TV Debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair 75 Years Ago Today

The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City opened 75 years ago today on Sunday, April 30th, 1939. With it came the official start of the first regularly scheduled television service in the United States aimed at the public, over RCA’s experimental station W2XBS. All previous television programs, regularly scheduled or not, were intended primarily for evaluation purposes, to allow engineers to tinker with the technical aspects of television broadcasting.

The W2XBS schedule was limited, with studio programs on Wednesday and Friday nights and occasional live pick-ups from the Fair on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. Films were broadcast at various times Monday through Friday to give the RCA exhibit at the Fair something to show visitors as well as TV salesmen in the city. RCA began selling television sets on May 1st. The first studio program aired from 8-9PM on Wednesday, May 3rd.

The Fair’s opening ceremony began at 12:30PM and ran until 4PM. It included a speech from President Roosevelt, marking the first time a president appeared on television. The New York Times estimated that there were between 100 to 200 television sets in use in New York City, with perhaps 1,000 people watching [1]. Remarkably, the event was broadcast using just one television camera.

This historic program is considered lost. It occurred almost a decade before the introduction of the kinescope, meaning there was no way to record the broadcast. Photographs taken from television screens exist, as does newsreel footage of the opening ceremony.

Here’s how the paper described the broadcast:

The main criticism of television viewers on the Fair grounds and at Radio City was that the camera was too far away from the speakers, causing the images to be too small. They also complained of the camera man’s remaining in the same spot for the entire show. It was explained, however, that this could be overcome only by the use of additional cameras, since the Secret Service would not permit the camera man to roam around and get the lens as close to the President as the radio microphones are arrayed. [2]

And here’s a rough schedule for that first week:

Sunday, April 30th, 1939
12:30-4:00PM – Opening of New York World’s Fair.

Monday, May 1st, 1939
11:00AM-4:00PM – Films.

Tuesday, May 2nd, 1939
11:00AM-4:00PM – Films.

Wednesday, May 3rd, 1939
4:00-8:00PM – Films.
8:00-9:00PM – Studio presentations.

Thursday, May 4th, 1939
11:00AM-4:00PM – Films.

Friday, May 5th, 1939
4:00-8:00PM – Films.
8:00-9:00PM – Studio presentations.

Saturday, May 6th, 1939
Off the air.

Broadcasting reported that the first studio program on Wednesday, May 3rd included “a variety show with Broadway stars, a ‘Donald Duck’ animated cartoon and a newsreel produced by NBC especially for its television service, originating in the Radio City studios. There was also a switch to the Fair grounds for telecast interviews with visitors” [3].

So, if you’re near a television set at 12:30PM ET today, take a few seconds to think about all that the small screen has accomplished in the past 75 years.

Works Cited

1 Dunlap, Orrin E., Jr. “Ceremony Is Carried by Television As Industry Makes Its Formal Bow.” New York Times. 1 May 1939: 8.
2 Ibid.
3 Robertson, Bruce. “Television at Fair Impresses Public.” Broadcasting. 15 May 1939: 16.

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1 Comment

  • Mulholland Rocket says:

    Amazing that when the fair opened the world was at peace. When closed many of the staffs of the various pavilions had no country to go back to. Hitler owned much of continental Europe and the Brits were all that held the line between civilization and a new dark age.

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