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CBS and Color Television

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In the period 1949-1952 I was chief engineer of a company deeply involved in battle over the technical standards that were to govern the transmission of color television programs. The outcome would affect the cost, the quality, and the nature of color television programming far into the future.

For many of the years of the Second World War, RCA [Radio Corporation of America] maintained (though it will vigorously deny doing so) an R&D [research and development] department aimed at post-war commercial television, so that, soon after the armistice, it placed on the market the first truly modern television receiver—the RCA 630[TS], based on a round 10” flat-faced kinescope. It was priced at $375—in 1947 dollars, a huge sum, yet one that did not deter buying by an enthusiastic public.

In 1946 RCA researchers began to seriously study the requirements for a color television standard that would be compatible with the existing black-and-white standard; that is, one that would let existing monochrome television sets receive color transmissions, albeit in black-and-white.

CBS [Columbia Broadcasting System] watched the progress of these studies with interest. It rightly foresaw that commercials in color would command sizable premiums. And, from its point of view, the sooner the better.

A strategy was formed to prod RCA and its huge pool of engineers into greater effort by making a competitive presentation, at little cost to itself. CBS’s director of research, Dr. Peter Goldmark, had developed, some years before, a color television system for remote viewing of operating room procedures in hospitals. The principle was childishly simple: a rotating disk, approximately three times the diameter of the face of the kinescope, and divided into three segments, each with a transparent filter in one of the primary colors, would be placed between the kinescope and the viewer. A similar disk, placed in front of the camera lens, would rotate in synchronism with the display disk. Thus, a red field presented to the camera produced a red field to the viewer’s eyes: because of retention of vision, the rapidly-spinning disk, flashing the scene in the three primary colors one after the other—one complete revolution of the disk per frame of the action created the illusion of full color.

Originally developed by Peter Goldmark for five-inch kinescopes, this approach has serious technical problems when used with larger picture diameters. For example, the horsepower needed to drive a disk rises nearly as the fifth power of the diameter; the control circuitry for maintaining synchronism becomes vastly more complex for more massive disks and drives; the sheer size of the disk becomes mind-boggling: a 19” picture requires a nearly five-foot diameter disk, driven by a ten-horsepower motor.

These, however, were not perceived by Goldmark as problems. In early 1950 [1949] CBS, tongue in cheek, made formal application to the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] for adoption of the rotating disk color system as the national broadcasting standard. No one in the industry expected application approval, but the thought that RCA might be spurred to greater action was welcomed by all. So as to make the effort more convincing, the CBS application was accompanied by prominent ads, placed in the major media and aimed at consumers, subtly suggesting a conspiracy to keep the benefits of color television from the American public, the catchwords being that color was here, color was practical, and CBS had it.

After some delay, the FCC responded by scheduling a hearing for all interested parties. To show its opposition, and the ridiculousness of the proposal, DuMont, the only television company manufacturing large kinescopes, hauled in a console with a 15” [30”] picture tube fronted with a disk driven by a five-horsepower motor, and requiring a hole in the floor to accommodate its lower rim. RCA, the unhappy target of the proceedings, was completely unprepared, demonstrating a jury-rigged contraption with exposed wiring connecting disparate parts. The CBS demonstration receiver, with a 10” picture tube that needed only a moderately sized disk neatly hidden in a floor console, performed flawlessly.

The FCC examiners were torn. On the one hand, the CBS approach was little more than a contraption, leading to receivers difficult to manufacture and patently unsuited for the larger kinescopes then under development. Against that, the CBS system, publicized by screaming ads, promised COLOR NOW. And the public, so recently unaware that there was anything wrong with monochrome television reception, responded with letters and telegrams. What had started as an effort to maximize revenue from spot commercials turned into a technological competition, and finally into a political brawl.

So as to extricate itself without losing feathers, the FCC arrived at a Solomonic decision: if two reputable television manufacturers were to testify that the CBS system was technically feasible and commercially sound, and if, furthermore, they were to back such testimony by producing television receivers to meet these standards, then the FCC would, in turn, certify the CBS system as the new US standard for color television broadcasting.

At this point the CBS brass began to be intrigued: maybe Goldmark's proposal was not really off-the-wall. Serious people, after all, making serious choices, had accepted it, albeit conditionally. Maybe, just maybe, CBS had something in hand much bigger than its people had thought. Enter Sears, or rather an assistant buyer at Sears who saw the possibility of a coup. Sears had just begun marketing television receivers, and their supply sources were two manufacturers in New York: Tele-Tone and Air-King, the latter a subsidiary of Hytron, a receiving tube manufacturer. Any buying entity, especially one as large as Sears, has obvious leverage over its sources. What occurred to this buyer (who shall remain nameless) was that he had the wherewithal to force two "reputable television manufacturers"—namely the two Sears sources—to testify that the proposed CBS system was practical, and that anyone buying CBS stock ahead of such testimony could come into possession of a small fortune.

His proposal that Sears be first to present color television receivers to its customers was quickly and innocently approved by the department head. A lucrative contract was offered to Tele-Tone and Air-King if they would testify to the FCC that the CBS system was practical, and thereafter produce television receivers to that standard. At this time I was chief engineer of Air-King. Up to the moment of FCC testimony I knew little about the [p. 2] program, or the technical aspects of the CBS system. The assignment to engineer a receiver around the concept of a rotating disk came as a surprise.

The technical problems were formidable. A television picture, like film, consists of a series of frames, repeating thirty times per second. The electron beam scanning and forming the picture is positioned by a specially shaped pulsed magnetic field. There is another relatively small magnetic field, undesirable but nonetheless always present, produced by a component called a power transformer. This field pulses at the sixty-cycle power-line frequency rate. Because it is exactly twice the picture frame-repetition rate, it is in synchronism with the picture, and its only effect is to slightly bend vertical lines. (Today's standard, in order to conform to the color sub-carrier signal, calls for a frame-repetition rate slightly out-of-synchronism with the power-line frequency: careful observation will show a very small, slow, wiggle in all vertical lines and the sides of a television picture; the wiggle is negligible because today's power transformers, driving transistors instead of vacuum tubes, are much smaller, and their stray magnetic fields almost insignificant.)

This problem is important because, for reasons that need not be discussed at this time, the CBS frame repetition rate had to be non-synchronous with the power line frequency. As a result, all vertical lines in the picture wiggled and shimmied. This became an area of contention between Goldmark and myself. He called for ever-increasing magnetic shielding around the power transformer, and larger power transformers, able to keep most of their magnetic field within their own mass, while I, privately railing against the stupidity of the entire approach, kept hammering away at the need to keep the product consumer-affordable. Occasionally Goldmark would be accompanied by both [CBS chairman William S.] Paley and [CBS president William] Stanton in his visits to my lab, the better to twist arms.

Non-synchronism was only one problem. The Sears contract called for the television receivers to be able to receive both CBS color and standard monochrome signals. A turn of a switch on the front of the television receiver was to accomplish the changeover. The task became awesome because of the many non-common components that needed switching, as well as the complexity of design of those that had to accommodate two widely different requirements. These very real problems are dismissed by the CBS people as childish bellyaching by over-pampered "techies," as if properly focused management procedures, properly applied, like a good sales promotion program, would solve all difficulties.

In spite of the technical problems, the mood at CBS was upbeat. Having won a surprise victory over giant RCA (a surprise as much to themselves as to the industry at large) CBS headquarters people now began dreaming of bigger things. Just as RCA had a license division (which, through its ownership of most of the significant patents, effectively controlled the radio industry) so CBS would also have a licensing division for its color patent. If RCA maintained a huge research laboratory, so would CBS—and started negotiations with Hazeltine Research Labs, a major R&D force in commercial and military technology. If RCA owned a vacuum tube and radio/television factories, so would CBS, and it promptly purchased the Hytron vacuum tube manufacturing company and its subsidiary, Air King, renaming it CBS-Columbia. (In the process, I became an employee—only somewhat removed—of CBS.)

In the meantime, the Sears buyer who had been instrumental in CBS's rise was unmasked by Sears's G-2 and promptly fired, only to be immediately hired by CBS as their head of the projected new licensing division. This would go RCA one better.

In the midst of all this, the North Koreans attacked [June 1950], and overnight the country was in a war that was felt in the electronics industry as an acute series of shortages. Components that had been freely available—vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, transformers, hardware vanished as if sucked up by a giant vacuum cleaner. We at Air-King were fortunate in being a subsidiary of Hytron, a vacuum tube manufacturer. The telephone became a swap center, as we called our friends in other companies, trading our surplus for theirs. Substituting components that were “almost” right for those that had been specified enabled the production lines to continue. But it made the contemplated production of CBS color receivers, on the margin of operational reliability even with everything exactly "right," impossible.

The final chapter was written by our executive vice-president, a man with “connections.” Shortly after the beginning of the Korean conflict he went before the war production board, and managed to persuade its members to issue an "order" to stop all research, development, and production of color television receivers so as to conserve critical materials. I distinctly remember the meeting in the boardroom when he returned. The company president opened the sideboard, took out whiskey and glasses, poured drinks, and proposed a toast that went something like: “May future generations view the CBS color television system with the same fond reverence now accorded the Stanley steamer.” With that we raised our glasses. The nightmare was over.

The next year RCA, having learned a hard political lesson, established an industry-wide technical consulting committee, called the NTSC, to fully develop and test a color-television standard that was, in nearly all aspects, the one that had been presented to the FCC, and rejected, three years earlier. Ironically, Hazeltine Research, the company that CBS had been angling to buy, did much of the advanced technical work that fine-tuned the RCA system and made it foolproof. Volume production of color television receivers started in 1954.

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