Hawes Mechanical Television Archive by James T. Hawes, AA9DT
Demise of Mechanical TV
Image: Sick television receiver

A HOST OF CAUSES led to mechanical television's demise...

WORLDWIDE DEPRESSION. Small outfits tended to back most mechanical television stations. Due to the economic blizzard of the Great Depression, most such operations couldn't sustain themselves over the long term.

ANTI-TRADE REGULATIONS. In the US, the FRC and later the FCC forbade experimental television stations from advertising. For that reason, stations lost a major revenue stream. Anyway, precious few consumers could afford to buy sets. Still, for a few years, part sales to amateur TV builders were a profitable venture.

DAVID SARNOFF'S RCA was extremely aggressive. It had capital when few others did. The company pursued an international program to develop television while putting rivals out of business. Meanwhile, RCA's famous television research campus attracted the brightest minds in the world.

Another part of RCA's strategy was to squeeze the life out of mechanical television. RCA would then introduce its brand of electronic television. RCA's research, public relations and marketing efforts overwhelmed its competitors. These campaigns also eventually brought television into our homes.

CRAZE. Yet for several years, the mechanical television craze raged on. Surprisingly, mechanical sets weren't all that hard to assemble. Many high school students went downstairs for the afternoon and slapped together the family television. The little, amateur TV market actually kept a tiny industry going. With so many unemployed people, hobbies like television building and TV entertainment became popular. Yet the craze couldn't last. Despite the interest, not everyone who enjoyed televised entertainment could build a set. The early television market rapidly peaked. Eventually demand dried up. Small set manufacturers didn't earn enough capital to support stations, programmers and talent. At least, not for the long haul. Besides, manufacturers could sell radios, but again, few television sets sold.

THE INDUSTRY hung together for about six years. During that time, television's technical and programming aspects developed markedly. A few years later, electronic television benefited from mechanical television's lessons. By that time, the last mechanical TV stations had moved to the VHF band.

MONTREAL. For example, VHF station VE9AK in Montreal, QC transmitted 180-line TV signals. William Peck's home receivers for this 1935 system included bright, sharp, ten-inch screens. Peck sets could project much larger images on the wall. French and German manufacturers also offered 180-line mechanical systems. A few years before, such impressive products might have led the market. In 1935 though, the mechanical TV craze was mostly over. Yet such elegant technology was a prototype for the electronic TV that soon followed.

RCA STRATEGY. Meanwhile, despite the Depression, RCA aggressively pursued worldwide television research and acquisition programs. RCA bought up cash-strapped competitors and shut them down. RCA also purchased the assets of bankrupt companies such as DeForest and Jenkins, including television patents. Laying groundwork for its international market, RCA developed cross-licensing agreements with Marconi-EMI and Telefunken. In fact, RCA owned HMV, an EMI component.

ALLEGED LIMITATIONS. Neither low definition, nor low "entertainment value" had much to do with mechanical television's demise. Make no mistake. What wrecked mechanical television was a pincer with many jaws. Again, here are three of the most important cutting edges: The Great Depression, trade restrictions and crushing competition from RCA. Then what about the "low entertainment value" of low-definition television? Many histories cite this reason. These histories ignore a few important facts: By the late 1930s, mechanical receivers from Scophony and TeKade could display large, 405-line pictures. If high definition determines entertainment value, then these mechanical sets offered entertainment value.

RELATIVE. But so-called entertainment value is a meaningless and relative term. Certainly, early television couldn't compete with movies. Yet mechanical television provided pictures suitable for many tasks. Mechanical TV is fine for talking-head video. For instance, standup comedy acts, interviews or news reading. Today's computer icons are low-resolution video. Still, these icons serve us just fine. Consider the millions of people who bought and played early video games despite low resolution. Watch any football game on today's TV. You'll enjoy low-definition long shots of players.

COLOR RESOLUTION. Speaking of color sports coverage brings up another fact: Color signals on today's analog TV have a horizontal definition of only 40 lines. In the 1930s, some mechanical TV systems had considerably better horizontal resolution. Fortunately today's TVs have a higher-definition, black-and-white picture behind the color picture. All the fine details appear in monochrome. You might never notice.

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