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Postwar American Television

William Mayer

The following was written by Bill Mayer Jr., about his father's experiences with TV after world war two in Springfield, Ohio. William Mayer built the home made 1949 set in our collection. He also made an experimental circle antenna to pick up distant stations.

Dad would have begun building TV sets and experimenting with antennas shortly after World War II. All of the work was done at our home located at 909 West Columbia Street in Springfield, Ohio. The circle antenna was tested in 1948; the TV set was built after that in the early 1950s. This was the last set dad built and was for family viewing.

The picture tubes of that era were made of glass and limited to a small size due to their delicate structure, vacuum and consequent high risk of implosion. (One of dad's proudest exploits was salvaging such a TV tube, quite expensive at the time, for a friend by painstakingly separating a melted yoke from around its neck without damaging the tube itself.) With few exceptions, a 12-inch diagonal picture was the largest available and most sets used smaller 9- and 5- inch tubes. It should be noted that the TV tube in this set was housed separately because of this fragile nature.


Where Do I Point The Antenna?

I recall dad and I climbing out of a window onto the first story roof, side stepping up to the hip of that roof, where he would then boost me up to the second story roof, hand me the experimental antenna and then lift himself. We then approached the chimney (the highest point on the home) against which I would brace myself to hold the antenna. At this point, we'd begin the exercise of "pointing" the antenna toward our target (Cincinnati's WLW-T) until the picture shown to my mother and sister was clearest. They sat and intently watched an "unhoused" receiver in the living room for the point of best reception.

This exercise would have followed nights in the basement where my father would bend pieces of copper or aluminum tubing around some galvanized wash tubs (of varying configurations) and then mount the "circles" (one of which you see here) on an old broom pole. The configurations ranged from this more complex circle within a circle stacked on top of another circle within a circle to a single circle within a circle to a stand-alone single circle.

The front of the antenna had to be directed at the target. It was best to use a compass or knowledge of the target's location (a TV station) and then search out the best signal for that target. We'd slowly rotate the antenna to pick out peak reception then tighten the mounting bolts. It wasn't long before dad motorized the antenna, however, because the wind and other factors necessitated being able to continuously fine tune the reception signal.

I remember the exhilaration we got from hearing and seeing things from all over the world when conditions were right. On those occasions, we would "troll" the air for signals from far-away targets. By simply rotating the antenna until the best signal was found, we were able to get programming from stations as far away as Texas and the United Kingdom.

Dad abandoned development of the circle antenna when the Lazy X model became available and proved to provide better reception (a clearer picture).


What's on?

There really wasn't much programming available. Normal reception was limited to WLW-TV in Cincinnati, which "signed on" for the first time February 9, 1948. Its biggest programming night, Saturday, began at 7:25 PM and ended around 9:30 PM.  "The Midwestern Hayride", an hour long live show broadcast from Cincinnati, began at 7:30 PM and was followed by a Tom Mix cowboy movie at 8:30. That was it! Since the Crosley's owned not only WLW-T but also the Cincinnati Reds' baseball team, some of the Red's games were also telecast.

The reception for these in Springfield, however, was poor. There was a lot of "snow" in the screen; the picture lacked clear black and white contrast. Distance, weather and signal were factors. Thus there was an almost insatiable hunger for more programming, which spurred the search for a better antenna.. Crosley Broadcasting officials estimated that, by the start of 1949, only 2200 television sets were in operation in central Ohio.

The premiere of Texaco Star Theater, featuring Milton Berle, ushered in a whole new era for TV - week night entertainment! This boosted commercial sight-sound broadcasting at WLW. By early 1949, there were three links in the Crosley chain: the mother station WLW-T in Cincinnati, now more than a year old, WLW-D, Dayton, and WLW-C, Columbus. By this time, they were offering from 25 to 30 hours of television programs each week with test pattern periods preceding telecasts. Television programs from Cincinnati were beamed at WLW-C via WLW-D in Dayton and a microwave relay station at Mechanicsburg. (Dad worked on construction of this tower).


Dad's obsession with the test pattern!

When you turned the TV on it took time to warm up and the picture on that small screen would then kind of unfold for you. Dad would always want to get the test pattern (a sort of bullseye the stations broadcast when active programming wasn't on) so that he could adjust the TV's reception before programming began. Otherwise the vertical and horizontal were not right and the picture wasn't clear or the characters misshapen. Programming always ended with the playing of the national anthem. When you turned the TV off, the picture went from a full screen to a tiny spot in the middle of the screen before finally fading away. Then the next viewing would begin with the test pattern and dad making those critical adjustments of the picture... He actually enjoyed the necessity for this!


William J. Mayer, Jr.