Even the most avid television viewers among us are probably unaware of the first-ever TV broadcast in the U.S. And, it might come as a surprise to that it occurred a good twenty years before comedian Milton Berle sparked the TV craze with Texaco Star Theatre in 1948.
Soon after Scotsman John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in late 1925 and early ’26, television development in America, England, and Germany continued at an ever-quickening pace, even as motion pictures were still making their own first steps into the sound era. A 1927 TV experiment, conducted via existing phone lines between Washington, D.C. and New York City, included the participation of Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover. Viewers at the AT&T labs in New York City both heard and saw Hoover and others in Washington take turns sitting at their “televisor,” over 200 miles away.
But the first over-the-air television broadcast in the U.S. emanated from what was to become the first TV station in the country. The unlikely location–Schenectady, New York–was the home of General Electric’s labs. The company’s headquarters had also been the home of their radio station, WGY. And it was from there, on January 13, 1928, that television pioneer E. F. W. Alexanderson initiated the historic first transmission available to the public.
On that day, David Sarnoff, general manager of RCA, told a handful of his invited guests that they were about to witness the demonstration of “an epoch-making development.” It was an event, he suggested, on par with the demonstration of wireless telegraphy by Marconi. G.E. company officials, engineers, and newspapermen were then ushered into a darkened room and crowded around two wooden receiving cabinets, each a little more than four feet high, and much resembling the phonograph cabinets of the time. Each cabinet housed a 3” x 3” screen. As the experiment began, the voice of Leslie Wilkins, of the General Electric testing department, came from the loud-speaker next to one of the cabinets. “I understand there is an audience in the receiving room now,” he said from the alcove from where he was broadcasting, “so now we will start.”
The image of his face then appeared, often floating back and forth slowly across the tiny screen, but it did come in clearly enough for details to be visible, including small gestures. He took off his glasses, put them back on again, and blew a smoke ring.
The group then witnessed a succession of individuals addressing the transmitter from that section of the laboratory. After Wilkins spoke, the next person to appear on the screen was Louis Dean, a WGY announcer. Dean offered his rendition of “Ain’t She Sweet?” accompanying himself on his ukulele, thus making it the first song ever sung on television.
In addition, and even more importantly, other groups had gathered around receiving sets in the private homes of E.W. Allen, Vice President of the General Electric Company in charge of engineering, Edwin W. Rice, Jr., Honorary President of the board of the company, and Dr. Alexanderson. The program continued for over two hours, as the signal covered roughly a twenty-mile radius, and was received on all of four home TV sets.
The following day, The New York Times declared in its front-page story that the successful broadcast “heralded another human conquest of space. Sent through the air like the voice which accompanied the picture, it marked, the demonstrators declared, the first demonstration of television broadcasting and gave the first absolute proof of the possibility of connecting homes throughout the world by sight as they have already been connected by voice.”
Sarnoff boldly predicted, even at that early stage, that television would eventually become a common fixture in the American household. Even with his P.T. Barnum-like penchant for hyperbole, he was quite on point when he promised, “The television receiver, as at present developed, will supplement and replace the modern radio receiving set in the home. Broadcasting of television, it seems clear, will develop along parallel lines with broadcasting of sound, so that eventually not only sound but also sight through radio broadcasting will be available to every home.”
Word of the success spread quickly, even across the ocean. In the first issue of Britain’s Television magazine, editor Alfred Dinsdale broke the news to his readers:
“It is part of our policy to give our readers detailed technical descriptions of the apparatus and methods used by experimenters the whole world over. For example, as we write these lines a newspaper dispatch informs us that the General Electric Company, of Schenectady, N.Y., has just succeeded in broadcasting television, through the world-famous broadcasting station, WGY, to four private homes. This means that the home television set is already in sight.”
The Schenectady TV station’s designated call letters at the time were W2XB, but was often referred to as WGY, the call letters of its sister radio station . Many in the area referred to the fledgling TV station as “WGY television.”
On July 2, 1928, just six months after the landmark experiment in Schenectady, stationW3XK began broadcasting from suburban Washington, D.C. The station was an outgrowth of the experimental lab work done by inventor Charles Francis Jenkins. He sold several thousand receiving sets, mostly to hobbyists, and, after receiving permission to start an experimental TV transmitting station, began to air programming five nights a week for the next few years, making W3XK first station in the country to do so.
In 1939, GE’s Schenectady’s station began its affiliation with the NBC-owned W2XBS in New York, making it the first affiliate of the NBC television network. And, in 1941, the first year of commercial TV broadcasting in the U.S., the station moved into the first TV studio in the country to be specifically designed as a TV studio. The following year the call letters became WRGB.
Four decades later, in 1981, WRGB became a CBS affiliate, and today continues to be the oldest continually operating TV station in the world.
Garry Berman is a pop culture/entertainment historian whose latest book, “For the First Time on Television” covers over 100 television “firsts” of the past 80 years.