Wednesday, February 1, 2017

World War Wednesdays: WWII On the Small Screen

Two gals watching a 1940-41 model Philco television as part of a 1946 Philco publication called The Servicing of Television Receivers 
     Welcome back to another pop culture edition of WWW! With the new semester comes new perspectives on things, and I'm really enjoying a class with Dr. Sean Graham about the history of radio and television in America. One of our assigned readings this week was a super fascinating article by James A. Von Schilling called "Television During World War II," and I thought I'd share some of the highlights with you all this week. Hopefully it intrigues and surprises you as much as it did me!

     First of all, I was quite shocked to learn that TV did not actually begin in the 1950s with Lucy and The Honeymooners, as I had always thought. It turns out that that belief has actually traditionally been shared by most textbooks on American media, and we've all just taken it for granted that the popular medium we know and love was a postwar phenomenon. In reality, television was actually developed in the 1920s! Another common myth is that the technology was put on the back burner during the war, which Von Schilling's work argues was certainly not the case.

     Although the factories used for producing TV sets, cameras, and station equipment were converted to military production, on 16 October 1941 the American government gave the broadcast industry an A-10 priority rating, which meant that stations already in operation could remain on the air and maintain existing equipment. The unfortunate part was that radio, which was included in the rating, was by that time a developed medium and had been an important part of everyday American life for over a decade, but the nature of TV at that time meant that the war stopped its growth in its tracks. Sets were still extremely expensive, and people still largely preferred the radio as their source of entertainment.
A late 1940s ad for the General Electric 806. Notice how tiny the screen was!
     However, this did not mean that the war killed television completely. Especially after Pearl Harbor, the technology was harnessed as an educational tool which could help people prepare for the possibilities of wartime conditions. On the night of 5 January 1942, a special wartime instructional show called "Air Raid Protection- Fighting the Bomb" aired on a network of three stations. The program included films on civil defense, a forty-minute talk by a New York police lieutenant, and demonstrations of air warden tools. For the TV industry, civil defense training programs brought good publicity (surprising considering the nature of TV today) and gave it a clear wartime role, Von Schilling observes.

     In terms of the actual war itself, TV technology also played a role. General Electric kept the programming side of things going, while RCA actually developed a system in which TV cameras and monitors would be used to guide unmanned air torpedoes, which was sponsored by the government beginning in 1940. Cloaked in secrecy and given code names, the company developed the first airborne camera system that same year and called it "BLOCK." In April 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor, it passed the Army's field tests and was approved for production. In all, 4,000 of the BLOCK camera systems were built during the war, which saw use by both the Army and Navy in glider bombs, drone planes, and other aircraft. In the Pacific, they were used to attack Japanese shipping vessels beginning in August 1944, and that same month a television-guided U.S. Army airplane packed with explosives struck at Nazi V-1 rocket bases in France. The plane had a crew of two, who were supposed to parachute into the English Channel as the crew in a nearby plane took control via remote television. The plane exploded in mid-air, and no bodies were ever found. The pilot was Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., whose father had been grooming for the presidency, and whose goal now passed to the family's second son, John.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., LIFE
     Overall, the reason we associate the emergence of TV with the 1950s is that the technology was finally able to continue the trajectory of development it had begun in previous decades, and reach widespread popularity among consumers. As with so many other things, TV's wartime connections are just as interesting, and I hope you enjoyed this little exploration. If you're interested in reading more, be sure to look for Von Schilling's piece, which was the source of information for the post.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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