Museum Hours:

Saturday 10-6

Sunday 12-5

Mechanical Television

Mechanical TV Sets of the 20s and 30s

The concept of scanning a picture using mechanical means was first proposed by Alexander Bain in 1843. The scanning disk, which became the basis of mechanical TV, was proposed in 1884 by Paul Nipkow. At that time, vacuum tubes and photoelectric cells needed to make a television system didn't exist. The first mechanical television systems that produced real television images were developed by John Logie Baird in England and by Charles Francis Jenkins in the U.S. in the mid 20s.

Broadcasting began in the United States on the AM radio band (550-1500 kHz). In 1930, the Federal Radio Commission allocated channels in the 2 mHz band for experimental television transmission to allow higher resolution (45 and 60 line pictures) to be transmitted.

Picture quality was very poor, and the screens were only an inch or so wide and were usually made up of only 30 to 60 lines (compared to 525 lines in the present U.S. system). Most of these sets used a motor to rotate a metal disk to produce the picture,  with a neon tube behind the disk to provide the light. Later mechanical systems used the lens disk, mirror screw and mirror drum.  The Scophony system was the only mechanical system capable of high definition pictures, but it was developed at a time when the cathode ray tube had already been demonstrated as a better method of displaying television pictures.

By 1931, television was being broadcast from about 25 stations in the U.S., not only from the major cities such as New York and Boston, but also from Iowa and Kansas. Several manufacturers were selling sets and kits.

he frequencies used for TV broadcasting at that time could travel long distances, so reception was possible hundreds of miles from the station. However, the pictures suffered from not only poor resolution, but also fading and ghosting.

In Columbus, Ohio, Murray Mercier, born in 1912, was one of the first people to watch television. Here is his story.

In England, regularly scheduled 30 line television programming was first broadcast by the BBC in September of 1929 using equipment supplied by John Logie Baird.  At first, only the picture was transmitted for a few hours a week, after regular radio broadcasting was completed for the day. By March of 1930, sound and pictures were transmitted together. In 1933 Baird built a studio at the Crystal Palace.

Most countries in Europe had at least one mechanical station.

Because of the poor picture quality, mechanical television was not a success. By 1933 almost all stations were off the air in the United States, and in 1936 the 2 mHz television band was reassigned for police use. Mechanical television transmission by the BBC continued until 1935, and in the Soviet Union until 1937.

Gallery of mechanical sets
Database of surviving mechanical sets
Advertising literature
Technical information
American mechanical TV stations
European mechanical TV stations
Eckhard Etzold's Website
Peter Yanczer's Website


More on Mechanical Television

Amateur television broadcasting Mechanical Television - James T. Hawes' site
Another early Columbus, Ohio experimenter Mechanical theater projection systems
Bell Labs Mechanical transmission standards
California Television Society Mechanical TV replicas
Corona discharge in mechanical television Murry Mercier, Columbus TV experimenter
CRT receivers for mechanical transmissions Online films and videos
Crystal Palace transmissions Radio supply catalogs with mechanical television
Don Lee Broadcasting - making a disk Radium notes for television performers
Dutch 1932 television booklet Receiver schematic diagrams
Felix the Cat Recording Television
First British reception of U.S. TV Russian homemade mechanical TV
First Puppets on Television - By My Dad Sarnoff report on the status of television - ca 1931
First vaudeville show broadcast in Chicago Scanning belt receiver
Hollis Baird - a Canadian? Scophony mechanical receivers
Home Radio & Television service shop Siemens Artificial Eye
How television came to Boston Steam powered mechanical receiver project
How we display pictures on mechanical sets Television demonstrations
Light sources for mechanical receivers Television pioneers
Harry and Lela Lombard - Chicago TV in 1927? The Television Society - 1928
Magazine articles about mechanical television Television training schools
Mechanical sets at the Popov Museum in Russia Theatre Television

These sets are in our collection

Click on the Image for More Information

Baird Televisor (1929)

Baird Replica (1950?)

Color Mirror Screw Receiver (1933/2007)

Daven disks, amplifier, and neon (1928)


Daven TV Receiver (1928)

Fracarro 30 Line (ca 1930)

Daven Tri Standard (1928)

General Electric Octagon Replica (ca 1950)

Hollis Baird Receiver with Globe Scanner (1929)  

Hollis Baird C-3-S Shortwave Converter (1930)  

Jenkins JD-30 Receiver (1932)

Jenkins JK-20 TV Reciver Kit Box  

Hollis Baird 25/35 Receiver  (1930)

Hollis Baird 26/36 scanner

Jenkins 100 (1931)

Mercier 24/45 Line (1928)

Mercier 60 Line (1929)  

Mervyn Mirror Drum (1934)


Phol Paper Scanning Disk

Radio Television Institute Phototube (1936)

RCA 60 Line (1931)

Shortwave Converter (1928)

Western Visionette (1929

Western Empire State (1931)