The 1920s was the beginning of a whole new era in the United States (and to some extent Canada and England) with sweeping changes in societal norms, new-found affluence, super-fast transportation on land (automobiles) and in air (aeroplanes as they were called then, and the advent of commercial airlines), and new gadgets right in the home for communication and entertainment (telephones, radio, phonographs) that ushered in the Analog Age. In the laboratories even more amazing futuristic devices were being developed.
But victory in a hard-fought war and the cultural and political changes that followed it blew that rigid, unyielding conformity to bits. Indeed the puritanical fuddie-duddies of Big Government tried to keep the populace moral and pure and protect the common good with the enactment in 1920 of National Prohibition via constitutional amendment, forbidding the decadent pleasures of beer and wine as well as hard liquor, but it would all soon backfire in the faces of those arrogant moralists. Otherwise law-abiding citizens rebelled against prohibition law in droves, finding ways to get or make demon liquor for their own consumption, creating a virtual nation of outlaws. Newspapers and popular magazines often mocked Prohibition, and black markets, gangster crime, bootlegging, speakeasies, moonshining and some pretty wild private parties all came as a result of an incredibly misguided government policy.
Ad for a sexploitation movie "for
men only" from the Minneapolis
Tribune, October 13, 1928.
An ad for the book “The Revolt of Modern Youth” by Judge Ben B. Lindsey that appeared in the November 1925 issue of Physical Culture magazine exclaimed, “modern youth has gotten to the point where it is deliberately experimenting with sexual affairs; that, in effect, a revolt is taking place among the young against the social code…When so many marriages end in divorce, when 50 per cent of young boys and girls are prematurely experimenting with sex, and when a million and a half unborn babies are sacrificed every year, it is surely time that the real facts, and their causes, were discussed openly and freely.”
The twenties brought the first electronic home entertainment, radio, into the homes of everyday people, not just the filthy rich or the eccentric hobbyists who had played around with radio transmissions from the time Gugliemo Marconi made the first transatlantic radio broadcast way back in 1901. Station KDKA in
In the first half of the decade, would-be broadcasters had little idea of what to do with this new medium. Many early station operators were educational institutions, broadcasting lectures and classical music recordings. Some hucksters and preachers acquired a microphone and transmitter to get their message out to the masses, and big city department stores, newspapers and other businesses also got into the radio game early as a service to their communities.
Surprisingly, the business interests that started radio stations in the early twenties did not use the stations to sell their goods and services to the public. The prevailing view in the very early days was that the airwaves were a public trust that shouldn’t be used for commercial purposes. Consequently, many of these new operators found that running a radio station was a lot more expensive and time consuming than they had counted on and many of them wound up shutting down their stations. In order to survive they had to have some source of funding and it was quickly realized that selling time to advertisers was the easiest way to go about that.
Commercial radio, it has been said, began in 1922 when a real estate firm sponsored a program on WEAF in
By 1926, WEAF became the flagship station of the newly-formed National Broadcasting Company, owned by radio manufacturer RCA, sending top-quality live programming to radio stations across the country via telephone line, and bringing the advertisers' messages to national audiences. The Columbia Broadcasting System, backed in part by the Columbia Phonograph Company linked together a competing network in 1927-28 and NBC meanwhile managed to find enough stations to start a second radio network, initially called the 'Blue' network, (as opposed to the main 'Red' network) which would eventually be spun off into a separate entity called the American Broadcasting Company in the 1940s. By decade’s end there were at least 618 stations on the air across the
TV in the Roaring Twenties
Just as radio was coming into the homes of Americans, television was already being invented, not by one man but by many scientists and engineers working in laboratories in the
|1927 depiction of television apparatus.|
In 1923, Dr. Vladimir Zworykin invented the iconoscope, which would function as the “eye” of a television camera. Through the decade of the twenties a number of television systems were developed, most involving large mechanical scanning disks attached to electric motors, arc lights and lots of wiring. The resulting transmitted picture was fuzzy and very small. Several public demonstrations of television were made by early developers such as AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and RCA. The early apparatuses were not practical for home use, but the possibilities were realized early on.
The New York World observed in 1928, “Three years ago…television was a dream…Now it has stept out of the laboratory and into the sunlight…Few will now doubt that the time is coming when pictures and scenes of all kinds will be broadcast over great distances, as sounds of all kinds are broadcast to-day. Men may sit in their homes seeing and hearing plays; may watch and hear orators; may bask in the sunlight of
The Literary Digest for August 11, 1928 went on to say, “As a result of experiments being conducted simultaneously in London and New York City, other editors are predicting that movies will soon be broadcast by radio, so that the person provided with the proper receiving set can have his screen theater at home; or even his baseball game and championship fight.
But not so fast, cautioned Franklyn F. Stratford in the publication Radio Broadcast. “Any one who hesitates to buy a radio receiver because he fears that one equipped with television features may be put on the market before he can realize his investment, is taking a position almost as ludicrous as that of a man who decided not to buy a gasoline-driven automobile because some inventor might devise a vehicle which would run ten centuries on the intra-atomic energy of a pound of sodium bicarbonate. The every-day application of television is a remote possibility in five years, a fair possibility in ten, a probability in fifteen. Many good radio receivers, appealing to ear only, will issue from the factories, play their melodies in millions of homes, and succumb to old age and new tastes, in that time.”
Beyond the Crash
With the stock market crash on
Radio programming in the thirties evolved into many of the categories that were staples of television programming decades later, such as situation comedies, drama, quiz shows, variety shows, etc. As the nation entered a Second World War in the forties, radio became more important than ever to bring on-the-spot news and information as well as entertainment in times of continuing uncertainty.
Television development grew by leaps and bounds in the thirties, although it was still beneath the radar of most Americans who were quite content listening to the radio and letting their minds fill in the pictures.
|Privacy concerns about new technology including |
television were pondered as far back as 1927.
In 1929 Dr. Zworykin, who had invented the iconoscope early in the decade, invented the cathode-ray picture tube, which eliminated the need for a mechanical scanning disc and was the first step toward the development of the standard analog receiver that lasted until the end of the 20th Century.
In spite of the Depression, experimental television broadcasts were occurring through the 1930s, primarily in
And even before black-and-white TV started coming into people’s homes after the war, color television was already being invented, with an experimental color TV system developed by CBS demonstrated as far back as 1939 and 1940. The picture quality was said to be really good, but this system had its share of drawbacks and was ultimately scrapped in favor of a “compatible color” system introduced by RCA in the early 1950s.
The Analog Age was here to stay…at least until digital took over.
“This Fabulous Century, 1920-1930” Time-Life Books, 1969, 1974
Life (old humor magazine) various issues, 1922-1929
“Revolt of Modern Youth” ad, Physical Culture, November 1925
“Doubts About Television” Literary Digest,
“Another Step Toward Television” Literary Digest,
February 12, 1927
“Television Makes its Bow” Literary Digest,
April 23, 1927
“Television Not Yet on Tap” Literary Digest,
August 27, 1927
“Colored Films, Talking Movies, and Television” Literary Digest,
August 11, 1928
“What Goes On Behind Your Radio Dial” NBC Radio booklet, 1943
“The History of Radio Station WDGY—A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the
of the Graduate School ” by Jerry Verne Haines,
December 1970 University of Minnesota
“TV Book” edited by Judy Fireman, Workman Publishing Co., 1977
“TV Guide Almanac” compiled and edited by Craig T. and Peter G. Norback, Ballantine Books, 1980