Tales of Lost TV: Opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair

On Sunday, April 30th, 1939 at 12:30PM, experimental station W2XBS in New York City began regularly scheduled television broadcasts with the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The station was owned by the Radio Corporation of America and operated by the National Broadcasting Company. President Roosevelt became the first president to be televised when he gave a speech officially dedicating the fair. His speech began at roughly 3:12PM [1].

There were just 100 and 200 television sets in New York City at the time, according to The New York Times, with a total audience of perhaps 1,000 viewers [2]. A dozen sets were in operation at RCA’s exhibition at the fair with screens nine inches by twelve inches.

The Paley Center for Media lists the opening of fair as one of the “lost” television programs it is looking for. Sadly, it’s next to impossible they’ll ever find it.

That’s not to say that the speeches have been lost forever. There are newsreels and audio may exist from radio broadcasts. The TV broadcasts are another story. Prior to the introduction of the kinescope in 1947 there wasn’t a good way to record live television broadcasts. A film camera could be set up in front of a television screen, resulting in a silent recording of questionable quality.

The Early Television Museum‘s article on television at the 1939 World’s Fair includes a photograph taken from a television set during President Roosevelt’s speech. It’s likely more photographs like this one in existence.

A pair of RCA promotional films preserved at the Internet Archive include what seems to be the same short piece of film footage depicting a television set with scenes from the fair on the screen:

“An RCA Presentation: Television”
(skip to 01:26)

“The Story of Television”
(skip to 09:38)


February 14th, 2010 Update: Philo notes in the comments that these films do not show actual television broadcasts from the fair but instead newsreel footage made to look like it is being shown on the television set.

Could actual film footage of a TV set showing the W2XBS broadcast exist, perhaps made for NBC or RCA? What about those 100 to 200 sets in New York Times? Could someone have set up a camera and filmed a few seconds or minutes of their TV set? I suppose anything’s possible but I’m not hopeful.


5 Comments

  • Boy, they really need to take better care of archival material! I read that the original videotape containing the Apollo 11 moon footage from July 20, 1969 was also carelessly disposed of! >:-(

  • Philo says:

    Sorry, neither example shows kinescopes of the World’s Fair (or, in the case of the latter, the first televised baseball game). Just newsreel flm matted onto the position of the screen. However, there’s part of another NBC promotional film on YouTune that shows a clip of a 1946 kine of the Louis-Conn fight from Yankee Stadium. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uC-g-eB6Rjs

  • RGJ says:

    Well, that’s disappointing to hear, Philo, but not entirely unexpected.

  • Jack Morrow says:

    A trivia sidebar to that day: Those who didn’t want to attend the World’s Fair opening could have gone to Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees lose 7-2 to the Washington Nationals. Lou Gehrig went 0 for 3; nobody knew it, but it turned out to be his last game.

  • D. Sanders says:

    Franklin Roosevelt actually made two, live appearances over W2XBS in New York.
    The first, of course, is the opening of the World’s Fair in April 1939, but not widely known is a reported second TV appearance when FDR’s speech at Madison Square Garden on October 28, 1940, was telecast live over W2XBS to receivers in the New York City area

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