“Snow White was filmed in 1937? Did they even have TVs back then?”

The movie poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Image via IMDB.

One of the wonderful things about having both Netflix and a child is that you get to introduce her to all of your favorite childhood movies in the comfort of your own living room.

On a recent summer Popcorn + a Movie with Mommyo afternoon, we queued up Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. While we were waiting for the popcorn to finish, I booted up IMDb (the everything you ever wanted to know about movies website) and armed myself with a few fun facts to share with my daughter.

Snow White, I informed The Eleven-Year-Old as we salted the popcorn, was Walt Disney’s first full length feature production, filmed in 1937.

Interestingly, none of the actors who appeared in this film were credited. I guess credits hadn’t been invented yet in 1937.  Walt Disney simply wrote a short little note expressing his “sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” (IMDB has a list though.)

“You know what else hadn’t been invented yet?” I asked The Eleven-Year-Old. “The habit of saying The End on screen at the end of the movie.”

I’m afraid The Eleven-Year-Old didn’t hear me. Her mind was still processing the date of the film. “Snow White was filmed in 1937? Did they even have TVs back then?”

After I had dealt with the false assumption in her question (Snow White was not originally released for TV), I found myself wondering.

When were TVs invented? Were they even around in 1937? 

Well, yes. They had been around for quite a while by then. Sort of.

If you define a TV as a machine capable of projecting a moving image onto a small screen, then the first object you could plausibly refer to as a TV popped up in the late 1800s. But it didn’t have all that much in common with the TVs we use today.

German engineer Paul Nipkow developed the mechanics behind the first TVs in 1884.

In 1884, German engineer Paul Nipkow invented a system for scanning the light intensities associated with an image and projecting them onto a screen. His system used a series of mechanical disks with holes in them.  With only 18 lines of resolution, Nipkow’s mechanical TVs were terrible at providing effortless entertainment. But then, Nipkow didn’t think of his invention as a television. He preferred to describe it as an electric telescope.

Inventor John Baird pretty clearly thought of his mechanical system as a TV, though.

In the 1920s, inventor John Baird extended Nipkow’s original disc system to create a mechanical TV capable of projecting 30-line images. Baird’s system was based on an idea he developed in conjunction with Clarence W. Hansell. Instead of using backlit silhouettes to create the images projected through Nipkow’s discs, Baird and Hansell developed an array of transparent rods to transmit images using reflected light.

John Baird’s own face projected through his system. (Photo from the Library of Congress, via ThoughtCo.)

The 30-line images created through Baird’s system were an improvement on Nipkow’s original 18-line images, but as you can see, the resolution still wasn’t nearly good enough to handle a seamlessly animated production like Snow White.

Still, Baird did his best to turn his mechanical TV concept into a commercial product. He even convinced the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to start broadcasting on the Baird 30-line system in 1929. Unfortunately, very few people wanted one of Baird’s devices. Programming for the Baird system was extremely limited, the resolution poor, and the screens tiny.

Baird and other mechanical TV innovators continued to tweak their systems through 1931, but the days of mechanical TV were already numbered.

What killed the mechanical TV?

Back in 1907, Boris Rosing and A.A. Campbell-Swinton combined a mechanical scanning system with a cathode ray tube. Rosing’s images were still crude, but his cathode ray tubes would ultimately make an entirely new television system possible — one that would make Baird’s mechanical TVs hopelessly obsolete.

We have Philo Taylor Farnsworth to thank for jumpstarting the TV industry as we know it today.

Philo Taylor Farnsworth first demonstrated an electronic TV system based on cathode ray tubes in 1927. His system captured moving images using electrons, transformed those images into code, and transmitted the codes using radio waves. Farnsworth was only 21 years old at the time, and living right here in San Francisco. He had done the bulk of the work developing his system while he was still in high school.

It took only seven years for Farnsworth’s electronic TV system to take over the marketplace. By 1934, all TVs had been converted to the electronic system.

There were still significant limitations, however. Programming was limited to whatever could be captured on a single camera — black and white newscasts, baseball games, or single stage dramas. Early television shows sound like they were basically radio broadcasts, but had images to go along with the words.

WWII slowed the development of the new technology, as time, ingenuity, and resources were all turned toward the war effort.

Once the war was over, TVs spread across America pretty quickly.

In 1946, only a few thousand American households even owned a TV. In part, that was because there were few compelling reasons to watch it.

In 1947, full-scale commercial TV broadcasting began in earnest, and the number of shows available slowly increased. As the crop of broadcast TV stations and programming grew, TV sales began to take off. Although only 6,000 American homes had televisions in 1946, by 1951 TVs were in some 12 million homes. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes boasted a black and white TV.

The first color TVs didn’t become widespread until much later.

Broadcasting networks didn’t upgrade to provide the sort of color TV we’d need to watch something like Snow White or the 1965 Batman TV series until the mid-1960s. The viewing public were even slower to embrace color TV.

Only 48% of American households had switched to color TVs by July 1, 1971.

“Holy broadcast, Mommyo!” The Eleven-Year-Old said. “That means you’re almost as old as color TV!”

More importantly, that means that the majority of people watching the 1965 Batman TV series with its “Now in Technicolor!” ad would have been watching it in black and white. Which raises the question, did Batman highlight the fact that it was filmed in color at the start of every episode because the TV magnates wanted to encourage all those Americans watching Batman in black and white to upgrade their sets?

Sadly, that’s a question for another time.

Questions that spun off from this post: 

One of my favorite things about researching my daughter’s questions are all the other questions that pop up in the process. In this case, we found ourselves wondering:

  1. Why didn’t Walt Disney credit his actors? Was there some sort of tiff, or was that just the way things were done at the time?
  2. When did credits start appearing on films anyway?
  3. When did movies start saying The End, and why?
  4. Also, why don’t movies say The End anymore?
  5. What would the 1965 Batman look like in black and white anyway?
  6. What happens to the color when TV shows broadcast in color are shown on a black and white TV set?
  7. Did the creators of the 1965 Batman use bold primary colors on their sets and costumes because they were the ones that showed up best on black and white screens?
  8. Were all those “Now in Technicolor!” notices at the start of 1960s shows really an attempt to convince Americans to upgrade to color TVs?

Obviously I couldn’t deal with all of these questions in one post. But I’ll find out those answers eventually, and if they are interesting enough, I’ll write them up in a future Caterpickle.



One comment

  1. Interesting post. I was a TV repairman back in the 70’s and moonlighted through the 80’s and early 90’s. Now they’re disposable so not even worth it to repair anymore. The old analog sets are pretty much obsolete anymore. I finally took all my test gear to Goodwill last year.


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