When was color TV invented? Get the story of the television revolution

Color TV The big new thing in the 50s changed how people saw the whole world

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CBS made the first attempt to wade into the color television waters with their field-sequential color system, which was actually a mechanical system that used a rotating disc of color filters within the camera.

First demonstrated to the press in 1940, to the public in January 1950, and adopted as the standard for color TV by the FCC on October 11, 1950, it seemed like this newfangled device was going to be the future.

Full-page ads featuring the text below appeared in newspapers across the country supposedly to help explain the new technology… but they clearly had a bias against the current color scheme.

Ultimately, CBS ended up having to purchase their own television manufacturer, as no other company was willing to build sets using this system. By the time the Korean War broke out in November 1951 — when color television production was prohibited in order to devote resources to the war effort — CBS had only shipped 100 of the sets.

Color television would remain a bit of a dream until December 1953, when the FCC adopted RCA’s NTSC as the standard color TV technology — still the standard in the United States today.

The first coast-to-coast color television broadcast would be made by NBC on January 1, 1954 — a telecast of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Apr 9, 1965 Bob Hope - Color TV tech

Here they come on NBC in a blaze of Color! (1956)

… and it’s like meeting them for the first time: Perry Como & Dinah Shore

PERRY COMO! Watch for Perry’s great new season of Saturday night shows… a number of which will be in NBC Big Color. On color TV, you’ll enjoy the whole show — the sets, the costumes, the warmth of Perry’s smile. You’ll feel as if you’re meeting Perry Como at last!

DINAH SHORE! Dinah’s coming back for a bright new season of full-hour Chevy Shows… many of them in NBC Big Color. You can watch her in black and white, of course, but it takes a Color TV to bring a vivid personality like Dinah to life. One look at Dinah Shore with her Dixie eyes blazin’ in NBC Big Color, and you’ll feel as if you’re meeting her for the very first time.

MORE BIG NEWS IN COLOR! Perry and Dinah are only part of the Big Color story. In the next couple weeks alone, you’ll enjoy Kay Starr and Louis Armstrong in an original musical of Producers’ Showcase of September 17th. You’ll thrill to Esther Williams’ Aqua Spectacular on the 19th. And most weekday afternoons, you can see live full-hour plays in Color in NBC Matinee Theater.

This is the year that NBC is a blaze of color! Don’t miss another minute of it.

Perry Como Dinah Shore on NBC on color TV (1956)

What are the straight facts about color television?

Giving you THE TRUTH ABOUT TELEVISION — for people who now own television sets and those who plan to buy one soon

What’s behind the recent FCC color decision? Why was the CBS color system selected at this time? Is the CBS system permanent or temporary? How will the FCC decision affect present TV sets? How much will it cost to convert present TV sets to color? Which programs will continue on black-and-white TV-which on color? Should you buy a new TV set now, or wait? How soon might color come?

These and many more questions are of vital importance today to the American public — and to dealers, distributors and manufacturers. All kinds of claims are being made. Nobody seems to agree. Everyone is confused.

The following questions and answers are published to help clear up the confusion, and to give you the facts you need to make up your mind. To the best of our knowledge and intent, the information that follows is correct and contains no misleading statements.

MORE: See what big screen color TVs looked like in the ’60s

Questions & answers from when color TV was invented

Q. What does the recent FCC color decision mean?

A. The Federal Communications Commission’s decision in favor of tbo CBS color television system simply means that the Commission believes that the color system developed by the Columbia Broadcasting System is good enough to put on the air — and that any TV station that wants to, can transmit color pictures using CBS “standards” (technical specifications on bow to send and receive color pictures).

There is absolutely nothing in the decision to compel the broadcasters to transmit color television.

Q. What is the CBS method?

A. The Columbia Broadcasting System method of color telecasting is a means of broadcasting color by transmitting each of the primary colors.

To do this, they use a complicated optical device, which picks up these primary colors — red, blue and green — in the camera, one after the other, so the transmitter can send them over the air.

Then, to receive a color picture, there must be a rotating color filter wheel in front of your TV screen, synchronized so that the correct color filter is in front of the picture tube at exactly the right time. Thus, red, blue and green pictures appear on your screen fast enough to blend together, so that your eye sees them as a full-color picture.

MORE: 50 vintage television sets from the 1950s: Wonders of the world in black & white

Q. Is the present CBS method final and permanent or temporary?

A. Nobody knows for sure — it may well be temporary. The FCC decision permitting the use of the CBS method does not stop other and better methods from being developed and eventually being put into common use by the entire industry. As a matter of fact, the FCC made this point very clear.

Q. Is the CBS color system the most advanced that can reasonably be expected?

A. While in the opinion of the FCC the CBS system gives the most faithful color pictures today, most electronic engineers feel that a better system will be developed.

Q. Is there a good chance that an all-electronic color system will come fairly soon?

A. The RCA system, for instance, already has many advantages and recent developments indicate an early solution to the reasons why the FCC rejected it. The FCC has not shut the door to a new system.

The CBS color system uses a mechanical color scanner — a rotating color disk. Back in 1927, regular black and white television also used a rotating disk with holes punched in it. It’s true they produced pictures, but the pictures were extremely poor by present-day standards.

See the difference color TV makes - 1957

The whirling disk with its disappointing picture was soon replaced by the present “all-electronic” television system with its fine, clear, steady picture. One electronic expert has said that color television is today where black-and-white television was in 1927. This might be right or wrong.

Frankly, while we don’t know for sure, we believe it will. It is certainly a possibility. CBS has made an important contribution to color television. But almost all electronic engineers believe that CBS color will be followed by an improved all-electronic system, just, as the old whirling disk was followed by the present all-electronic black-and-white system.

An all-electronic system could and certainly should be compatible — meaning color pictures could be received in black-and-white on present television acts without an adapter.

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Television is America's favorite babysitter - RCA Victor 1956

Q. If the CBS method is temporary, why was it selected at this time?

A. Right or wrong, the FCC felt that some sort of color television should he started now, whether or not it proved to be the final method. In addition they felt that any delay in the adoption of a non-compatible system might result in the obsolescence of even more sets than the 8,000,000 now in use.

After examining the color systems of CBS, RCA and Color Television, Inc., the FCC decided that the CBS system reproduced color more faithfully than the others in their present state of development.

This, in the opinion of five of the seven members of the FCC (dissenting were Commissioners Sterling and Hennock) outweighed the fact that the other color systems gave pictures which in the opinion of experts, had better detail and less flicker, were all-electronic and compatible– meaning color pictures could be received in black-and-white on present TV sets without an adapter.

Color television for kids - Clowns 1956

Q. Who will telecast color pictures?

A. From present indications, it appears that only the Columbia Broadcasting System will transmit color pictures using the CBS method, at least for the time being. The other networks, NBC, ABC and Dumont, have not indicated that they intend to do any color telecasting using the CBS method.

Q, How soon will there be color telecasting in my area?

A. If you live in New York City, WCBS-TV (the only station in the United States now equipped to initiate color telecasts) expects to start 20 hours of color telecasting a week on November 20, 1950, probably at “off” hours (day time and in the evenings).

But even in New York, the top programs, including those of CBS, will undoubtedly be on black-and white TV for several years. If you don’t live in New York, color telecasting will naturally depend on what, if any, TV stations in your area decide to use the CBS method.

Some CBS color programs will be put on the cable and may be rebroadcast by any CBS affiliate if they so desire. In any case, the color programs received will be experimental and unsponsored programs for some time to come. Your pleasure will have to come from color alone, not the caliber of the shows which you receive.

Q. What effect will the color decision have on regular black-and-white telecasts?

A. Not much, at least for several years. Your favorite programs will continue to be broadcast in black-and-white for a long time. Even CBS says that black-and-white TV and color TV will exist side-by-side for some time to come.

Vintage color TV from 1956 (2)

Q. Will I still be able to see the top shows — like Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Wayne King — on black and white TV on my regular set?

A. Yes, for at least several years. There won’t be many color receivers for some time. And the CBS system in incompatible — it cannot be received by today’s 8,000,000 TV receivers.

Most advertisers cannot afford to pay for good shows that reach only a limited number of people — they must have large audiences for the greatest return on their investment.

ALSO SEE: Vintage Zenith ‘Space Command’ TV remote controls from the ’50s & ’60s

Q. Will my present TV set be able to receive black-and-white pictures from color programs if CBS starts telecasting them in my city?

A. No. The CBS system is not compatible — which means that its color pictures can not be received on existing sets as a black-and-white picture.

Q. How can existing sets be changed to pick up color broadcasts in black-and-white?

A. By adding an “adapter” to the set, providing the set manufacturer makes such an adapter available. The adapter, which contains tubes, condensers and resistors, will come in a little box which may be wired to the set. It will, according to most manufacturers, cost probably $80 to $100 and perhaps $10 to $15 for a serviceman to install.

Q. How good will black-and-white pictures be from a CBS color telecast?

A. Frankly, not so hot. They will have only about one third the detail of the regular black-and-white pictures. That’s because the CBS color system adopted by the FCC has basic limitations that result in less efficient use of the channel space than that of the black-and-white system.

Vintage color TV from 1956 (1)

Q: Is there a color method being developed that is compatible — meaning I could receive color telecasts in black-and-white without any changes in my set?

A: Yes — several methods are in process of development that would do just that. They’re called “all-electronic” — require no mechanical filter wheels, are not limited by picture size, and are compatible to present black-and-white standards, i.e., you could receive color telecasts in black-and-white with no adapter necessary.

Two of these methods need special “Tri-color-Tubes” and appear to offer several advantages. Both eliminate the bulky rotating wheel now necessary in a CBS converter.

You can get a larger color picture — 16 inches or more. Certain problems such as limited brightness, flicker and rainbow-hued edges of moving objects, all inherent to the CBS system, are corrected in these systems.

One system, RCA is now said to be in the state of engineering finalization It still, however, has to be tested and approved by the FCC, who previously rejected it on the basis of lack of faithful reproduction of colors.

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Q: Are today’s TV sets about to become useless and obsolete?

A: Heavens, no! Black-and-white pictures will continue to be predominant for years and years! Advertisers now reaching an audience at many millions daily (and the figure is leaping every month) will not spend their money on expensive color programs for the public’s enjoyment until there is a big enough audience to see and hear their message.

Q. Should I buy a TV set now or wait for a color set?

A. That’s entirely up to you. If you are an adventurous soul and are willing to spend your money on what may turn out to be an expensive experiment, then wait for one of these color sets which may be available next year.

If you do, probably for an hour or so in the early afternoon or late evening there will be some color telecasting on a sustaining basis. Top-notch programs will continue to come through as black-and-white pictures.

However, if you want high-grade entertainment, which will be predominant on TV for several years to come, and will choose a TV set that has achieved a high degree of perfection in performance dependability, by all means, go ahead and buy today’s TV set — one from a reliable manufacturer.

Color TV invented: The most important part of a color set is turned toward the wall


How color TV works - 1950s (2)

How color TV works - 1950s (1)

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. In today’s world where even cheap TVs are high-def, it’s hard to imagine that even into the early 1970s, color TV was sketchy. If you lived in an area with poor reception, the picture would generate strange tints, giving everyone on screen the “Martian effect” of having green faces! You constantly had to fiddle with the tint control and antenna until you got a picture that wasn’t saturated with a single color. It wasn’t until the late 70s that color TVs delivered a realistic, consistent picture.

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