Thursday, March 17, 2016

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair publicly launched the first idea of the television and what it can do.

This publicity photograph from RCA emphasizes the wealth
and prestige of the first television viewers posed in front of the
TRK-12 RCA receiver.
Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library. 


BY DANIELLE SHAPIRO


Today, we take television for granted. It is everywhere, in different sizes and shapes, in our pockets and our living room walls. It is ubiquitous.

The idea of the television we know today was introduced to the American public in the 1920s and then more as a reality in the 1930s. John Vassos (1898-1985), an American artist and the Radio Coporation of America’s lead consultant industrial designer, played a critical role at the start of the television age, creating a shape for the first mass-produced televisions in America. RCA, a dominant force in radio production and broadcasting through its affiliate NBC, was a leading innovator in television technology and manufacturing. Vassos’s televisions were introduced in a big splashy presentation at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair and at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, also in 1939 and 1940. RCA’s broadcast of the opening of the World’s Fair marked the commencement of regular television broadcasts in North America and was the first opportunity for a large public to see television in operation. Vassos’s earliest television receivers used the then-futuristic idiom of streamlining to create a receiver design that became outdated before it hit the market.

The large TRK-12 receiver was named for its 12-inch screen. Vassos had been challenged to find an appropriate cabinet for RCA’s newest and most ambiguous technology. Indeed, the terminology “television” was still so new that the machine had not received its name and “receiver” more accurately described what the machine did: capture the transmission of television. RCA was unsure how to promote the new medium. Was it radio with pictures or something else?

The challenge of creating a shape for television forced Vassos to consider issues affecting design for the home for a truly new technology. The freestanding unit’s large mechanical parts posed a design difficulty. He chose to integrate some elements of radio in a design that is now considered a classic. The TRK-12’s importance to RCA cannot be underestimated. It suggests an instance of a visionary design worthy of study despite its failure in the marketplace due to a disruption in production during the war and advances in television technology that soon replaced the cumbersome receiver.

RCA, a leader in television manufacturing, introduced its premier technology at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Its opening speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 30, 1939, marks the advent of regularly scheduled broadcast programming in the United States. It aired on W2XBS, the predecessor of NBC. The ceremony was viewed by several hundred viewers on TV receivers inside the RCA Pavilion at the fairgrounds as well as on receivers installed on the 62nd floor of Radio City. Ten hours of programming, including shows from the NBC studio in Radio City, were played on the multiple receivers housed in the RCA Pavilion.


RCA - Harvey Gibson, "Miss Television," and James E. Robert
stand with an earlier iteration of the television, c. 1935-45.
Image from Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.



This striking receiver was the first thing that visitors saw upon entering the RCA pavilion along with Stuart Davis’s wall mural as a backdrop and illuminated by natural light from a spectacular glass curtain. The Phantom TRK-12, the one-of-a-kind Lucite version of one of four mass marketed televisions available in department stores, was mounted on a circular stage and surrounded by smooth curving metal bars. The object was like an exotic, beautiful, and perhaps dangerous animal held back by a cage. The effect on visitors is clear in the photo where they gaze at the receiver, not quite knowing what to make of it. Journalist Orrin E. Dunlap remarked on the rarity and cost of the object and the difficulty posed in mass producing it. He wrote:

by inspecting a special television set built in a glass cabinet visitors at Flushing have the opportunity to observe the complexity of the radio-sight chassis and why the machines are priced from $200 to $1,000. To see this gleaming glass encased instrument is to realize what a trick it is ahead to swing such an intricate outfit into mass production. It is evidence that the manufacturer as well as the showman has been tossed a challenge by the research experts who now anxiously watch to see what artistry can do with the new giant long-range eyes. (New York Times, May 7, 1939.)


An article shows curious spectators surrounding
TRK-12 televisions at various locations in the
New York City region.
Broadcast News, July 1939.
Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.


RCA released the TRK-12 for sale soon after the start of the fair. Stores were mobbed with bystanders—an image of a televised crowd watching television that would be replicated again and again. In many ways, the World’s Fair was the ideal place to unveil a new technology. The exhibit, like the fair as a whole, was meant to express the values of freedom from scarcity and hope for a future saved by technology and administered by big business. The timing was right for a look at the future since the country had endured a decade of depression and was on the verge of joining a war that had already erupted in Europe. These fears and hopes were expressed succinctly by President Roosevelt's opening address at the fair: “The eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.” This was literally the case as thousands of people at the Fair and at department stores around New York City watched and listened to his address on the new medium of television and dreamed of a new tomorrow.

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Danielle Shapiro is author of John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life. She is an independent scholar who has served as senior program officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. She earned her PhD in art history and communications studies from McGill University.


"John Vassos is a complex portrait of an artist and designer whose early illustration work criticized the tempo and commercialism of modern life but whose later design work took for granted those same qualities and attempted to accommodate people to them."
—Jeffrey L. Meikle, University of Texas at Austin

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