The Development of Television and Radio Station Online


The development work at General Electric was led by Ernst Alexanderson. Then, as in earlier times, communication via letters between the different departments within General Electric was usual. In the collection of preserved documentation, which Alexanderson donated to the university library in his home town of Schenectady, there exist parts of the discussions about how to proceed with the development of the new technology. Alexanderson and his co-workers examined new designs, and after tests at the laboratory, a completed television receiver was developed for home use.



The apparatus that was used at this time is entirely different from transmitters and receivers of today. The transmitters and receivers gradually came to have a number of components of pretty much the same kind, such as a strong light source, a lens system, a rotary perforated disk or mirror drum, microphone, amplifiers for sound and picture signal and an antenna system on the transmitting side. On the receiving side, the picture signals were received over an antenna to an amplifier and converted to feed a neon lamp. The light from the lamp passed through a perforated disk or a mirror drum of the same kind as at the transmitter and this was adjusted to rotate at the same speed as the transmitter’s disk. The resulting variation in light intensity was projected as a line pattern on a piece of cloth or paper display and after magnification, the picture reached the eye of the spectator. The technology which Alexanderson used can be studied in contemporary general outlines of his television system.


In January 1928 Alexanderson was ready to start demonstrations with the new receiver designed by General Electric for home use. Here follows a description of his first impressions by the eye witness G.C.B. Rowe in Radio News under the headline “Television enters the home.”


“In a corner in a big room at General Electric’s research laboratory in Schenectady was installed an arc light, a fast rotating metal disk, four photo cells in a frame and lots of boxes.


“Nearby some people had gathered in a completely dark room with the exception of two light red luminous surfaces. These were approx. 3 inch square and objects for everyone’s glances. These pinkish luminous surfaces had caused many persons in the room to travel hundreds of kilometers from their homes to Schenectady. They bore witness that the entry of television into the home was not a dream but a fact.


“A young woman was sitting in front of the photo cells. Her face was patterned by sloping lines of light and shadow. She smiled, frowned, rolled her eyes and smoked a cigarette. Whatever was going on in reality was immediately truthfully reproduced on the pink luminous squares in the adjacent dark room. At the same time the sound from her conversation with an engineer in the dark room was heard from a loudspeaker. Thereafter a young man with a ukulele replaced her. Although the instrument was invisible – below the view of the camera – his voice and music was heard from the loudspeaker when his face appeared in the “magic square.” Immediately, of course, the question raised by the reader will be, how well were those faces appearing from the ether actually reproduced?


“Yes indeed, it was possible to see for example every detail in the features and each individual tooth. When the actor rolled his eyes the movement of the pupils could easily be followed. In short: the transmission of pictures of faces over radio can be compared with the quality of film pictures when the cinema was in its infancy.


“In three homes in different parts of Schenectady television receivers had been installed in order to show that home television was both a possible and a practically-viable technology. A short antenna was used to receive the wave length of 37.8 meters at which the television impulses were radiated. The results achieved on the television sets in the homes were of the same excellent quality as seen in the laboratory.”


A photographic image of the picture square on a 48-line receiver of Alexanderson’s design. The original picture measured approx. 7.5 cm square.



With the technology of the time the limitation was to reproduce the face and the shoulders of the actor in front of the camera. The quality of the transmission permitted a reasonable likeness of the facial features of a person, although precise details were missing.

This first demonstration for the press and public was a success. The optimism regarding the future of television was so great that Alexander-son, normally very moderate in his statements, predicted that television would within 5 years have the same status as radio broadcasting had in 1928.



Because of prior experience, progress moved rapidly, and especially the development of equipment for the transmitting side. The laboratory-like units and formations were replaced by more sophisticated designs. These allowed, among other things, extra flexibility in the specially built studios.

On the studio side also the apparatus had to be developed, just like the first TV receivers.

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The technical development of television had by the autumn of 1928 advanced to such a degree that the first televised theatre performance in the world could be shown.


The radio station WGY in Schenectady, cooperating with Alexanderson on the television transmission, was the first station in the world to employ a permanent staff in a “radio theatre.” Therefore it was natural to let the experience from the radio theatre become the basis for the production of the first television drama.


The play chosen was the one-act “A Queen’s Messenger,” written by J Hartley Manners in the year 1900, and several times performed on the stage. The play had two roles: the lady and the messenger. The story had been selected as possible to produce with only three cameras; one camera targeted towards each of the actors and one camera towards the props.


The TV version of the drama was similar to the one on stage, but many new problems regarding dramatic technique arose. The pictures of the actors were restricted to their faces and what they expressed.


The roles might therefore be elaborated by letting a camera show a male or female hand popping up on the screen. The hand could for example hold a gun that was fired or show a glass of wine, when the scene required such a picture to complement the lines of the actors.


The first performance took place on September 11, 1928, and the first transmission was made during the Schenectady station WGY’s ordinary TV time at 1:30 PM and another at 11:30 PM.


Mr. Mortimer Stewart was directing the performance. He was a well-known producer and director for a series of radio theatre performances at WGY during the spring 1927. He had also made many performances for the National Broadcasting Company stations in New York.



Stewart faced many problems. The narrow view of the camera caused the actors freedom of movement to be very limited. To get sufficient contrast in the picture the actors worked in front of a white cloth. Special problems concerning the actor’s make-up arose when the reddish picture had to have clarity and be focussed. The experience of makeup from that used in cinema and theatre was not entirely satisfactory, therefore special arrangements had to be made. Thus, the actor’s eyes were heavily accentuated – mouth and nostrils were marked with thick layers of color. The skin color was toned down and was leveled up to try to take away glossy skin. Diamonds or other reflecting stones could not be worn. They reflected the light considerably and brought a disturbing glare to the picture.


Let us now call on the studio and introduce the actors of an ongoing performance, through the picture below.



The theatrical performance had attracted a big crowd of journalists from the news and special-interest press, viewing the performance on receivers connected by wire to the transmitter.


But television could also be viewed on remote receivers with an excellent picture of the show, even on a receiver situated as far from the studio as 7 kilometers. On the same occasion, Alexanderson was able to show how television could also be spread to cinemas to reach a larger audience.


He had just finished the design of a special projector that one week later would be a hit at the Institute of Radio Engineers’ Meeting in Madison Square Garden, New York. Later, at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady (May 22, 1930), television performances for a large audience were provided. The telecasts came from the WGY studio or General Electric’s laboratory and were reproduced using Alexanderson’s projector. The picture was provided by “back-projection” and the audio went out to the auditorium by speakers framing the silver laminated screen.



During the 1930s the development of television was characterized by the changeover from earlier mechanical systems with a Nipkow disk or mirror drum to electronic systems. Among others, Vladimir Zworykin, Research Manager at RCA from 1929, improved his iconoscope, and the German Manfred von Ardenne his electronic picture scanner for the shooting and reproduction of pictures. In England Isaac Shoenberg, together with his colleagues at Electric and Musical Industries, including the celebrated Alan Dower Blumlein, led the development of the Emitron camera, and changed before long to an entirely electronic television system, and transmission on ultra short waves.


In 1936, the German Fernseh AG transmitted pictures from the Olympic Games in Berlin by use of a system where the events were filmed, and then the rapidly-developed film was scanned and transmitted to the television public with less than one half-minute delay in the course of events. In the same year, the BBC in London began regular live broadcasts from Alexandra Palace. To begin with, “competition” transmissions were performed for a fortnight with Baird’s improved mechanical system, and every other fortnight with Marconi/EMI’s fully electronic system. Further development of the television technology continued at GE which in the year 1938 built its own experimental studio in Schenectady, W2XB (later the name was changed to WRGB). Here, new electronic cameras were used, and receivers were built with electronic picture tubes to display a black and white image.


In 1939 RCA was transmitting television programs from the World’s Fair in New York City. Alexanderson followed this development with interest. In 1940 GE’s station W2XB was relaying RCA’s transmissions from the National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) station in New York City, and formed in this manner the embryo of an expanded television network.