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Early Television

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The Set: Pete Deksnis's Site about the CT-100

Restoring a Vintage Color Television Set


The first color television broadcasts in
the United States occurred three years
before the current NTSC system took
hold in 1954. Here's my version of the
Early Television
YOU MAY ALREADY have seen this experimental color television receiver image; the set was built for a December 1950 NTSC demonstration of a compatible color television system -- that's two months AFTER the FCC approved the CBS noncompatible system. Clearly, the technical community coupled with business interests thought there was a better way. Industry, under control of the General, battled the FCC-sanctioned CBS-developed color system on the legal front...

>>First, a Federal District Court in Chicago UPHELD the FCC decision to declare CBS' color television system the standard.
>>The setback merely caused RCA to press another legal challenge against the FCC action. This time, it would be before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Finally on May 28, 1951, the Supreme Court decreed,
"The District Court's judgment sustaining the order of the Commission is Affirmed."

Case closed?

Not really. Millions more b&w television sets were bought by consumers during the legal bickering (October 1950 to May 1951). So many, in fact, that it was enough to economically void a color system that obsoleted ALL existing television sets in the homes of consumers
whenever color was broadcast .

For a short while, some manufacturers made b&w television sets "color ready" by adding a rear-mounted connector that would allow consumers to buy a converter to either (1) receive color broadcasts in b&w, or (2) add a spinning wheel device to watch color transmissions in color.
But that didn't work either. Television manufacturers balked at the added expense and production pressures brought about by such a scheme.

An NTSC compatible system, although not to be perfected until mid 1952, held the promise of NOT rendering existing sets obsolete. "The New York Times" media reporter in 1951, Jack Gould, wrote after witnessing a demonstration of the still-improving compatible color television system, "Technically, it ultimately may be proved that the FCC committed a classic 'boner.'" Perhaps for those and similar reasons, there was one dissenting voice on the Supreme Court.

"The [CBS color] system sanctioned by the Commission's order will require the addition of an appropriate gadget to the millions of outstanding receiving sets at a variously estimated, but in any event substantial, cost. From the point of view of the public interest, it is highly desirable to have a color television system that is compatible."

Since in retrospect we know that even the compatible color television system didn't fly for many expensive years after its introduction in early 1954, how could the noncompatible system have succeeded, particularly with the offensive-mode assaults on the CBS color system by "The General" David Sarnoff?

Color wheel!
Frank Stanton.
FCC blunder?
December 1950 cover.
Early Television
The rest is easy history. After halting color TV production in October 1951 to conserve valuable resources for the war effort (as though there were a difference between what went into the booming b&w television manufacturing process and the stillborn noncompatible FCC-approved system), CBS president Frank Stanton pulled the CBS color plug in March 1953. [
I met Frank Stanton once in 1972, after he left CBS, at a press demo for another stillborn video product, Cartrivision (remember that?); he was its President. ] Ironically, CBS probably broadcast the first NTSC color program. It was reportedly from Studio 71, a small converted radio studio that CBS had set up and used in 1953 to further evaluate their sequential color system against the compatible NTSC color system.

The Background (from another page in this site.)
  • The earliest color television designs did not use a color picture tube. The early '50s CBS approach was to use a b&w kinescope and put spinning color filters between it and the viewer, with identical primary-color filters spinning in front of a black and white camera.
  • This was the basis of an FCC-approved CBS color system that broadcast programs occasionally during a few months in the summer of 1951. But nobody saw those shows because (1) nobody had a color TV because (2) nobody bought them, because (3) CBS-Columbia only manufactured a handful of sets (the model 12CC2), which were sold almost nowhere, and (4) the system broadcast a 405-line picture, whereas the over ten million existing television sets in the US received the standard 525-line picture.
  • To be fair, that color system, had it been given the opportunity to develop into an all-electronic system, would probably still have resulted in the ubiquitous presence of color TV we experience today, and it would have happened much, much sooner.
  • An all-electronic CBS color system would have used a color picture tube much simpler in design and easier to manufacture than the RCA tricolor 15GP22. But then again, the world would soon drop the lower-resolution 405-line system, as is evidenced by the British, who switched, although slowly, from their 405- to a 625-line system. We would have been stuck with an albatross, albeit a colorful one.
Early Television

For More About NTSC
[Click Here]

The Second
National Television System Committee
January 1950 to March 1953

Even though the FCC had approved the CBS sequential noncompatible color television system in October 1950, the NTSC did not disband, but continued to develop technical standards for a compatible color television system, of which RCA provided the core system and the tricolor picture tube. This second NTSC finally closed shop in March 1953 after recommending the current NTSC color television system to the FCC for its eventual, December 1953, approval.

Earlier, in mid-1951, the NTSC had proposed several standards that became part of the final proposal to the FCC. These were based upon the work and demonstrations of not only RCA, but by Hazeltine, Philco, GE, and others.

Early Television
[Created 4 March 2001. Updated 23 June 2002, 21 May 2006]


[Pete's musing on Who Invented Compatible Color Television?]
[A 2006 Investigation of a 'Color Ready' 1951 TV Set]

Version 1.1
Early Television