Museum Hours:

Saturday 10-6

Sunday 12-5

Early Television Museum

Early Electronic Television

By the early 1930s it was clear that mechanical television systems could never produce the picture quality required for commercial success. Electronic television requires a cathode ray tube (picture tube) to display the picture, and some sort of electronic camera tube to capture the image. The cathode ray tube was the easier of these to develop, but the emergence of electronic television was delayed for years until a suitable camera tube could be developed. Though the documentary evidence is slim,  Vladimir Zworykin, while working for Westinghouse, probably demonstrated a crude line image on his Iconoscope camera tube in 1924 and the image of a cross in 1925. Philo Farnsworth, a young man with no electronics background, produced images on his Image Dissector camera tube in 1927. There is much disagreement about who was first. The Image Dissector required too much light to be practical for television, while the Iconoscope produced acceptable pictures with a reasonable amount of light.

Scheduled electronic television broadcasting began in England in 1936. For several years, the BBC had been broadcasting 30 line mechanical TV, using the Baird system. In 1935, the BBC assembled a committee to recommend what path it should take. The committee recommended that the BBC sponsor a trial broadcasts by two systems, one by Baird, with 240 lines, and one by EMI with 405 lines. For three months, the systems were to be alternated on a weekly basis, to determine which was superior. 1935 Popular Mechanics articles describes the competition and here is a short video clip about the Baird-EMI competition.

The Baird system used a mechanical camera for filmed programming, and Farnsworth image dissector cameras for live programming. EMI used Emitron (similar to the iconoscope) cameras for all programming. After a short time it was obvious that the all-electronic EMI system was vastly superior to the Baird system, and the test was stopped. Here is a video of a lecture given in 2005 about EMI's development of television.

A few months later, regularly scheduled programs began using the 405 line EMI system. Most of the programming was done from studios in Alexandra Palace, though the BBC experimented with remote programming too.

In the United States,  David Sarnoff, President of the RCA Victor company, realized the potential of television, and poured huge resources into its development, even during the lean years of the depression. RCA introduced electronic television to the U. S. at  the 1939 World's Fair, and began regularly scheduled broadcasting at the same time. CBS and Don Lee also began regularly scheduled programs. Here are some program schedules.

RCA initially marketed their line of TV set in New York City, with poor results. They then reduced the price, and conducted an intensive test marketing campaign in Newburgh, NY, where they met with little more success. Though the television audience grew in 1939, it was still very small, with only 2000 sets in use by April, 1940. Here is a 1943 advertisement by RCA which gives a timeline of the company's accomplishments.

France began broadcasting from the PTT building in Paris in 1935, and from the Eiffel tower in 1936 using a 180 line Nipkow disk camera and electronic receivers. Later, 455 line pictures were broadcast. In 1942, after the German occupation of France, Germany operated the station in Paris using their 441 line standard.

Germany was also active in the development of electronic TV before the war. Probably the most advanced pre-1945 receiver, the E1 Volkfernseher, was made in Germany in 1939. There was also some pre-1945 broadcasting in Italy.

Russia may have also produced TV sets before the war. TV stations were on the air in Leningrad (240 lines) and Moscow (343 lines) in the late 30s. According to a Russian website, 2000 model 17 TH-1 (7 inch direct view) and 6000 model TK-1 (9 inch mirror in lid) sets were supposedly manufactured in 1938-40. If this is true, more pre-1945 sets were made in Russia than in the United States. However, it is very likely that these production numbers are highly inflated. In fact, the sets claimed to be Russian made were probably imported from RCA in the U.S. in small quantities.

Many manufacturers introduced sets before the war. Some, like Zenith, were reluctant to join the race. Before the war, about 7000 sets were manufactured in the U.S., and about 19,000 in Britain.

World War Two interrupted the development of television. In the U.S. some broadcasting continued, but the manufacture and sale of sets stopped. In England, all broadcasting and TV manufacturing ceased until the end of the war.

Advertising Literature Picture Tubes
Broadcasting Test Equipment
Database Summary of surviving early electronic sets TV Stations in Europe before the end of WW2
Eckhard Etzold's Website TV Stations in the U. S. before the end of WW2
Gallery of early electronic sets


More on Early Electronic Television

Amateurs in television broadcasting Models, Makeup and Fashion for Television
Antennas NBC pre-1945 programming
Articles about early electronic television NBC pre-1945 studio tour
Auto designer Brook Stevens interview Online films and videos
Build Your Own TV - magazine articles and modern replicas Parts and equipment catalogs
Broadcasting from an airplane Prewar sets at the Popov Museum in Russia
Cigarette card - 1937 RCA's Russian TV Connection, by James O'Neal
Comparison of British and American pre-1945 sets Recording Television
First U.S. TV set for sale to the public School yearbooks with TV themes
Franklin Roosevelt's pre-1945 TV sets Technical data on pre-1945 sets
Frequencies and Standards Television demonstrations
General Electric 1944 brochure Television in Department Store Marketing
Get Ready Now to Sell Television - 1944 book Television pioneers
How many pre-1945 sets still exist? Television training schools
How pre-1945 picture tubes were made Theater television systems
London Radio/TV shop TV during World War Two
Long distance (DX) television reception Union Carbide 1945 advertisement
Lucite TRK-12 replica project Uzbekistan - 1928 TV experiments?

American Sets in our collection

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Andrea 1-F-5


Andrea Kit in Custom Cabinet  

Andrea KT-E-5

Andrea 2-F-12

Andrea 8-F-12

Bell & Howell Projection 

DuMont 180

DuMont 183X

General Electric HM-171 

General Electric HM-185 

General Electric HM-225

General Electric HM-226

General Electric Model 90

Meissner 10-1153 Kit  

Meissner 10-1153 Kit in Factory Cabinet

RCA RR-359





RCA 1939 Kit Chassis

Sparton 10B

Westinghouse WRT-700

Westinghouse WRT-701  

Westinghouse WRT-702

Westinghouse WRT-703

British Sets in our collection

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Baird T-18C *

Baird T-23 

Cossor 54

Cossor 137T

Cossor 1210

Ekco TA201 

HMV 900

HMV 901

HMV 902

HMV 904

HMV 905 

HMV 907 

HMV 1800  

Marconi 702

Marconi 705

Marconi 707 

Marconi 709

Murphy A58V

Pye 815

Pye 817


Unidentified Model