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Early Electronic Television

A Brief History of German Prewar Television

Telefunken "Blockfernseher"

German Television - mid 30s (APTS video)

By Nat Pendleton

The German government and several electronic firms (Telefunken, Fernseh AG, Loewe, etc.) backed the development of electronic television almost at the start of the Nazi regime.  A 180-line system was developed around 1933 or 34 and was field tested around the Berlin area. The Germans pushed for a public system to show off during the 1936 Summer Olympic games, which were also held in Berlin. This activity was all part of the "race for television" where England, the USA (RCA, Don Lee and Philco) and Germany all wanted to be first to introduce an all electronic television system. The Germans used (with permission) the technologies of both Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin in their TV system.

By the time the Olympics rolled around, the Germans were still only transmitting 180-line pictures. These were fuzzy and could be considered a technological bridge between the obsolete mechanical systems and modern television. But the Germans did offer regular service with a broadcast schedule from this time until well into the war. The German's regular TV service remained at 180 lines until February of 1937 when it was increased to 441-lines, curiously only a few weeks after RCA had also increased to 441 lines.

Popular Science, November 1936

Popular Mechanics, 1936

The opening ceremonies. A TV camera can be seen in the center.

The German service using 441 lines remained in service at the Witzleben transmitter site until 1943 when it was hit during an American bombing raid. Curiously, or should I say bizarrely, the Germans took their TV system and service with them to occupied France. They transmitted off the Eiffel Tower from about 1942 until their retreat in 1944.

From 1936 until 1939 Germans in the Berlin area could watch a variety of programming by paying 1 Reichsmark admission to a special television theater (called "Fernsehstube" in German). A few sets were placed in these theaters which usually were adjacent to German post offices (the post office usually administrated broadcasting in European countries). After the war started, TV sets were placed in military field hospitals (Lazaretten) so that wounded soldiers could watch programs. This was the primary function of the German-run Paris station as well. The soldiers usually saw cabarets and newsreels.

Popular Mechanix, October 1938

The "Volkfernseher" (People's TV) was made by several companies simultaneously: Fernseh AG, Lorenz, Radio AG D.S. Loewe, Tekade, and Telefunken. It was officially called "Einheitsfernseher E1" (Einheitsfernseher would best translate as Standard TV or Universal TV. Einheit means unity). Only 50 E1 TVs were actually made. The E1 was supposed to be the first set offered to the public for the advertised price of 650 Reichsmarks (About $170), quite a good deal considering the price of the 5 inch vision only RCA TT-5 was $199.95. The first date of sale was to be September 1st, 1939. These "sales" never happened since the Nazi regime invaded Poland instead starting the Second World War.

The E1 looks identical to the Philips model 2405, sold in England. 

German sets that still exist (consoles etc.) were never released to the public for sale. Only engineers, the official Post Office viewing rooms and some high-ranking Nazi Party officials got them.