As with the transition to digital television, the road to color also took a long, complex and tortured path. The earliest recorded patent for color television dates back to 1904 in Germany. A steady stream of developments occurred from then on.
In 1940, CBS under the leadership of Peter Goldmark, designed a mechanical color system based on designs from the 1920s. In 1950, the FCC named the CBS technology — called the Field Sequential Color System — the U.S. national standard.
RCA, a fierce competitor, sued to stop CBS’s technology. Though RCA eventually lost the lawsuit, it won the technology war by causing delay. The CBS system was technically problematic — it had a flicker problem — and was incompatible with the more than 10 million black and white TV sets that had been already sold.
Consumers avoided expensive, incompatible TV sets that could receive little color programming. Eventually, sluggish sales and a prohibition on color television receiver manufacturing during the Korean War, caused the CBS initiative to fail.
RCA followed the war with a better technology design, based on the 1947 patent application of RCA researcher Alfred Schroeder for a shadow mask cathode ray tube. RCA’s improved color system employed a shadow mask full of tiny holes. Electron guns, one each for red, green and blue, targeted light through the holes to create phosphors for each primary color.
Most importantly, it avoided the trap that had caused failure for CBS. RCA’s new system was backwardly compatible with the existing black-and-white television system. Color programs could be received in black and white on standard six megahertz TV channels. The FCC approved the RCA system — now known as NTSC — in late 1953, leading to the historic 1954 Rose Parade telecast.
Ed Reitan, then 10 years old, remembers being rustled out of bed very early the snowy morning of Jan. 1, 1954, for a ride in the family Studebaker to the Paxton Hotel in downtown Omaha. In the lobby, he swept past a placard displaying General David Sarnoff’s picture as he entered a “dark and mysterious grand ballroom” filled with about 400 people.
“Across the side wall of the pitch black ballroom were five flickering television receivers,” he recalled. “Three were conventional 21-inch black-and-white sets. But between them were two bulky, red-mahogany cabinets with small — but incredibly beautiful — color pictures on them! The cabinets had only 12-inch screens, so tiny and blurry that you had to look at the larger black-and-white screens to recognize detail. But it was color and it was gorgeous — rich Technicolor reds, greens and blues.”
Reitan retains a vivid memory of the rich velvet purples on the cape of a horseman riding in the parade past the two NBC (prototype pre-production RCA TK-40) cameras. “Suddenly it was no longer a dull black-and-white world — just like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, the world was now in living color,” he said.
So excited that his dad had to practically drag him from the RCA demonstration, Reitan said he peppered his father all the way home with questions about the 90-minute WOW-TV color broadcast. The day had made a lifelong impression.
Today, Reitan has assembled an informative website on the history of color television. He also personally owns one of a handful of the known remaining RCA Model 5 prototypes made for the Rose Parade broadcast. In 1989, Reitan received a technical Emmy Award for his restoration of the earliest color videotapes.
In its coverage of the 1954 Rose Parade broadcast, the New York Times noted that the historic program was a “bevy of hues” and that RCA and NBC had passed a “severe test.” The newspaper reported that “the results were exceedingly good.”
Said the Times: “With so many sets in operation, each subject to relatively critical tuning controls and possible vagaries of electronics, the quality of the tinted images from Pasadena undoubtedly varied on some receivers. But, overall, there is no question that the essence of the parades’ panorama of color was projected successfully on home screens some 3,000 miles away. In comparison, the monochrome pictures seen on existing receivers seemed virtually meaningless.”
The newspaper reported that the first live color broadcast did emphasize several problems for the home viewer. “In the broad daylight and sunshine, it was necessary to draw the shades and cut out all glare if the colors on the TV screen were not to be washed out. This frankly, was a nuisance,” the Times noted.
Another limitation was the small 12-inch picture size. “Since it is necessary to sit much farther away than from a black-and-white set, one wonders how big a color tube will be practical. Finding a happy compromise between picture size and viewing distance could be tricky for the engineer and the viewer, particularly if the latter must start rearranging furniture again.”
In the six decades since that first broadcast, the color pictures have gotten better, the screen sizes larger and the cameras smaller. Only the need for rearrangement of furniture — which is called for with each new generation of audio and video equipment — has remained unchanged.
However, to those who saw that first color broadcast, it’s the “wow factor” that still comes to mind. Perhaps Omaha’s then mayor, Glenn Cunningham, after seeing those first color pictures at the Paxton Hotel, put it best: