man in the World, Albert Einstein, as well as live images of the 200,000 attendees jostling to catch a glimpse of it all.
These were the people television needed to reach — the ordinary Americans who would soon take on the roles of customer, viewer, and star. RCA needed to amaze them without making television seem so amazing that it would be impossible to imagine a set sitting in the corner of their living room.

RCA explains the background of television technology.

RCA explains the background of television technology.

RCA explains the background of television technology.

RCA explains the background of television technology.

The unveiling began in the lobby of the RCA Pavilion with the Phantom Teleceiver, a TRK-12 television encased in transparent Lucite, the better to prove the reality of its electronic guts to disbelieving crowds. This was followed by the Hall of Television, 13 TRK units in a row displaying live pictures of the Fair, reassuring attendees that not only was television real, it was even easily mass-produced and available now at finer stores.
The RCA Pavilion split one goal (get people to buy TVs) into two far more revolutionary objectives: show America how to watch TV and show America how to be on TV. Imagine how strange it all seemed in 1939. As a contemporary New York Times article asserts, "The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it." The same article, however, captures some of television’s power: "Radio can flow on like a brook while people listen and go about their household duties and routine. Television, on the other hand, is no brook; it is more of a Niagara, a spectacle for the eye."
In Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, James Mauro describes the scene: "Hundreds crowded around two dozen receivers in the RCA Building to squint at a two-inch-by-three-inch view they could have seen in real life if they had simply turned around." Television captivates because it lends importance to what it shows you. To point a camera at something is to decide what is worth seeing and what isn’t, as if revealing hidden insights and values. The effect was like magic. "I can’t believe it. I must be dreaming," reacted one attendee. And another: "Why, it’s beyond conception, and here it is."

In the RCA Building, a group inspects the televisions.

In the RCA Building, a group inspects the televisions.

Meanwhile, interviewers stationed outside the RCA Pavilion asked ordinary people their thoughts about the Fair, to the delight of fellow citizens watching monitors. In film footage we see enterprising bystanders already doing their best to get into the background of the shot and draw attention to themselves. This is the eternal symbiotic relationship between TV and its viewers, the interwoven thrills of watching and being watched.
One who felt that thrill was 10-year-old Barbara Meiten, my maternal grandmother. Her grandmother watched in wonder, as she became part of television’s constant parade, made special by the camera’s eye. Those selected then received a badge of honor — a card certifying that the bearer "has been Televised at the RCA Exhibit Building." (Surprisingly, my grandmother doesn’t remember those cards, but does remember making her classmates envious of the pickle-shaped pin she got at the Heinz Pavilion.)
Television was a hit with visitors, if not the immediate sales sensation RCA had hoped for. Its high price during an economic depression, plus the fact that most Americans lived well outside broadcast range, meant that by that summer only 800 sets had been purchased. It would take advances in both programming and technology to maximize TV's potential and to push the national standardization of culture.
Through this standardization, TV kept alive the Fair’s vision. For all its art deco modernism and grand rhetoric, the World of Tomorrow was a suburban world beholden to middle-class goals. In murals and sculptures, the Power of Labor and the gods of classical mythology strain with all their might so that Mr. Middleton can drive his new car home to find Mrs. Middleton using the latest in scientific innovations to cook meatloaf for supper.

Two men are filmed during an event for the National Press Club.

Television, a home-based entertainment of selective vision, fit perfectly into this tableau, and helped promote suburban comfort as the goal of American culture. The World of Tomorrow did come true, albeit shorn of much of its poetic gloss, and we continue to live in it today.
Television carries the torch of the Fair in another way, embodying the Fair’s conflicted split between educational uplift and sensational nonsense. The broadcasts at the Fair contained both heartbreaking beauty (one viewer “could tell when the sun went behind a cloud”) and the crassest pandering (a “Miss Television” beauty contest). Television continues to war with itself in just the same way, struggling to reconcile the existence of Frontline with Jersey Shore.
Ultimately, this is the Fair’s most lasting legacy — the one that sits in our living rooms, bedrooms, offices, bars, gyms, and airports, providing our view of the world and telling us how to spend our leisure hours. Many of the hundreds of thousands who passed through the Fair thought they were watching just another novelty, what my grandmother described as “just a stunt at the Fair.” But they were actually watching the rest of their lives.

“Into the ether 250 feet” reaches an antenna “connecting far places by the magic of television … and sound broadcasting.”

“Into the ether 250 feet” reaches an antenna “connecting far places by the magic of television … and sound broadcasting.”

Sources Cited

Baird, Iain. “Television in the World of Tomorrow”, Echoes Magazine, Winter 1997.

Barfield, Ray E. A Word From Our Viewers: Reflections From Early Television Audiences. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008.

Dunlap, Jr., Orrin E. “Act I, Scene I: Telecasts to Homes Begin on April 30 -- World’s Fair Will Be the Stage." The New York Times, March 19, 1939.

Early Television Museum. www.earlytelevision.org.

Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Fellow, Anthony R. American Media History. Indepdence, KY: Cengage Learning, 2009.

Fleming Jr., Dan B., “A West Virginia Boy at the New York World’s Fair.” Goldenseal Magazine, Summer 2004. http://www.earlytelevision.org/fleming_worlds_fair.html.

Herbert, Stephen. A History of Early Television, Volume 3. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2004.

"Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast." Elon University School of Communications. http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predicitions/150/1930.xhtml.

Kalan, Elliott. “The Original Futurama: The Legacy of the 1939 World’s Fair.” Popular Mechanics, March 2010. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/architecture/4345790.

Mauro, James. Twilight at the World of Tomorrow. New York: Balentine Books, 2010.

MZTV Museum of Television. http://www.mztv.com/mz.asp.

Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, Third Edition. New York: Exposition Publications, Inc., 1939.

Stashower, Daniel. The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television. New York: Random House, 2002.

“Trucks House Mobile Television Studio." Popular Science, December 1937.

Von Schilling, James Arthur. The Magic Window: American Television, 1939 - 1953. Florence, KY: Psychology Press, 2003.

Elliott Kalan is an Emmy Award-winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and a co-author of Earth: The Book. He also hosts Closely Watched Films, a monthly classic movie series at 92YTribeca, and co-hosts the film podcast "The Flophouse."

 

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