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The Northland Antique Radio Club Newsletter

Television, the way I first remember it . . .

By Ed Ripley

To me, the years immediately following World War II were really a fun time to be a kid. I preceded the "baby boomers" by almost a decade, and witnessed the early post war period from a tiny village in Upstate New York called McConnellsville, population 300.

One of the great thrills was to see television for the very first time in 1947. General Electric had been running an experimental TV station from its headquarters in Schenectady, NY for some years. Following the war, it became WRGB, Channel 4, one of the true pioneer commercial television stations. There was just one problem. McConnellsville was nearly 100 miles from Schenectady. Our nearest larger cities were Syracuse and Utica which wouldn't get TV for another couple of years, but more on that later.

1940s RCA TV
1940s RCA TV
Nobody in McConnellsville had a TV in 1947, but Jimmy Murray bought one for his tavern in nearby Vienna (pronounced "vy anna" by the locals) to attract patrons. He was able to haul in TV from Schenectady on a 10 inch Fada receiver that was essentially an RCA 630 chassis with the Fada nameplate. The set was mounted on a reinforced shelf, in one corner of the bar, just below the ceiling. He had a mast on top of his two story tavern building, and the antenna must have been at least 75 feet above the ground. He also had a booster to strengthen the weak signal. Jimmy's rig not only brought in the signal, but it brought in thirsty customers from all over that part of Central New York.

On Friday nights, my Dad would take my brother Pete and me to Jimmy Murray's, and we'd drink our Mission Orangeade while he settled in with his friends for an evening of beer drinking and watching the Friday night fights. Yes, there were occasional outbreaks of fisticuffs at Jimmy's, but I'm talking about the Gillette boxing events on TV. The place would be packed, and Jimmy would be trying to pull in a snowy picture from Schenectady a half hour or so before the boxing began. Through the blue haze of cigarette smoke, we could see the flickering Fada with a jittery, snowy image trying to come through. Eventually, he was able to adjust the set sufficiently for the big event. Presently, we would hear the stentorian tones of the announcer proclaiming, "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the air."

Some nights the picture would be almost movie clear, but other times it would seem as though there was a blizzard going on in Schenectady. Often, the picture or the sound, or both would disappear, and Jimmy, who was busy behind the bar, would appoint one of the loyal barflies to hop up on a stool and adjust the set.

Pete and I were not only introduced to television, but to boxing as well. Names like Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles, Sandy Sadler and others became household names.

By 1949, WHEN-TV in Syracuse had begun telecasting on Channel 8. Later that year, WKTV signed on from Utica on Channel 13. It was Christmas of that year when Dad bought us our first TV, a 10 inch RCA Model 100T. The screen was tiny, but nonetheless our mother warned us not to sit too close to it, as it would injure our eyes. So we dutifully sat back and watched the likes of Milton Berle and Arthur Godfrey, who seemed little more than ant-sized on that set. TV in those days came on the air around 4:30pm eastern, and went off the air before midnight. During the afternoon the TV stations would run a test pattern and audio tone. I'm told it was mainly for technicians to adjust TV sets that were being installed or serviced.
The pattern would be a circle with a bulls-eye center and radiating lines at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o'clock positions. Usually, the station call letters and channel number would be listed within the circle. TV was such a novelty; people would actually sit and watch the test pattern until a program came on. There were so few programs available that the early stations would do most anything to keep something on the tube. WHEN-TV in Syracuse had a program at 6:30pm called "Kaleidoscope and Music". It was just what the title said. We would sit and watch a black and white kaleidoscope for 15 minutes while dinner music was played for audio. TV test pattern
Early TV Test Pattern

But for us kids, the biggest thrill was at 5:30 eastern when Howdy Doody came on. We had the second TV in our little town, and each night the neighborhood kids would flock to our living room to watch Howdy, Buffalo Bob, Clarabelle, and all the gang. Yes, we had our own Peanut Gallery right there in McConnellsville.

TV reception in rural areas, such as ours, was tricky, at best. Even with Syracuse and Utica on the air, we still needed an outdoor antenna. And because Syracuse was 30 miles southwest of Utica and us, about 30 miles southeast, you either needed a rotating antenna or a double stack antenna. VHF antennae of that era used a folded dipole with reflector. We had a two-stack antenna with folded dipoles for each station, which meant there were two lead-in wires coming into the house. There was a switching box behind the set so we could easily go from one antenna to the other. Utica was a little weak, so we had a gadget made of aluminum foil, which wrapped around the lead-in. By running it up or down we could adjust for a better picture. Keep in mind that the wattage of these early stations was perhaps only a tenth of what TV stations use today, which is 100,000 watts ERP for Channels 2-6 or 316,000 watts for Channels 7-13.

In late 1951, my family moved to Florida. There were only two TV stations in the whole state, both on Channel 4. One was in Jacksonville, and the other was in Miami. There were no TV stations on the west coast of Florida. A few eager viewers put up high antennas in hopes of getting something. An early appliance ad in the Tampa Tribune said. "Buy TV now and be ready for the future. We install and service. Reception almost every night." It was like Schenectady all over again, only this time we were trying for anything. Usually either Jacksonville or Miami could come in, and you could separate them by turning the antenna. Cranking it due south would sometimes bring in Channels 4 and 6 from Havana. Occasionally, they would run American movies with Spanish subtitles.

In the summer, the hot, steamy Florida weather was perfect for propagation of TV signals. Stations from New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and even Mexico City came flooding in, often for as little as a few seconds, but sometimes much longer. I watched Channel 6 from Omaha, Nebraska coming in movie clear in Venice, Florida for about a half an hour.

Finally, in 1953 the FCC lifted the freeze on new TV stations, and the Florida West Coast came into the television age, at last. First to sign on was WSUN-TV, St. Petersburg on UHF Channel 38. Next was Channel 11 from Fort Myers. I was in high school, and had a part time job helping a local TV service dealer install outdoor antennas for the new channels. It wasn't until 1955 that Tampa-St. Petersburg finally got their first VHF channels. By then TV was becoming commonplace. But I'm happy to have those great memories of the infant days of commercial television and the fun that went with them.

Last Updated Monday, 30-Jun-2014 02:08:00 CDT

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