James Thurber
The Jenkins Television Corporation, which makes television sets, has sold about twenty-five hundred of them in the past year and a half. People have them in their homes --- engineers, dabblers, optimists, believers in the future of television. A set, as you may know, is like a radio cabinet, dials and all, except that in place of a sound-emitter it has a lens the size of a pie pan. You sit in a chair, twirl the dials, look through the lens, and if all goes well images appear on a screen about eight inches square on the other side of the lens. Sets can be bought at several of the department stores.

The National Broadcasting Company just broadcasts its television signature, WXZ or W4Y, or whatever it is, and sometimes the figure of a cat going round and round in a circle. It keeps using the wave length merely to hold its franchise. Columbia, on the other hand, broadcasts singers and speakers and piano-players every evening. The images are synchronized with sound: you see a tenor's lips move and hear his voice. That is, if you've tuned in properly. Columbia gets five or six fan letters a day. One man in Toronto and another in Chicago wrote that they got New York programs on their sets.

One night last week Columbia broadcast two prizefighters in action, to give its public some idea of what it will be seeing in a few years. With a dozen other people we watched the shadowy images of Benny Leonard and another boxer on the small screen of a receiving set. Only about two people can really see comfortably into the present set; the others have to bend and duck and crane their necks over the lucky ones' shoulders.

The fight wasn't very good. The boxers had to stay inside a space about five feet square and you could see them only from their waists up. Now and then there'd be a clear picture; then the pugilists would appear to be groping in a fog or chasing each other in a tank of milk. Faces and arms dilate and contract and look crazy, like images in those trick mirrors at amusement parks.

Lighting is a major difficulty. For the last round, we went up into the room where the fight was going on. It was about the size of a bathroom and dark. Out of a small glass-enclosed control-room a finger of light plays upon the figures of the performers. If it were allowed to come to a full stop, it would be just a spot as big as a thumbnail, but a disc with sixty holes in it whirls in front of the line of light, scattering it. This light, reflected back from the body of whoever is being televised, is registered, after a lot of little miracles, on the screen of a receiving set. Right now it's hard to get more than two persons in a picture. Four or five would have to stand back so far that they wouldn't reflect the light strongly enough. Performers have to be made up like movie actors, with grease paint and lipstick.

--- "The Flying Spot --- 1931"
From The Fun of It:
Stories from the Talk of the Town.

©2001, The New Yorker

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