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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The History of Television, 1880 to 1941 by Albert Abramson (McFarland) The History of Television, 1942 to 2000 by Albert Abramson (McFarland) 364 photos, notes, bibliography, index Albert Abramson published (with McFarland) In 2003, the follow-up volume, 1942 to 2000, appeared; the reader may be assured there are no other books in any language that are remotely comparable to either of these volumes. Together, they provide the definitive technical history of the medium. Upon the development in the mid-1940s of new cameras and picture tubes that made commercial television possible worldwide, the medium rose rapidly to prominence. Perhaps even more important was the invention of the video tape recorder in 1956, allowing editing, re-shooting and rebroadcasting.

The History of Television, 1880 to 1941 by Albert Abramson (McFarland) 368 pages, 50 photos, glossary, bibliography, index It would be difficult to cite any technological innovation whose impact on the fabric of daily living has been as pervasive as that of television. Within a few decades after its invention, television was providing, literally, a window to the world.

A sole inventor of television does not exist. Instead, it came about through a remarkable interaction of several hundred scientists. Interviews with the scientists whose imagination and enterprise combined to make television a reality, extensive archival research worldwide, and rare photos make this book the one definitive history and the only authoritative account. Early inventions, the first devices, early camera tubes, the mechanical era, the kinescope, the iconoscope, and more.

It would be difficult to cite any technological innovation whose impact on the fabric of daily living has been as pervasive as that of television. In the space of only some decades, this highly sophisticated system was invented, developed and succeeded literally in providing a window on the world to all of its inhabitants.

How did this profound gift to mankind come about? You will search your libraries in vain for a worldwide, authoritative and detailed account of this dramatic development. Abramson had scoured the world to interview the fast-disappearing scientists whose imagination and enterprise combined to make television a reality. These interviews were supplemented by an extensive and intensive search of the scientific literature. The list of well over a thousand references reinforces the factual validity of Abramson's story.

The highly detailed story should serve many purposes, among which is an unmatched collection of source material. The reader has a generous supply of detail with which he can support his own interpretation of the meaning of this vast development.

Abramson found, for example, that the common and oversimplified practice of citing some individual as the "father" of television is a patent distortion of history. To try to squeeze the numerous contributions into the narrow confines of one individual does an injustice to the rich texture of the facts — a remarkable interaction of several hundred major scientists striving towards a common goal, each in his own fashion. The competition was intense. Here was a striking game played out. The aim of each individual was to enhance his own prestige, which, coincidentally could be done only by serving society. (Abramson's treatment of the many personal conflicts is meticulously evenhanded.)

So, too, among the many private corporations and the competition was often a life-and-death struggle for the survival of all or part of the corporation. In the end, the beneficiary was always society. What better arrangement than that the intense drives to satisfy individual and corporate needs should be channeled into serving society?

Throughout the preparation of this book on the history of television, Abramson faced a fundamental problem: how to present a great mass of what appears to be "obviously" unrelated material in a palatable and entertaining manner. Yet he wanted to avoid the fictions with which many historians embellish their facts — the mythical anecdotes and quotes for which there is little or no factual basis. While such fictions make for interesting reading, the reader is ill served.

Abramson had spent a great deal of time in researching the vast treasure trove of literature to be found in the libraries and archives of the large corporations and interviewing the surviving pioneers. He felt no need to "create" drama, realizing that the real drama lay in the facts themselves. Every event, whether it was a simple article or a complicated patent, was an adventure into the future. The pioneers involved were treading on ground that had never before been covered. They were creating a new form of communication that man had intuitively desired for thousands of years —namely, to reach beyond the horizon and see and hear his fellow man, who might be thousands of miles away.

No one person invented television; most of the inventors were ahead of their time and technology; some were idle dreamers, others were practical men who could turn their ideas into machinery. Ideas did not always occur in logical order. So Abramson decided to present the actual facts from primary sources as they appeared chronologically and let the reader vicariously participate in the medium's progress. For the reader and the future historian, Abramson has included a host of references that could be checked out at some later date. Also one will find in the notes most of the comments and opinions that are helpful in explaining certain events.

Abramson  strove to be objective, factual and impartial, allowing only my conscience and the facts that I have uncovered to be my guide. The source material he has used consists principally of documentary evidence such as:

(1)   patent applications, patent interferences, and of course the patents themselves;

(2)   engineering notebooks and logs as well as letters and correspondence of the various inventors found in several industrial archives;

(3)   the great body of general information found in the technical journals;

(4)   the vast amount of knowledge to be found in the newspapers and magazines of the times; and finally,

(5)   the Iextensive interviews that I conducted with the surviving pioneers in the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Germany. My only regret is that I did not start my research some ten years earlier in order to get to know more of the television pioneers who were still alive.

Abramson made certain assumptions: first, that each pioneer or inventor is aware of (a) prior art and (b) prior literature through his own research of patents and related materials; second, that he is indeed the actual inventor and the facts are as recorded. Any attempts at predating or changes after the fact are given no consideration.

All claims were put into three categories:

(1) Abramson reported as fact all ideas and/or machines and how well they worked, when these are fully supported by (a) dated and witnessed laboratory notes, (b) dated and signed applications for patents, (c) photos and blueprints of apparatus, and (d) demonstrations, whether public or private, as reported by reliable, disinterested witnesses.

(2) He reported as marginal claims that cannot be substantiated except by secondhand information such as undated photos and notes or by the reports of involved witnesses. These claims are presented when the matter is important enough to be included in the body of this book, and it is left to the reader to decide for himself whether the facts are as quoted.

(3) He rejected out of hand all claims in which an idea, invention, or device was supposedly conceived many years in the past, and the inventor has only his memory to guide him.

Abramson used all of the above as a means of providing checks and balances of one against the other, so enabling me to present the story as authentically and truthfully to the historical record as humanly possible. With these facts in mind, he made many presumptions based on the facts as he saw them, and have come up with what he felt are logical conclusions. Only time will tell how correct they are. In no case do I attempt to justify or criticize any patent office or legal decision.

The History of Television, 1942 to 2000 covers these significant developments in the mid-1940s of new cameras and picture tubes, and the invention of the video tape recorder in 1956, allowing editing, re-shooting and rebroadcasting. Chapters are devoted to television during World War II and the postwar era, the development of color television, Ampex Corporation's contributions, television in Europe, the change from helical to high band technology, solid state cameras, the television coverage of Apollo II, the rise of electronic journalism, television entering the studios, the introduction of the camcorder, the demise of RCA at the hands of GE, the domination of Sony and Matsushita, and the future of television in e-cinema and the 1080 P24 format. The book is heavily illustrated (as is the first volume).

The late Albert Abramson worked at CBS for over 30 years as a cameraman, videotape editor, and sound technician, and was the author of several books and articles on the history of television aside from the two-volume set from McFarland. He lived in Las Vegas, Nevada.

As you read these chapters, Abramson's own tele­vision history is worth recalling, for he first wrote about the early part of this fascinating tale in a pioneering book published nearly a half century ago—Electronic Motion Pictures: A History of the Television Camera (University of California Press, 1955). The book was re­printed two decades later as it was then still the only se­rious history available (Arno Press, 1974). There in text, diagrams, and photos, he related the rise of electronic television including early attempts to effectively record what was being installed at theaters here and abroad.

Over the years Abramson followed television's story with seminal articles on the development and improve­ment of TV recording methods, as well as biographical papers on mechanical TV pioneer C. Francis Jenkins and electronic TV pioneers Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, all of these appearing in the respected SMPTE Journal. The first volume of the present history — taking the story through 1941— appeared in 1987. The Zworykin paper was expanded into the definitive book-length Zworykin: Pioneer of Television (University of Illinois Press, 1995). In each of these studies, Abramson has maintained a careful balance in considering and comparing conflict­ ing claims of "firsts" from a variety of individuals and companies. He has become widely recognized (and cited) as the technical chronicler of the medium so important in American and worldwide households.

Abramson's new volume completes the complex tale. Taking up where the first History of Television left off—the commercial inception of television on the eve of Amer­ican entry into World War II — Abramson relates the many subsequent twists and turns in television's expan­sion to the rainbow of offerings and technologies avail­able today. As he makes clear, it has rarely been a simple or direct path.

Along with millions of others, I grew up with tele­vision, and though then ignorant of what was develop­ing behind the scenes, I remember several "landmarks" over the years. The first television screen I saw must have been in 1948 when I was all of five. My grandmother lived just outside of New York City and owned one of the first RCA post-war table models (see chapter 2). The wooden cabinet enclosed a seven- or eight-inch screen enlarged by use of a round magnifying glass placed in front of it. Though of course I didn't know it then, I was witnessing network television's first season of program­ming.

Back home in Madison, Wisconsin, we couldn't even watch television thanks to the Federal Communications Commission's long freeze on authorizing new stations (1948-1952 — see chapters 2 and 3). The nearest television transmitter, indeed the only one in the state, was in Mil­waukee, some 90 miles east. After the freeze ended in 1953, when the first two UHF stations aired locally, I had to rely on various neighbors' good graces, as we must have been about the last household to purchase our own TV set. I remember adults glued to their sets during the spring 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that droned on for weeks— not that I understood what they were all about. I paid closer attention to the five-minute animated Cru­sader Rabbit episodes telecast after school.

We finally got our first receiver at home in October 1956, soon after Madison's only VHF outlet took to the air. Madison was now one of many "intermixed" markets with VHF and UHF broadcasting. The sole VHF channel quickly claimed most of the audience and advertising rev­enue, since the struggling UHF stations were often difficult to tune in. Our first set was a small RCA portable housed in a black metal case with a handle on top and a 12- or 14-inch black-and-white screen. An indoor "rabbit ear" antenna was essential for any kind of reception. The first week we owned the television I watched anything from ads to soaps to comedy. My parents paid more at­tention to coverage of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Suez crisis, and the U.S. presidential campaign.

By the time I began graduate study in this field a decade later, we still owned only one small black-and­white receiver. With other grad students, I made audiotape recordings of television's extensive news coverage of the pioneering 1969 moon landings, including the first tele­vision transmission from the lunar surface (see chapter 8). I no longer recall when I first saw color television, which had been available since the mid-1950s (see chapter 3), but my wife and I borrowed a color receiver in 1970 and finally bought our first color set a few years later (even commercials looked better in color!). With young daugh­ters eager for television, we subscribed to cable television in the late 1970s, and were amazed at the improved re­ception and growing choice among cable services. Our first VCR was purchased only in 1986, more than a decade after the first Sony Betamax devices pioneered that mar­ket (see chapter 9).

As a part of an audience of FCC officials, I was for­tunate to be a Washington witness at the very first Amer­ican demonstration of high-definition television early in 1981. All of us were amazed at the picture definition pro­ vided by a huge array of Japanese equipment shrouded behind curtains. At that point the new service seemed al­most around the corner. Little did we know how long it would really take to arrive (see chapter 13). Years later we bought our first camcorder (see chapter 11). Television's technical story continues into the new century with new consumer devices to make program selection and record­ing across over 100 channels easier (see chapter 14).

Reading Abramson's chapters takes the reader be­hind the scenes of what we watched over the past six de­cades, reconstructing how television developed techni­cally. He makes clear how this developmental process was the result of many competing inventors and companies, such as the high-stakes battle over color television stan­dards (fought largely between CBS and RCA and reviewed in chapters one through three). Much of Abramson's focus is on the steadily improving technology of cameras and recording methods (especially the Ampex develop­ment of video tape as discussed in chapter 4). He rescues the memory of a host of engineers and other key figures and companies who worked to perfect television equip­ment. And he details the increasing variety and capabil­ity of both television broadcasting equipment (cameras, recorders, and related devices) and improving consumer electronics options.

Abramson's focus extends beyond the United States. He notes the important developmental work done in Brit­ain, France, Germany, and Japan, for example, as well as the failure to achieve a single global color standard (see chapter 5), largely for political and economic reasons. He reviews the world-wide trend towards digital systems and assesses their likely future in a video world converging with computers and information processing. -- Christopher H. Sterling Washington, D.C.


Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews by Jacques Derrida, Bernard Stiegler, Jennifer Bajorek (Translator) (Polity Press) (Paperback) In this volume of recorded interviews, Jacques Derrida talks with Bernard Stiegler about the effect of teletechnologies on our philosophical and political moment,  the role of technology in modern societies. Our homes have always existed in the shadow of ‘the other' and inviting guests has always carried the threat of usurpation. In these interviews Derrida argues that today we are witnessing a new expropriation of our home by ‘teletechnologies', whose intrusion seriously endangers our ability to feel ‘at home' in the world. Improvising before a camera, the two philosophers are confronted by the very technologies they discuss and so are forced to address all the more directly the urgent questions that they raise. What does it mean to speak of the present in a situation of "live" recording? How can we respond, responsibly, to a question when we know that the so-called "natural" conditions of expression, discussion, reflection, and deliberation have been breached?

As Derrida and Stiegler discuss the role of teletechnologies in modern society, the political implications of Derrida's thought become apparent. Drawing on recent events in Europe, Derrida and Stiegler explore the impact of television and the internet on our understanding of the state, its borders and citizenship. Their discussion examines the relationship between the juridical and the technical, and it shows how new technologies for manipulating and transmitting images have influenced our notions of democracy, history and the body. The book opens with a shorter interview with Derrida on the news media, and closes with a provocative essay by Stiegler on the epistemology of digital photography.
In Echographies of Television, Derrida and Stiegler open up questions that are of key social and political importance. Their book will be of great interest to all those already familiar with Derrida's work, as well as to students and scholars of philosophy, literature, sociology and media studies.

Television, for example, introduces the outside world into our homes at every instant. Our lives are more isolated, more privatized than ever, even as our homes are permanently intruded, at our own choosing, by strangers, by faraway things, by other languages. The feeling of being ‘at home' is in danger of being eroded forever, as is the distinction between public and private space.
However, in discussion with Stiegler, Derrida argues not that we should fight against the teletechnologies, but that these media should accommodate the norms or ‘rhythms' of communication which are the norms for scientists, artists, writers, philosophers and intellectuals. They discuss the role of the law in the circulation of real or virtual images, and present a powerful argument for the citizen's right to consult the State's audio-visual archives; they examine the process of ‘delocalization' in which the accelerated growth of teletechnologies deconstructs the traditional concept of the State and the citizen in relation to an actual territory. This, Derrida warns, can give rise to a form of return to oneself and one's home which we call ‘little nationalism' whose potential endangers all our societies.

Sensing the City through Television by Peter Billingham (Intellect Books) How do fictional representations of the city contribute to our sense of identity? Does this feed back into how we see cities and their cultures?

This in‑depth analysis with five case studies provides the basis for a critique on the political, sociological and cultural implications of this strand of popular programming. The book features:

• Queer as Folk
• The Cops
• Holding On
• Homicide - Life on the Street
• Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City

Each program is discussed in terms of structure, content, characterization and narrative, and each is placed within a specific ideological context. The case studies represent a broad range of British and American cities and city sub‑cultures, while the book draws on the author's exclusive interviews with Tony Garnett, Tony Marchant and David Snodin.

The author further extends his analysis to investigate the intrinsic issues related to the implications of popular and high drama and culture.

As one of the first substantial investigations of the city in television drama, this book reflects and contributes to a growing general interest in the politics of representation. This is suitable for accommodation into the popular academic courses on drama and film/media studies both as a textbook and for supplementary reading.


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