June 1953 marked the first local television broadcasts made by Greater Lafayette’s first commercial station, WFAM-TV, later succeeded by WLFI-TV.
The inaugural programs had been preceded for more than a quarter-century, however, by important television research at Purdue University, centered in the Department of Electrical Engineering.
One of those milestones involving Purdue occurred in the spring of 1930. On May 13, news media reported that the Federal Radio Commission had authorized construction of a TV transmitting station to Professor C.F. Harding, dean of Purdue’s Schools of Engineering.
Early reports had it that the first station for long-distance experiments would be built in the Electrical Engineering Building and would operate with a power of 1,500 watts on a wavelength of 2,100 kilocycles. Those may have been early plans, but they changed as time went on. The transmitter actually went up north of Ross-Ade Stadium, the frequency was set at 2,800 kilocycles, and the power 500 or maybe 1000 watts.
Harding had been heading a team seriously researching television in West Lafayette for about a year before the federal authority arrived. His team, funded with a $120,000 grant from the Grisgby-Grunow Co. of Chicago, included Professor Raymond B. Abbott and instructor Roscoe H. George. (Sales of radios from Grigsby-Grunow, formed in 1928, were soaring in 1930 because of their superior speakers. But the nation’s Great Depression came on, and by 1933 the company was bankrupt.)
In 1930, new cathode ray applications were in development. Cathode tube and cathode ray technology was displacing the neon-lamp basis for Frank Gray’s 1920s achievements. Lab experiments since had succeeded to the extent that construction of transmitting and receiving stations were needed to push cathode knowledge further. The receiving station that would be paired with Purdue’s transmitter was set up in Chicago.
Like pioneer radio station WBAA (“The Voice of Purdue”) which went on the air in the spring of 1922, the Purdue TV transmitter would be built by students directed by faculty. Only through such an arrangement was it possible to get the federal permit because so few frequency bands were available for television.
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Yet another major moment toward development of TV occurred at Purdue in the late winter of 1933. The Journal & Courier described the first home demonstrations of a portable TV receiver. A Purdue team working under Roscoe George produced it and began showing it off in the Harding family home at 607 University St., West Lafayette.
Various Purdue officials and local business and professional leaders saw it work on the night of Tuesday, Jan. 31. Then on Friday afternoon, Feb. 3, several engineers from Radio Corporation of America (RCA) arrived from the East for an inspection.
The Jan. 31 event involved tuning the receiver to get pictures transmitted from the experiment station given the call letters W9XG near the stadium. X identified the experimental nature of it. The newspaper account said:
“Pictures materialized seemingly out of the thin air in an almost eerie fashion as the receiver was tuned in on the Purdue station. (A) momentary ‘ghost-like’ effect was removed almost instantly by the sharpness and contrast of the pictures that moved across the ‘window’ of the receiving set.
“The receiving set has reached the stage where it is ready for commercial production at a price that will be within the range of the ordinary radio fan.”
W9XG had started biweekly broadcasts in late March 1932. The newspaper story said that W9XG had a range of 800 miles, but this surely was in error. The receiving station in Chicago was about 125 miles distant.
Because neon is a reddish gas when charged with electricity, the early neon-lamp versions presented television pictures in fine red and black lines. The cathode ray vacuum type receiver by 1933 displayed images in black and white, obviously permitting sharper contrasts.
Credit went to Roscoe George and research assistant and instructor Howard J. Heim at Purdue for developing the new portable receiver. George was a 1922 Purdue engineering grad and obtained his master’s in 1927 after producing a cathode ray oscillograph used in science labs to photograph lightning and high voltage electricity.
Commercial telecasting suspended during the World War II years (1939-1945), resumed with vigor in 1946. Solid-state technology improved upon and then replaced the cathode tube approach in the late 1950s.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history — a history that Purdue University helped to write. All over the U.S. cities large or less began to boast of their own TV broadcasting stations.
About the Old Lafayette series
Each week, the Journal & Courier is reprinting some of the best of late J&C editor Bob Kriebel’s Old Lafayette columns. Today’s edition, about early television research done at Purdue University, is taken from a column originally published June 8, 2003.
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