American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the New York World’s Fair, television was displayed to the American public for the first time, NBC announced the start of regularly scheduled television broadcasting in the United States, and David Sarnoff gave a prophetic address about the new industry of television.

Summary of Event

The 1939 New York World’s Fair World’s Fair, New York (1939)[Worlds Fair] New York World’s Fair (1939)[New York Worlds Fair] was a technology showcase, but its most significant innovation went largely unnoticed at the time. On the opening day of the fair, television was displayed to the American public for the very first time. On that day also, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) announced plans to begin regularly scheduled television broadcasting. That afternoon, David Sarnoff, the founder and president of the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America;television (RCA), NBC’s parent company, made several truly visionary pronouncements about the industry he was about to launch. [kw]American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair (Apr. 30, 1939) [kw]Television Debuts at the World’s Fair, American (Apr. 30, 1939) [kw]World’s Fair, American Television Debuts at the (Apr. 30, 1939)[Worlds Fair, American Television Debuts at the (Apr. 30, 1939)] Television;U.S. National Broadcasting Company Inventions;television [g]United States;Apr. 30, 1939: American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair[10000] [c]Radio and television;Apr. 30, 1939: American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair[10000] [c]Communications and media;Apr. 30, 1939: American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair[10000] [c]Science and technology;Apr. 30, 1939: American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair[10000] [c]Inventions;Apr. 30, 1939: American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair[10000] Sarnoff, David Zworykin, Vladimir Farnsworth, Philo T. Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Sarnoff was born in Russia in 1891 and moved to the United States with his family at the age of nine. As a young man, Sarnoff gained national celebrity working for Marconi Radio when he manned a Morse code receiver for seventy-two hours after the Titanic sank in 1912, taking down the names of survivors. Sarnoff rose quickly in the Marconi company and eventually struck out on his own in the 1920’s, founding RCA. A decade of diligent planning and hard work produced the most successful commercial radio company—manufacturer and broadcaster—of the period. The millions of dollars that RCA made with its NBC radio subsidiary (the Red and Blue Networks) and its sales of console radios provided the seed money needed to make television a reality.

The term “television” first appeared in a 1907 issue of Scientific American; however, experiments in video transmission actually began in the 1880’s. Early on, there was a difference of opinion whether mechanical or electronic systems would work best. In the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Britain’s Television, Ltd., developed a cumbersome, clattering contraption that could send a watery image eight miles through the air. Vertically mounted spinning wheels with glass lenses set into their perimeters were used in both the camera and the receiver to transduce light. As the wheels spun, they created a sound similar to a film projector, and the image was likewise displayed on a wall screen. The British Broadcasting Company British Broadcasting Corporation initially showed a great deal of interest in this system; however, it was never able to send a clear, flicker-free picture, and it eventually was scrapped in favor of the fast-developing electronic television system.

Another U.S. immigrant from Russia, Vladimir Zworykin, invented the “iconoscope” Iconoscope in 1923. His employer, Westinghouse, Westinghouse showed no interest in the device, so Zworykin sought out his fellow Russian émigré, David Sarnoff. Sarnoff recognized that, crude as it was, the iconoscope represented the basis of an effective electronic television process. The iconoscope used light-sensitive materials to transduce light. Coupled with another new invention, the cathode-ray tube Cathode-ray tubes[Cathode ray tubes] (CRT), electronic television was born. During the early 1930’s, Zworykin perfected electronic television while Sarnoff went about gathering up all the television-related patents he could get his hands on. In addition to the iconoscope, Zworykin invented the “kinescope,” Kinescope a receiver for iconoscope signals.

Many television components were designed at RCA, but several significant elements were invented by other companies and by independent inventors. Prominent among these inventors was San Francisco-based Philo T. Farnsworth. He created an “image dissector” in 1927. This apparatus was essential to high-quality electronic television, and RCA initially infringed on his patent. Farnsworth, in his early twenties and with no formal college-level science training, sued RCA. When the court finally found in his favor, RCA was forced to pay ongoing royalties to his Philco, Inc. for use of the image dissector.

With an acceptable electronic television system completed, and with all legal questions settled, NBC began experimental television broadcasting from Camden, New Jersey, on July 7, 1936. The initial day’s programming consisted of Sarnoff and his senior executives welcoming viewers, of which there were next to none, from his office on the fifty-third floor of Radio City. The broadcast continued with actors from the Broadway play Tobacco Road, a singing act, and dancers from Radio City Music Hall. The United States was on the air, but it was losing the international race for television.

Both Germany and England already had regularly scheduled television services. Although picture quality was poor, Germany went on the air in 1935, broadcasting daily to eleven public viewing rooms around Berlin. England, having finally settled the issue of electronic versus mechanical television, began its regular service early in 1936. Britain’s pioneering efforts in television design had an enormous beneficial side effect, the invention of radar. This technology, closely related to television, proved lifesaving to the English during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

In the United States, Zworykin had estimated that it would cost $100,000 to get television operational, but Sarnoff ended up spending $20 million by 1938. After several years of testing, Zworykin’s system was ready, and RCA began distribution of its first television set, the TRK 660. This was a $660 console unit that stood four and one-half feet tall and had a flip-up, mirrored lid. The picture tube sat vertically, pointing upward inside the cabinet, and the image was reflected and reversed in the mirror so that people sitting around the console could view it. Because of the high price, only about one hundred sets were sold, most of them to RCA and NBC executives, with a few going to New York City bars.

Sarnoff, known to have a flair for the dramatic, chose the World’s Fair for his big announcement. The fair opened on April 30, 1939, in Flushing Meadows, Long Island. A gigantic camera tethered to a mobile broadcast van was set up for the opening ceremonies. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the nation’s first “television president” as he described the fair as “a beacon of progress and hope.” His speech, along with that of New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, was carried by cables to monitors inside the RCA exhibit. It was then relayed to NBC’s transmitter for broadcast to monitors in NBC’s Radio City headquarters and to the one hundred or more sets around the city. Tens of thousands of people were at the fair that day, but it is estimated that, at most, two thousand people watched these events on television.

NBC broadcast pictures featuring the fair’s symbols, including the Trylon and Perisphere, in the background. Its camera swept across the Court of Peace, panned the gathering throng, and captured the arrival of the president’s motorcade. Mayor La Guardia recorded the first close-up when he walked up to the camera and stared into it. After televising Roosevelt’s initial address, the camera was moved to the RCA Pavilion for Sarnoff’s dedication. Fairgoers could step inside and watch the “show” on black-and-white monitors, then step outside to prove to themselves that what they were seeing was indeed real.

Sarnoff, in his speech, promised a new industry for the United States. NBC began regularly scheduled television broadcasts the same day, and receiving sets began to be made more widely available. Fairgoers also felt a sense of destiny of another sort. Clouds of war were already forming over Europe. Commercial television was interrupted by World War II just as people were learning of its existence, and the war meant a further delay of almost eight years before television sets were in anything but very limited use. That only a few thousand people actually watched the World’s Fair on television that day is ironic, because television grew into an industry that prided itself on covering memorable events and broadcasting shared experiences. Still, Sarnoff and NBC were the first to bring the United States commercial television, an industry for which economic, social, and political effects are still evolving—and being debated—today.


In retrospect, Sarnoff’s presentation was a relatively inconsequential television milestone. Almost nobody saw the broadcast. England and Germany were already “on the air,” and the coming world war put American television broadcasting on hold for several more years. The World’s Fair broadcast is significant because Sarnoff made several indisputably accurate predictions about what television would be like. He believed that television would bring Americans together as a nation, that it would spawn new industries, and that it would change the American political system. At the time, however, Sarnoff was focusing on a more immediate effect of his announcement.

In the 1930’s, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission;video transmission standard (FCC) was faced with the task of selecting a national video transmission standard. RCA, Philco, and Dumont each had invested heavily in research on and development of such systems. All were capable of transmitting pictures, but each was totally incompatible with the others. Sarnoff was certain that if he could get his system to market first, a wave of public support (similar to that of early radio listeners) would propel the RCA system to the forefront, forcing the FCC to select it as the national standard. Sarnoff’s plan suffered from poor timing, however. With the United States just coming out of the Depression, few Americans had the money to buy a TRK 660. The world war brought television development to a standstill, so the great outpouring of support that Sarnoff hoped for never materialized. Nevertheless, Sarnoff’s ploy had the desired effect. The FCC settled on RCA’s system, with only minor modifications, as the American video standard in 1941.

Although this rush to market was in RCA’s best interest, it proved less than optimal for American television viewers. The American video standard—the picture seen on American television sets—is of lower quality than the standards required in all other major industrial nations. The image is fuzzier and less true to life than television images in Britain, France, Germany, and Japan. These nations, with their researchers free from the pressure of private enterprise, took the time to perfect their broadcasting systems before presenting them to the public.

Sarnoff’s loftier predictions of things to come were indeed precise. Television brought viewers together to witness and be a part of all major national events. The first half century of television history yielded hundreds of common shared experiences, among them President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the Vietnam War, the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Nixon, and the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Less notable, but still important in American culture, are the many beauty pageants, Rose Parades, football bowl games, and World Series that viewers have watched. As time passed and television audiences grew, the producers of such events modified their presentation to make them easier and more profitable for television to broadcast.

Just as Sarnoff promised, the growth of television produced many new industries. Prominent among these were the manufacture of broadcast and reception equipment as well as the production of programs. In addition, many parallel and ancillary businesses owe their existence to television. Radar, satellite communications, and computers, for instance, all share elements of television technology. Other businesses emerged to support the television industry, including ratings services (such as the A. C. Nielsen Company) and cable television providers.

Sarnoff also believed that showmanship would replace thoughtful expression on the part of politicians once they were exposed to television, a prediction that has arguably been proved correct. It is true that television has had its noteworthy political moments, such as Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now episode in 1954 that took on communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign debates, and the combined use of live television and nationwide telephone call-ins that allowed access to the candidates during the 1992 presidential election. For the most part, however, the political discourse that has appeared on television has been one-sided, taking the form of campaign advertising. The process of packaging a candidate’s ideology in an advertiser’s format, with only thirty seconds or a minute for most messages, offers little to voters to allow them to gauge accurately a candidate’s plans, goals, or abilities. Sarnoff was right—the more evocative the picture, the more influenced the voter.

Sarnoff envisioned greatness for television, yet even he might not have believed that fifty years after television service began in New York City in 1939, 98 percent of all American homes would be receiving it. Delivered through direct broadcast, cable, and satellite dish, television reached approximately ninety million American households in 1989, and American households watched an average of seven hours of programming per day. Sarnoff lived into the 1970’s, long enough to see his product mature. As a businessman, he understood something that the American public took much longer to realize: The entertainment programs on television are not what is important—they are just filler between the commercials. Television;U.S. National Broadcasting Company Inventions;television

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1880 to 1941. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Early chapters present, in language generally accessible to lay readers, a comprehensive discussion of the technological developments between 1671 and 1900 that led to television; later chapters are more technical. Includes developments outside the United States that are often ignored in American television histories, such as the 1930’s development of television in Japan and London television service between 1936 and 1939.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Eric. The Golden Web: 1933-1953. Vol. 2 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. Covers the development of radio through its ascendancy in the 1930’s and begins the history of the development of commercial television. Well documented.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Condensed, updated version of the material in Barnouw’s three-volume set A History of Broadcasting in the United States, published between 1966 and 1970. Very readable general survey of television development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Comprehensive biography focuses on Sarnoff in the context of his industry. Relatively unbiased account by a former RCA executive and associate of Sarnoff covers the full range of Sarnoff’s career. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeFleur, Melvin L., and Everette E. Dennis. Understanding Mass Communication. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. College-level text provides both technical and historical information about television’s development. Includes pictures and diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Everson, George. The Story of Television: The Life of Philo T. Farnsworth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1949. Uncritical biography by a man who recognized the young Farnsworth’s ability and helped him find funding for his research laboratory. Emphasizes the rags-to-riches odyssey of Farnsworth from farm boy to internationally known inventor. Includes material unavailable elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gross, Lynne S. Telecommunications: Radio, Television, and Movies in the Digital Age. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. College-level text provides a good overview of electronic mass media, including the history of radio and television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Head, Sydney W., Thomas Spann, and Michael A. McGregor. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. The standard introduction to the institutions of radio and television in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyons, Eugene. David Sarnoff. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Biography by Sarnoff’s cousin is uncritical but provides considerable material about Sarnoff’s family, his early poverty and pursuit of a career, and his rise from office boy to executive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ritchie, Michael. Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1994. Covers the period of television broadcasting before 1948. Includes interesting appendixes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Christopher H., and John Michael Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. Comprehensive one-volume history of radio and television in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Udelson, Joseph H. The Great Television Race: A History of the American Television Industry, 1925-1941. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989. Chronicles the people, inventions, and events important to the development of commercial television worldwide.

Radio Broadcasting Begins

Zworykin Applies for Patent on an Early Type of Television

National Broadcasting Company Is Founded

Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress

BBC Airs the First High-Definition Television Program

First Color Television Broadcast

Categories: History