Television born 75 years ago at World’s Fair

By Verne Gay
Newsday via McClatchy-Tribune

NEW YORK — The day was bright and sunny, much like the future the 1939 World’s Fair was promising.

The 35,000 guests who watched President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s opening day speech at the Court of Peace in New York City’s Flushing Meadows on April 30, 1939, were dressed in overcoats.

In a familiarly sonorous voice, FDR insisted America had “hitched her wagon to a star of goodwill,” then seemed to make passing note of a gathering storm overseas by concluding, “The United States stands today … united in its desire to encourage peace and goodwill among all the nations of the world.”

Radio networks carried the address, but some fairgoers could watch at the nearby RCA and Westinghouse pavilions, where televisions had been set up for display.

The fair was largely the vision of a “future” packed with household appliances, most of them the forgotten fever dream of some inventor — like giant robot Elektro, which could smoke and count to 10 on his robotic fingers.

However, a 1984 PBS documentary on the fair, narrated by Jason Robards, correctly noted that “amid all the false futures at the fair, the true futures were there, too.”

TV was the truest of them.

In fact, a few thousand homes in and around New York City could actually watch the president’s address that day.

Estimates vary on how many TV sets were out there — 2,000, 5,000? — but until this historic moment, there wasn’t much for the owners to see on them, even though the physical device to receive signals had been around in various shapes and forms since the mid-1920s.

The TV station, W2XBS — which would become WNBC/4 and which then had a studio at Radio City — experimented with a schedule the previous year for a few weeks.

But on April 30, W2XBS inaugurated regular programming to coincide with the opening of the fair, which — in the words of Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media — “was the coming-out party for television.”

Philo Farnsworth, one of TV’s inventors who had famously sparred with NBC chief David Sarnoff over patents, scoffed at the fair organizer’s (and Sarnoff’s) declaration that TV had been born on April 30, 1939: “The baby is being born with a full beard,” Farnsworth said.

Nevertheless, television as we now know it was born 75 years ago this month. Schedules, shows, sponsors and news — all of the building blocks of radio — would begin to be applied to television on April 30, 1939.

Average people who couldn’t afford the hugely expensive (from $200 to $600, and in today’s dollars $3,300 to $10,000) sets then on the market — and had no reason to buy one, anyway — could see for themselves exactly what the device could do, and it didn’t take much imagination to see the potential, either.

While television has changed wildly in the intervening years, the fundamentals have remained essentially the same.

Like that formative moment in Queens 75 years ago, TV now seems on the precipice of change.

Perhaps constant change is simply the new normal in an industry restlessly trying to recapture (with inconsistent success) the magic that made the past 75 years so memorable. Television now looks into its distant future and sees … static.

Of course, no one at the 1939 World’s Fair could begin to imagine what “the world of tomorrow” would become.

And absolutely nothing could have prepared attendees for what television would become.