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Mechanical Television

Chicago Television History Mystery

We received this email from Linda Ellis:

I have been trying to learn more about the first midwest (Chicago) experimental television broadcast that I believe took place in 1927.  My grand-uncle was Harry Lombard.  Harry and his wife, Lela Fairchild Lombard were radio performers as well as chatauqua entertainers.  I have some information from some of their interviews that state that they were called to the Davis Hotel in 1927 but they didn't realize at the time the reason. 

I have been trying for years to learn more about their broadcast in 1927 in Chicago via libraries and Chicago newspapers, but with no luck. 

I realize you are a television museum, but I thought you might have some suggestions.  Harry Lombard lived in Columbus, Ohio for a time. 


She frequently referred to themselves as "guinea pigs" because on short notice they were asked to appear on telelvision in 1927.

From the "Chicago Daily Tribune" (1923 - 1963) February 5, 1963 ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849) pg. B10:

Beloit Daily News, May 16 1972


Harry Lombard, 74, formerly of Chicago, a veteran radio entertainer, died yesterday at his home in Beloit, Wis. He took part in the midwest's first experimental television broadcast in 1927.

Lombard and his wife, Leila, worked as an entertainment team after their marrige in 1917. Before his marriage, Lombard had been a baritone with the English Opera Company.

There is no doubt that the Davis Hotel, named for its owner and general manager, James H. Davis, opened on May 16, 1927 after a whirlwind construction period of less than a year; that the 14-story, 350-room property was designed by the renowned Chicago architects Rissman & Hirschfield and built for $3 million (approximately $40 million today) and that Allan Hurst took over the building in 1931 in a state of financial distress, renamed it the Hotel Knickerbocker and managed it until his death in 1959.

So, we know that the Davis Hotel, which is now the Knickerbocker Hotel opened on May 16, 1927 so the event that Lela Lombard described took place there happened after that date.  And, so far that is the best I could do.  She seemed to describe it fairly well as far as what she remembered how it went down for them and what they did.  But, so far I haven't found any write-ups in the Chicago newspapers.

If you have any suggestions, I would appreciate hearing from them.  I was hoping a news story ould have been printed at the time about their 1927 television broadcast in Chicago, but I do not have an exact date either.

The earliest Chicago television experiments we know of were at W9XAA in mid 1928, and at W9XAO in 1929. The description by Lela Lombard of the event (bright lights, camera on tripod) don't make sense for 1927 technology. The only cameras available at that time were flying spot scanners, with televising done in total darkness. Also, all transmissions at that time were video only, so the orchestra makes no sense.

Another article surfaced recently, which probably explains the mystery:

The memories probably got confused. It sounds like they performed on the radio from the Davis in 1927, and on television around 1940. The description of the camera, lights and orchestra fit a 1939-41 time frame.

Mechanical TV started about 1927 and was dead by 1933 because it wasn't good for entertainment programming. Electronic television started about 1936 and came to Chicago in 1939. There were two stations; W9XZV, which was owned by Zenith, and was primarily to allow Zenith to design TV receivers. It came on the air in 1939.

The second station, W9XBK, came on the air in 1940 and later became WLS. It did television demonstrations (closed circuit) in 1939, and started broadcasting in 1940. It is likely that the Lombards appeared on WLS in around 1940.

If you have any information on this, please email us.