22 April 2009
System for broadcasting full-color images over the
The people behind the invention:
Peter Carl Goldmark (1906-1977), the head of the CBS research
and development laboratory
William S. Paley (1901-1990), the businessman who took over
David Sarnoff (1891-1971), the founder of RCA
The Race for Standardization
Although by 1928 color television had already been demonstrated
in Scotland, two events in 1940 mark that year as the beginning
of color television. First, on February 12, 1940, the Radio Corporation
of America (RCA) demonstrated its color television system
privately to a group that included members of the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC), an administrative body that had the
authority to set standards for an electronic color system. The demonstration
did not go well; indeed, David Sarnoff, the head of RCA,
canceled a planned public demonstration and returned his engineers
to the Princeton, New Jersey, headquarters of RCA’s laboratories.
Next, on September 1, 1940, the Columbia Broadcasting System
(CBS) took the first step to develop a color system that would become
the standard for the United States. On that day, CBS demonstrated
color television to the public, based on the research of an engineer,
Peter Carl Goldmark. Goldmark placed a set of spinning
filters in front of the black-and-white television images, breaking
them down into three primary colors and producing color television.
The audience saw what was called “additive color.”
Although Goldmark had been a researcher at CBS since January,
1936, he did not attempt to develop a color television system until
March, 1940, after watching the Technicolor motion picture Gone
with the Wind (1939). Inspired, Goldmark began to tinker in his tiny
CBS laboratory in the headquarters building in New York City.
If a decision had been made in 1940, the CBS color standard
would have been accepted as the national standard. The FCC was,
at that time, more concerned with trying to establish a black-andwhite
standard for television. Color television seemed decades away.
In 1941, the FCC decided to adopt standards for black-and-white
television only, leaving the issue of color unresolved—and the
doors to the future of color broadcasting wide open. Control of a potentially
lucrative market as well as personal rivalry threwWilliam
S. Paley, the head of CBS, and Sarnoff into a race for the control of
color television. Both companies would pay dearly in terms of
money and time, but it would take until the 1960’s before the United
States would become a nation of color television watchers.
RCA was at the time the acknowledged leader in the development
of black-and-white television. CBS engineers soon discovered,
however, that their company’s color system would not work when
combined with RCA black-and-white televisions. In other words,
customers would need one set for black-and-white and one for
color. Moreover, since the color system of CBS needed more broadcast
frequency space than the black-and-white system in use, CBS
was forced to ask the FCC to allocate new channel space in the
ultrahigh frequency (UHF) band, which was then not being used. In
contrast, RCA scientists labored to make a compatible color system
that required no additional frequency space.
No Time to Wait
Following the end of World War II, in 1945, the suburbanites who
populated new communities in America’s cities wanted television sets
right away; they did not want to wait for the government to decide on
a color standard and then wait again while manufacturers redesigned
assembly lines to make color sets. Rich with savings accumulated during
the prosperity of the war years, Americans wanted to spend their
money. After the war, the FCC saw no reason to open up proceedings
regarding color systems. Black-and-white was operational; customers
were waiting in line for the new electronic marvel. To give its engineers
time to create a compatible color system, RCA skillfully lobbied the
members of the FCC to take no action.
There were other problems with the CBS mechanical color television.
It was noisy and large, and its color balance was hard to maintain.
CBS claimed that through further engineering work, it would
improve the actual sets. Yet RCA was able to convince other manufacturers
to support it in preference to CBS principally because of its
proven manufacturing track record.
In 1946, RCA demonstrated a new electronic color receiver with
three picture tubes, one for each of the primary colors. Color reproduction
was fairly true; although any movement on the screen
caused color blurring, there was little flicker. It worked, however,
and thus ended the invention phase of color television begun in
1940. The race for standardization would require seven more years
of corporate struggle before the RCA system would finally win
adoption as the national standard in 1953.
Through the 1950’s, black-and-white television remained the order
of the day. Through the later years of the decade, only the National
Broadcasting Company (NBC) television network was regularly
airing programs in color. Full production and presentation of
shows in color during prime time did not come until the mid-1960’s;
most industry observers date 1972 as the true arrival of color television.
By 1972, color sets were found in more than half the homes in the
United States. At that point, since color was so widespread, TV
Guide stopped tagging color program listings with a special symbol
and instead tagged only black-and-white shows, as it does to this
day. Gradually, only cheap, portable sets were made for black-andwhite
viewing, while color sets came in all varieties from tiny handheld
pocket televisions to mammoth projection televisions.
See also :
Autochrome plate; Community antenna television;
Communications satellite; Fiber-optics; FM radio; Radio; Television;Color television