Sunday, December 29, 2019

The 1920s: Birth of the Analog Age

The Ragtime Revolution

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.

Before the First World War (known then as just The World War or the Great War since there hadn’t been a second one) there was a stifling sense of Victorian-era moralism in U.S. society where everyone was uptight and proper. Men were supposed to be cold and studious, lord and master over the women and children, and women were expected to be paragons of virtue and modesty, dressed from neck to toe in hobble skirts, flowing tresses and osprey plumes. The showing of any skin beyond the face was immodest and outrageous. Nobody asked their opinion of anything so they’d best keep quiet, and they didn’t have the right to vote. There would be no tolerance of non-conformity from either sex. Home entertainment in the less puritanical households that didn’t forbid virtually anything enjoyable consisted of reading, conversing with family members and guests about quaint topics, and maybe playing something on the old piano in the parlor. Otherwise you had to get dressed up and go into town to see a show.

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.

Meanwhile a new generation of young adults born around 1900 and in the years after ushered in the first viable popular youth culture as they moved away from their isolated farm communities and small towns and found new freedom in the big cities and college campuses. They rebelled against everything their uptight parents’ generation stood for, became enthusiasts of the new “barbaric” ragtime jazz music and danced to it in ways that were positively scandalous. Guys were more casual and laid back, and really didn’t care much about religion or politics. Girls shed the old norms of modesty and virtue and to paraphrase a 1980s pop song, they just wanted to have fun. They shortened their hair and hemlines, danced, smoked (often using fashionable cigarette holders) and even sometimes got intimate with boys. 

Ad for a sexploitation movie "for 
men only" from the Minneapolis
Tribune, October 13, 1928.
Guys and girls also thumbed their nose at the Prohibition that their parents’ generation was imposing on them and the rest of the country, with illegal booze finding its way into frat parties just as other illegal recreational substances did in the decades after Repeal. This new youth culture was both celebrated and condemned in much of the media of the time, such as tabloid-style newspapers, magazines geared to younger affluent readers and the new Hollywood movies.

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.”

Wonderful Wireless

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 Pittsburgh is famously sited as the first modern radio station, broadcasting the Warren G. Harding-James M. Cox presidential election returns in November 1920 (Harding won). Prior to that, that station and a few others periodically broadcast programs of music by placing a Victrola (record player) up close to a microphone (“wireless telephone”) hooked up to a crude transmitter, or broadcast somebody blathering about whatever was on his mind into the “wireless telephone.” Alas there were few receiving sets available to the public but appliance stores and department stores began selling “wireless” sets and the more programs going over the air the more sets were sold.

With the success of the election returns, KDKA began broadcasting more scheduled programs of mostly news, music and church services, with no commercials, at least initially. With more scheduled programming, and more stations coming on the air, more people were interested in purchasing radio sets for their homes, an investment that paid for itself with all the free entertainment available.
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 New York. From then on the airwaves were as commercialized as anything else in a nation of free enterprise and while some purists were appalled, the new-found profits from advertising allowed more stations to go on and allowed operators to come out of the sheds and basements they were broadcasting from and build studios big enough to accommodate full orchestras performing live rather than just having a Victrola next to a microphone

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 U.S., and sales of radio receivers topped $600 million.

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 United States and England.

1927 depiction of television apparatus.
The concept of television goes all the way back to 1873 when it was discovered, apparently by accident, that the electrical resistance of the element selenium varied in proportion to the light shining on it. The discovery proved that it was possible to transfer light variations into electronic signals, thus making it theoretically possible to send photographic images by wire.
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 Cairo while gazing at a blizzard in Montreal; may even see history made on the battle-field.”

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 October 29, 1929, the “Roaring Twenties” came to an end as the nation sank into a national depression where unemployment was high as well as uncertainty about the future. But on the positive side, Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and the Analog Age was just beginning. The radio business grew considerably as people sought the comfort of home entertainment by national and local stars signed by the networks and stations to perform. If you worked in radio during the Great Depression, your job was pretty secure.
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 New York City after NBC built a television tower atop the Empire State Building in 1931, and were being seen on the few receiving sets in operation in the area. Television was formally introduced to the public at large at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt having the honors of being the first president to give a live speech on television. NBC and parent company RCA announced they would begin regular television broadcasts and would begin offering television sets to the public. It all came to an abrupt delay at the end of 1941, however, with the U.S. entry into the Second World War
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, November 6, 1926

“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 Graduate School of the University of Minnesota” by Jerry Verne Haines, December 1970

“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

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