First Color Television Broadcast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Radio Corporation of America and the Columbia Broadcasting System both demonstrated color television systems in 1940, although the RCA system was not adopted until 1953.

Summary of Event

Although color television had been demonstrated in Scotland in 1928 (by engineer John Logie Baird), Baird, John Logie 1940 serves as the benchmark for the invention of a medium that would come to dominate television technology during the latter third of the twentieth century. Two events in 1940 denote that year as the beginning of color television. First, on February 12, 1940, RCA demonstrated its color television system privately, including to members of the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission;color television standards (FCC), an administrative body that had the authority to set standards for an electronic color system in the United States. The demonstration did not go well; indeed, David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), canceled a planned public demonstration and had his engineers return to the Princeton, New Jersey, headquarters of RCA’s laboratories. [kw]First Color Television Broadcast (Sept. 1, 1940) [kw]Color Television Broadcast, First (Sept. 1, 1940) [kw]Television Broadcast, First Color (Sept. 1, 1940) [kw]Broadcast, First Color Television (Sept. 1, 1940) Television;color Radio Corporation of America Columbia Broadcasting System [g]United States;Sept. 1, 1940: First Color Television Broadcast[10300] [c]Science and technology;Sept. 1, 1940: First Color Television Broadcast[10300] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 1, 1940: First Color Television Broadcast[10300] [c]Communications and media;Sept. 1, 1940: First Color Television Broadcast[10300] Goldmark, Peter Carl Paley, William S. Sarnoff, David

On September 1, 1940, CBS struck its blow for a competition to determine the color system that would become the standard for the United States. On that late-summer day, CBS demonstrated to the public a sequential color system that was based on the research of engineer Peter Carl Goldmark. CBS’s color technology was the superior of the two systems demonstrated in 1940. Goldmark’s system broke the television image down into three primary colors through a set of spinning filters in front of black and white, causing the video to be viewed in color. This was known as additive color.

Although Goldmark had been at work as a research engineer at CBS since January, 1936, he did not attempt to develop a color television system until March, 1940, after he had witnessed the spectacle of the Technicolor motion picture Gone with the Wind (1939). Inspired, Goldmark began to tinker in his tiny CBS laboratory in the headquarters building in New York City.

If a decision had been made in 1940, the CBS color standard would have been accepted as the national standard. At that time, however, the FCC was trying to establish a black-and-white standard; color television seemed decades away. A 1941 decision by the FCC to adopt standards only for black-and-white television left the issue of color unresolved. This standards recommendation was based on the advice of the National Television Standards Committee, which represented electronics manufacturers and leading research scientists.

The two leading broadcasting companies in the United States did not simply accept the FCC’s decision. Control of a potentially lucrative market as well as personal rivalry threw William S. Paley, head of CBS, and Sarnoff into a race for the control of color television. Both companies would pay dearly in terms of money and time in developing the technology for color television, and it would not be until the 1960’s that color television would become common in the United States.

RCA’s leadership in the development of the accepted black-and-white television system gave the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), a subsidiary of RCA, a head start over CBS. Once black and white became the standard in the late 1940’s, however, CBS saw the creation of a workable color system as a potential weapon to counter the advantage long held by NBC.

CBS took a far different approach from that of RCA. Goldmark alone did the work for the CBS Laboratories. In contrast, RCA relied on a corporate laboratory staffed by highly skilled but largely anonymous scientists. Sarnoff ran RCA laboratories as a true corporate monolith; no scientists at RCA ever became as famous as Sarnoff.

The CBS color system was incompatible with the RCA standard for black-and-white television. In other words, viewers would need one set to watch black-and-white programming and one for color. Moreover, because the CBS color system needed more spectrum space than the National Television Standards Committee National Television Standards Committee black-and-white system in use, CBS was forced to request that the FCC allocate new channel space in the ultrahigh frequency (UHF) band, which was then not being used. In contrast, RCA scientists labored to fashion a compatible color system that required no additional spectrum space.

Not surprisingly, in the early 1940’s, CBS received little encouragement from the FCC, even though roughly one hundred scientists were trying to perfect the color system. Indeed, the leaders of CBS were not able to convince the FCC to do anything about color television before the end of World War II. This meant that, although CBS had a workable color system, it faced a world lining up to purchase RCA’s black-and-white television sets in 1945.

The suburbanites who populated new communities in American cities sought television immediately; they did not want to wait for governmental bodies to decide on a color standard and then for manufacturers to redesign assembly lines to make color sets. Americans, rich with savings accumulated during the prosperity of the war years, wanted to spend immediately, not wait as they had through the Great Depression. After the war, the FCC saw no reason to open up proceedings about color. Black-and-white television was operational; customers were waiting in line for the new electronic marvel. To give its engineers time to create a compatible system, RCA skillfully lobbied the members of the FCC to take no action.

There were legitimate problems with the CBS mechanical color television technology. Not only was it incompatible with the millions of new black-and-white television sets being sold, but it also was noisy and bulky, and it did not always maintain the color balance. Demonstrations often went poorly. CBS proclaimed that through further engineering work it would improve the actual sets, but RCA was able to convince other manufacturers to support it in preference to CBS principally because of its proven manufacturing track record.

In 1946, RCA demonstrated a new electronic color receiver with three picture tubes, one for each of the primary colors. The color was fairly true; there was little flicker, but any movement on the screen caused color blurring. This was an all-electronic system, in contrast to the mechanical system of CBS. It was also compatible with the standard for black-and-white television. Thus ended the invention phase of color television begun in 1940. The race for standardization would require seven years of corporate struggle before one system would win out.


The inventions of CBS and RCA set off the race toward a standard for color television. Each company would pour millions of dollars into convincing the FCC to select its system as the standard. The winner of the first round was RCA when, in 1946, the FCC again rejected the color technology of CBS as the standard. CBS had tried to convince the world it was time to adopt color; officials of RCA argued that black and white was here, whereas color was still five years away.

In 1950, the FCC reversed its decision and accepted the mechanical scanning system after a convincing demonstration. RCA countered with a lawsuit seeking to overturn the commission’s decision. In 1951, RCA lost this suit, and it seemed that the CBS color system would become the national standard. CBS began to manufacture color television sets while RCA worked to reverse the official rulings. According to one source, RCA poured about $150 million more into research and tendered many more millions to Washington, D.C., lobbyists and lawyers.

In the end, few of CBS’s color sets were made, because American involvement in the Korean War caused the company to cease production in October, 1951. This gave the opposing forces time to convince the National Television Standards Committee that any color system ought to be compatible with the millions of black-and-white sets Americans had already purchased—as was RCA’s system.

So lobbied, the FCC rescinded its 1950 ruling approving the CBS color television system. On December 17, 1953, it reapproved the compatible RCA system. Seeing what the delay caused by the Korean War cost CBS, RCA moved quickly. In 1954, in eighteen cities in the United States, the Rose Parade held in Pasadena, California, on New Year’s Day was broadcast in color on NBC. Few viewers had color sets at that time, but owners of black-and-white-compatible sets could receive the signal and see the parade in black and white.

Through the 1950’s, black-and-white television remained the order of the day. Five years after the 1953 adoption of the National Television Standards Committee, only the NBC television network was regularly airing programs in color. Full production and presentation of programming in color during prime time would not come until the mid-1960’s; most industry observers acknowledge 1972 as the date of the true arrival of color television. By 1972, more than one-half the homes in the United States owned color sets. At that point, TV Guide stopped tagging color program listings with a special symbol and instead tagged black-and-white shows. Gradually, only cheap portable sets were made for black and white, whereas color sets came in all varieties, from tiny handheld pocket models to mammoth projection televisions.

It should be noted that, despite RCA’s victory in the race to have its color system become the standard, specialized uses of closed-circuit television in medical settings used the high-quality color rendition of the CBS system for many years. Indeed, the pictures from the Moon transmitted by American astronauts were sent on CBS cameras—built by RCA. Television;color Radio Corporation of America Columbia Broadcasting System

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. A History of Broadcasting in the United States. 3 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966-1970. Massive work still stands as among the most important histories of broadcasting in the United States. The coming of color television is covered in the second and third volumes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Biography by a longtime associate of Sarnoff presents a balanced account of his life. Provides a detailed history of RCA’s contribution to the invention and innovation of color television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dreher, Carl. Sarnoff: An American Success. New York: Quadrangle, 1977. Comprehensive work on the activities of RCA and its founder presents a detailed history of the invention and innovation of color television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fink, Donald G., and David M. Lutyens. The Physics of Television. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. Compact volume gives an excellent explanation of how television works in nontechnical language accessible to readers with only modest science background. Explains color systems in the final chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldmark, Peter C., and Lee Edson. Maverick Inventor: My Turbulent Years at CBS. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973. Autobiography of the key inventor at CBS includes three chapters that detail the development of color television. Provides a rare look into the world of corporate technological research and development.
  • 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. Comprehensive introduction to the institutions of radio and television in the United States. Includes discussion of the invention and innovation of color television technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lichty, Lawrence W., and Malachi C. Topping, comps. American Broadcasting: A Source Book on the History of Radio and Television. New York: Hastings House, 1975. Collection of articles and documents covering the history of radio and television. Informative concerning the history of all forms of television technology, including color television, as well as the changing economics and social impact of this mass entertainment industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metz, Robert. CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. New York: Playboy Press, 1975. A history of one of the most important broadcasting institutions in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Biography includes detailed examination of the history of the Columbia Broadcasting System and explains why CBS developed color television technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Christopher H., and John M. Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. Comprehensive history of radio and television in the United States provides excellent coverage of the development of color television technology.

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

American Television Debuts at the World’s Fair

Categories: History