05.02.2011 08:00 AM
Teleprompter inventor dies

They called him "Hub." Hubert Schlafly, the man credited with inventing the teleprompter and aiding the careers of thousands of on-camera personalities (and politicians) that might not be so successful otherwise, has died. He was 84 and lived in Stamford, CT.

Charles Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, called Schlafly, "the cable industry's most innovative engineer and, at the same time, one of its ablest executives."

As a young television engineer at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s, Schlafly was approached by Irving Berlin Kahn, the company's vice president of radio and television at the time. An actor named Fred Barton Jr. asked Kahn if there was a technical way to help him remember his lines. The result was a black-and-white monitor in a half-suitcase facing the person appearing on screen showing an advancing a paper script (at variable speeds) on a motorized roller.

His invention, which Schlafly named the "TelePrompTer, was an immediate hit after it was used in 1950 on the set of the soap opera "The First Hundred Years."

In 1952, Herbert Hoover became the first prominent politician to embrace the teleprompter, using it to address that year's Republican National Convention. The story goes that when Hoover was giving his address, he often veered from his prepared remarks, which caused the teleprompter operator to stop scrolling while he waited for Hoover to complete his thought. But miscommunication between the two caused Hoover to announce in front of the entire nation that the teleprompter needed to restart the scrolling so he could continue reading his speech.

Once the secret was out, virtually everyone in TV, film and politics wanted one. Schlafly saw the business potential and struck out on his own (with Kahn and Barton) to found the TelePrompTer Corp. They quickly sold their first unit to CBS, where the network's storied news division and other departments used it regularly.

After more than two decades in the business, Schlafly left TelePrompTer Corp. (after his partner became caught up in a government bribery scandal) and continued coming up with new innovations in program delivery via satellite. Among them, he developed the first pay TV system that allowed subscribers to interact and order programs on-demand via coaxial cable. He also engineered the famous HBO global satellite transmission of the “Thrilla in Manila” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Across his impressive engineering career, Schlafly won two technical Emmys — one in 1992 and the second in 1999 (for inventing the teleprompter). In 2008, at the age of 88, he was inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame. In addition, the "Convergence Lab" at WNET, the public broadcast system's flagship station in NYC, is named in Schlafly's honor, and the Digital Media Lab at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, CT, also carries his name.

Thomas Gallagher, a friend of Schlafly, said that although he gave many speeches and public presentations, Schlafly did not use a teleprompter himself until he gave his induction speech that evening in 2008 at the Cable Television Hall of Fame ceremonies in Denver, CO.

In 1956, the editors of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories asked Schlafly to predict what the world would be like in 2001. Schlafly said: "Systematic information storage will be in a form instantly available for response to remote inquiry ... Communications will be highly refined, without the encumbrance of any wires to or between terminal devices. In fact, this advanced state of communications may substantially reduce our need for transportation."

Schlafly was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He holds 16 different patents.



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