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CBS' 1931 "Television Girl" Discovered!

Discussion in 'Radio' started by Fletch, Nov 13, 2008.

  1. Just when I fake-apologized about my "irrelevant" obsession with disc scanner TV, I discover this piece from the Antique Wireless Association.

    They do one television piece per issue, and 4 years ago it was an interview with then-96-year-old Natalie Towers. In 1931, Ms. Towers was a singer-actress applying for a radio job at CBS—but was instead chosen to be the spokeswoman for W2XAB, their TV experiment station.
    Like most early TV performers, Natalie was largely unimpressed with the experience. She had to stay within a 2x2' square in darkness to be visible, and she had to write all the material for a 15 min program 3 times a week.

    Natalie's reign as Miss Television didn't last long. CBS commentator Bill Schudt was put in charge of hosting and programming W2XAB, and stayed until the plug was pulled early in 1933.
    Bill Schudt (at televisor) announces in-studio boxing. From The New York Times, August 7, 1932.

    However, Schudt never spoke for the record about CBS' video venture. His continuing employment at the network may have prevented him from doing so, because CBS was apparently not proud of their pioneering program operation. Indeed, when all-electronic TV began in the late 30s, they did two years of closed-circuit tests before going on the air.

    So Natalie Towers is apparently the only person connected with station W2XAB ever to give an interview about it - and even that had to wait some 70 years after the fact!
  2. Great stuff. Do you know if she is still living?
  3. One would assume not. This year would be her centennial!

    Another Antique Wireless article mentions Ms. Towers again and suggests it was either a married or stage name. She was originally Natalie Burggraf, Wellesley class of 1930.

    This link also disproves my assertion that Ms. Towers was the only person connected with W2XAB ever to give an interview about it. The article quotes John Paul Smith, an RCA engineer, who helped build '2XAB and two other stations.
  4. Natalie had some "competition"

    Dorothy Knapp, Noted Stage Star - "The N.B.C. Television Girl"
    (From Radio Index, September 1, 1931)

    Ms. Knapp, star of the 1925 Ziegfeld Follies, was once voted "World's Most Beautiful Girl." She was the first woman ever signed to a contract by NBC, for a series of radio talks on beauty culture in 1930.
    More pix of Dorothy Knapp

    In 1931 it was announced that Dorothy had been chosen as "NBC Television Girl." However, she probably never appeared in that role. RCA and NBC soon decided that their TV station W2XBS would not broadcast programs - only reception tests such as the famous Felix the Cat statuette. Even these were often scrambled to discourage home set owners from nosing in and spreading rumors. What the industry leader in radio might - or might not - be doing with television was, for the time being, nobody's business.

    Felix hanging tough in front of W2XBS televisor array, 1932. Part of this array is still in service.
  5. Very cool! I've always been fascinated by experimental era TV. I remember the story about the inventor of the scanning system, I believe his name was Baird. He spent decades perfecting the mechanical spinning disc system.
    The piece described his reaction to seeing the electronic scanning system. He instantly realized he had spent his entire life perfecting a hopeless dead end technology, and his whole body just slouched with despair and defeat.
  6. TV is one of those technologies that was an idea ahead of its time. It had wait around until other developments made it possible - and that's true all down the line. Mechanical, cathode-ray, color, all were being worked on by multiple inventors at roughly the same stages ('20s, '30s and '40s-'50s respectively).

    The mechanical TV system was first envisioned by Paul Nipkow of Germany in 1884, but had to wait until photoelectric cells were responsive enough to make it work. That took over 40 years. Similarly, a whole bunch of inventors worldwide were looking into the possibilities of CRTs, but they were so fiddly and unreliable that they needed a lot more development.

    All "firsts" were fought over ferociously. The same company might even claim the same "first" for different dates, sometimes to keep up the buzz, sometimes to cover up false starts (as RCA-NBC did when it started regular service in 1938, then pulled the plug when unlicensed sets went on sale in NYC. Thereafter the 1939 World's Fair was the "true" roll-out date.)

    BTW, you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about John Logie Baird - who probably was the first with a workable mechanical system - here, and even see his experiments with video discs, which were unplayable for decades.
  7. I've always been intrigued by this particular picture. Why do you suppose they have a microphone there (an RCA 4A-P, to be specific) for Felix? Didn't they realize he was a silent star?

    Also, note the cabinets for the photocells. I'm pretty sure those are actually RCA Photophone speaker cabinets, designed to house movie theatre loudspeakers -- a picture house a couple towns over from here still has a couple of those speaker columns, and the cabinets are very similar if not identical. As the use of a Victor Radio cabinet for the receiver shows, RCA was well-known for repurposing off-the-shelf equipment for its various experimental projects.
  8. Every hour, the FRC required aural station identification on the visual channel. This was so their monitoring stations did not have to buy televisions and keep up with all the changing transmitting standards.

    The picture would disappear and you would flip a switch to hear the ID. I suppose the on-duty engineer stepped up to the 4A, said, "This is the National Broadcasting Company," banged out three notes on a hand chime, and added, "Doubleyou Two Ecks Bee Ess, New York," perhaps something about the frequency, and then "We now continue with the picture."

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