Postwar American Television
The First Transvision Television Set
An Experience of Mark Flomenhoft
This story was provided to us by Charles Harper, who got it from Mark's brother Hugh. The Transvision kit we have in our collection is this set.
In June of 1943 I was at a very low ebb. My first employment after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in early 1943 had turned into a disaster. I just did not know how to get started on any of the assignments given to me at the Hazeltine Corporation, my first professional employer. In June of that fateful year, I was fired. This dismissal was the only one of its kind in my entire life. Later, when I was in the Navy Eddy program, which was a training course for electronic technicians, I was exposed to circuits of many kinds, and something within me clicked. I learned what I had not known at Hazeltine, and I became a successful designer of electrical circuits. But that competence came about later in my life, after the war.
I was drafted into the Navy in June 1944, and, after ten weeks of boot camp, I was assigned to a school at Navy Pier in Chicago training electronics technicians. This was called the Eddy Program to develop technicians to work on the new radar systems which were being installed on Navy ships and which were giving the U.S. Navy a great advantage over the enemy Japanese vessels. There was a dearth of technicians to keep these radar systems operating and the program to train a large number of them was crucial for the Navy. I spent almost two years on active duty and was separated on May 17, 1946.
Although I was already a graduate electrical engineer, I still had much to learn about servicing the new equipment. In the course of time, I became an extremely successful trouble-shooter. I don't think I ever failed to find the defect implanted by the instructor for test purposes. My recollection is that I always found the fault, so I am still somewhat mystified that I was promoted in grade only once, at graduation Maybe I was not as good as I thought I was.
But let us return to June of 1943. With the most horrific war of history raging in Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific, it was an extremely perilous time to be out of work and not employed in a crucial defense job, as I had been at Hazeltine. That is why I quickly consulted the employment section of the Sunday newspaper and learned that the Lansdale Tube Company wanted engineers. A telephone number was provided, and I was invited to visit the plant. I promptly took the old Reading Line from their North Broad Street station. You might say that I was snapped up, because I was put to work immediately. Not all of the cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) manufactured by the company met government standards and those which failed were labeled "shrinkage." It was my assignment to ascertain the causes of shrinkage and to reduce it. My recollection is that I had some success and became a fixture on the engineering staff. But that is a separate story which I will not dwell on here.
The reason why I brought up that experience is that it was at the Lansdale Tube Company that I met Herb Sussholz, with whom I became extremely friendly. What he saw in me I really don't know, because I was extremely backward and underdeveloped socially. In fact, I was a Republican then (which today I regard as an indication of underdevelopment), thanks to the influence of Joe Emley and my impressionability. Emley was a fine elderly gentlemen who was a frequent companion of my widowed mother in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He passed away during the war years. I don�t know what there was about me to like at that remote time, but Herb did, and in time threw a party for me when I was classified 1-A by the draft board in the spring of 1944. That was the only party anyone ever gave me in my entire life.
Now let us shift ahead to 1946 after I was out of the Navy. I had been lolling about, blissfully unemployed, when I suddenly received a call in August from, of all people, Herb Sussholz. He wanted me to come right then to see him in New Rochelle, New York, if I wasn't working, as he had an interesting proposition for me. When I arrived in the reception room of Herb's New Rochelle headquarters, the first thing to strike my eyes was what appeared to he about a half dozen television sets. Although I had heard of television demonstrations, at the 1939 New York World's Fair, for example, I had never seen a television receiver before. I was very familiar with cathode-ray oscilloscopes for technical purposes, of course, but here there were pictures on the CRTs which were moving, not static, so I realized that these were actual television sets. Even though these sets were very crude, not being mounted in a fine cabinet or console, they still had the distinction of being the only television sets which I knew of to exist at a time when there were no RCA, Philco, or DuMont sets as yet on the market. Of course, the pictures were only black and white in those days.
I noted that the vertical panel was a light tan in color, composed of a composition material about 3/8ths of an inch in thickness, about twenty inches high and about twenty-live inches wide. The CRT was mounted in the middle near the top and was only seven inches across the diagonal. Across the bottom of the panel were three controls, an on-off volume control, a station selector, and a picture intensity control. The panel was attached at the bottom to a heavy, metal chassis. Behind the panel on top of the chassis numerous tubes and other electronic components were visible. I also noted for the first time that the television sets had the name "Transvision" on them.
When I was led into Herb's office, I found him just as congenial and personable as he had been at the Lansdale Tube Company. First, he greeted me effusively as a long-lost friend. He asked me about my experiences in the Navy and my negative response caused him to move on quickly. He told me about coming upon Sam Carlisle at a party and learned that he was designing and building a television set at home as a hobby. When he later saw the pictures produced by the set, he became excited about it, despite its flaws and imperfections. What if he collected all of the parts and components into a box and told everyone that here was a chance to be among the very first to own a television receiver at a very low price by assembling it themselves? Of course, he would have to provide a readily understandable set of instructions that anyone with the ability to use a pair of pliers, a wire cutter, a screwdriver, and a soldering iron could follow. Without such instructions, the idea would simply not work. I began to sense that Herb was calling on me to create the requisite instructions. But Herb did not ask me right away. He discoursed on the history of his Transvision Company.
First of all, he disclosed that his wife was the sister of Abe Burroughs, who became a big name in show business. He was the collaborator with Frank Loesser in writing the musical "Guys and Dolls," one of the great shows in the history of Broadway. Burroughs was also the creator and writer of "Duffy's Tavern," which had a very long run on radio. His major success came later, after my experience at Transvision I think that it was through Burroughs that Herb met Emmanuel Cohen, a Wall-Street type who financed the Transvision Company.
At that point, he could offer Carlisle a full-time job to work on the perfection of his television receiver. He also could order numerous chassis cut to the appropriate specifications and a supply of parts. There were several other employees at the time of my visit, including a secretary-receptionist, a technician and an engineer whose function was unclear to me. He also provided a sales outlet for his product when he would have a product to sell.
Another person to be counted among Transvision personnel was Jerry Cohen, the profligate brother of the financier, Manny Cohen. In the account books of the company, he was another employee, but because he was the brother of the financier, I hesitate to lump him with the other employees. How relieved Manny Cohen must have been to be given a place to put his problem brother, who was made the Treasurer of the new company. Jerry Cohen has no significance to my story except that he took me for a tour of Providence night spots and giving me the most enjoyable evening of my entire life. What I particularly remember is that I became "sozzled" for the first and only time of my life.
Herb described what his contact at Gimbel's Deptartment Store exclaimed when he saw the Transvision receiver in operation for the first time: "Now this is remarkable." He must have been puzzled when told that Transvision had no intention of selling assembled receivers, but that the purchaser would have to assemble the set himself. He assumed that the public was so hungry for television that they would be happy to assemble the receivers themselves. The Gimbels manager was persuaded to wait for the instructions. Then Herb, in relating this story, paused and then said to me, "And this, my friend, is where you come in." In response, I practically yelled "What!" I was then shown a large box with a lot of nameless parts and I immediately thought, this situation is hopeless -- what I see here is a chaos of disassembled parts. I repressed all of these thoughts, but I did point out that I had never in my life written assembly instructions before and I did not think I could. But Herb was not perturbed. He told me that he knew very well that I could write them. So that I could not refuse, be took me by the arm and took me to a typewriter on a desk and a workbench on which there was a huge box of electronic parts, tools, and an operating television set. He told me to spend the rest of the day thinking the matter over and if, by the morning, I decided to go ahead with it, he would make it all worthwhile to me financially. As for sleeping quarters, a nice room had already been arranged. In the end, I consented, but I actually had little choice, and the thoroughness of the preparations definitely intrigued me.
While the typewriter stood inert on the desk, I stared into the box for a short while. I soon decided that I could assemble the set with the aid of the circuit diagram. Having done that, I could decide how to write the assembly instructions. I did not proceed very far from starting construction of the set when I realized that I could write the instructions concurrently with assembling the parts physically. To my surprise, I quickly discovered that this procedure was the correct one. My second surprise was that the task turned out to be very easy. And so I did it, although it was quite tedious. Mechanically I was slow, and my typing was slow as well. I should have been able to do the job in - never mind how long it should have taken - I actually completed the instructions in less than a month. During the time I was working, what Herb observed when he peered into the room, he saw me there working very steadily. He must have been both pleased and reassured.
But hold on a moment. How could I know that these instructions were really valid and unflawed? Now, it is true that I never bad to backtrack, that is, I never had to take parts apart because they were in the way of other parts I needed to introduce. I had organized the sequence of assembly well. But if I connected the antenna and switched on the power, would I see a picture or would I see smoke? I switched on the power and saw a picture on the CRT. No smoke or sparks. Oh, these instructions were valid, all right! The mission I had been given at Transvision had been successfully completed.
I began to recall what Herb had said during our first conversation after I had arrived in New Rochelle. "The success of the company rests on three cornerstones," he had said, "First, there was the television set itself that Sam Carlisle had designed. Then there was the financing and the sales outlets that Herb had provided. Finally, there were the instructions for assembling the receiver. Without such instructions, there would be no product to sell, and without a product to sell, there would be no company." Well, all right, I thought to myself, here is the missing cornerstone, the assembly instructions. Here they are, filed away very carefully. Still I did not proceed right away to Herb's office with the instruction manual. I began to think about how much I enjoyed the job, how much I liked New Rochelle, and how much I wanted to remain at Transvision. Would that be possible? Did Herb have anything else he wanted me to do? Was there another cornerstone somewhere?
Wait, it was time to deliver the instructions to Herb and find out. He was overjoyed when I handed the pages of the manual to him. There was a bubble of anxiety in him, but it came out with such an exclamation of relief that he exhaled forcefully. All of that I observed very carefully. Then he became skeptical. "how do you know if these instructions will work and can be used by a typical purchaser?" he questioned, eyes narrowed. "How much help did you need to get your set working?" When told that my receiver came right on and I needed no help, his expression did not change. He said that he would have to verify the instructions by having Louis, the technician, and Everett Shinn, the engineer, use the instructions-to assemble two more sets. Suppose I found something to do in the meantime. They didn't finish until the following morning. They both pronounced the instructions a success. They had no trouble in following them, and both sets worked right away.
"What about the language?" Herb asked, "Was it too 'hifalutin' anywhere?" "No, the language was very straightforward," Everett Shinn replied, "In one place, he said, 'Unwind the nut resolutely.' And that was just the right word to keep the assembler from thinking that the nut was actually stuck. These are excellent instructions, Herb."
A load of anxiety must have been lifted from Herb's shoulders. He called me into his office and introduced me to Everett Shinn. Louis, whom I already knew, shook my hand in congratulations. Herb and Everett did the same. Everybody was very happy. Herb broke out a bottle of Scotch and everyone had a drink. Everybody, that is, except me, I didn't know how to unbend. But this shortcoming didn�t dampen the atmosphere, which was one of joy and triumph.
Herb asked me to stay for a moment after the other two had left. He called in a huge, pudgy man, whom he introduced as Joe Green. Herb explained that Green was a history teacher in the New York City school system. Herb went on to say that Green was going to write a series of exercises for the students based on the television receiver. This left me puzzled and disturbed. I didn't see how anything Green wrote could have pedagogical value to the students, but, even more important than that, how two writers could serve the company at the same time. However, I was too happy at the moment to let this question burden my mind.
"Oh, Mark," Herb said, before I left the room, "Ev is driving to Philadelphia this weekend. Why don't you drive with him and take the television set you assembled?" Shinn and I did drive to Philadelphia that weekend, and what I remember is that we took turns telling smutty stories during the entire drive. Furthermore, neither of us faltered for an instant when it was his turn.
The first boxes with assembly instructions went out to Gimbels on Monday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, Transvision received its first check. By Wednesday, a party for the company and its employees had been set at some nearby hotel. I cannot state the name of the hotel, because no one told me about the party. I did not learn about it until the following morning, Thursday. Someone asked me why I hadn't been there. I was the only employee who had not been invited and who did not attend. I felt that a heavy blow had smashed my senses. I was stunned. The only thing that was clear to me was that I wasn't at the party because Herb did not want me there. Well, something else was clear to me as well. Writing the instructions was the only job Herb had for me. After that, nothing else would be forthcoming. I walked into his office and closed the door. The expression on his face was extremely tense.
"Herb," I said, "I've come to resign my position." His countenance was extremely dark, but he said nothing. "And I want to leave immediately." Finally, he said something. "I have no doubt," he said, "that you will be extremely successful at whatever you do next." "Goodbye, Herb," I said, and walked out of his office. I don�t know if anyone spoke to me as I walked to the front door. If anyone did, I did not respond. After all, they were all part of the conspiracy. I do know that no one walked over to escort me or to offer me a ride. I walked to my room, picked up my valise, paid my bill, and walked to the train station. The valise was heavy, but I managed. Soon I was on a train headed to New York where I would get another train back to Philadelphia.
Nothing was said about the few dollars the company owed me. Whether I ever received them, I don't know. Nor do I know whatever happened to the company.
By the time I was on the train traveling to New York, my shock over having been excluded from the festivities of the previous night had subsided. I quickly understood that the reason for my exclusion was to goad me into doing what I had just done. That is, to resign, so that Herb would not have to fire me. So I had played into his hands like a fool, hadn't I? Well, I didn't feel like a fool then, and I don't now. The best thing I could do would be for me to put the Transvision chapter of my life behind me quickly and quietly.
Herb's perfidy went much deeper, of course, than banishing me from a victory celebration that I had helped to make possible. What I have only recently come to realize is that the entire incident was a hoax. When Herb originally called me from New Rochelle to urge me to call on him, he let me think that he was offering me a job, long-term employment but the only job he had was the writing of the assembly instructions, and after that nothing else. After completing that job, I was going to be fired, one way or another.. Would I have traveled all that distance in 1945 for just one job? I doubt it, and Herb doubted it, too. That was why he let me believe thathe was offering long-term employment, a real job. He did what he did because he was desperate for assembly instructions. I was the only one he knew who could give them to him.
What Herb should have been doing was to work on new products. At the very least, they should have been working on CRTs with magnetic deflection, instead of the electrostatic deflection that was then being used. Furthermore, although a seven-inch CRT was acceptable at that time in an infant industry, it would not suffice very long. I saw no sign of any work being done with magnetic deflection. Carlisle was just puttering with improving the basic seven-inch receiver which he had designed.
But who cares!
Note: Mark died on September 10, 2004.
Mark must have forgiven Transvision, since he wrote this rather complimentary article in 1948