The fate of a TV treasure

A peaceful, tree-lined setting across from a softball field seems like a wonderful locale to house artifacts from the storied, early years of television. The Sarnoff Library, which occupies a dedicated area at Sarnoff's Princeton, NJ, headquarters, ostensibly is a facility dedicated to Gen. Sarnoff's major accomplishments as a titan of the communications industry, and the TV and radio industry in particular.

As such, on display are early inventions and prototypes of the key technologies and devices upon which our industry was built. After all, it was at this lab facility under the auspices of their membership in the Grand Alliance that numerous developments leading to the ATSC DTV standard took place. It was here that the compatible color TV system that formed the basis for NTSC was developed, and it was in the original lab facility in Camden, NJ, that Vladimir Zworykin labored over his early TV inventions.

The library also houses a treasure trove of notebooks, photographs, reports and publications that uniquely relate the history of TV technology and the TV industry. It is fascinating to look through the engineering notebooks of those early inventors, read their daily technical diaries and see their hand-drawn sketches.

A master of self-aggrandizement, during his career, the general laid claim to virtually single-handedly creating the radio and TV industries, and his museum does not disabuse that perception. Having established RCA as the premier developer of radio and TV technology for the entire supply chain — from entertainment (he created NBC in 1926) to developing a complete line of professional equipment for the broadcaster and on to offering a full range of consumer receiving devices — some would argue that his claim was not without a modicum merit.

Back to the library and museum — evidently the space being dedicated to it is no longer available. This has led to the closing of its doors on July 31. At this writing, there has been no announced new home for the collection, although discussions are underway with several organizations. One particularly unpleasant possibility is that the collection may be broken up and put on display at multiple locations. But even that would be better than losing it completely.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures I took from a final, recent visit to the Sarnoff Library. Photo 1 shows tubes. Remember these? They lit up, glowed red, got hot and so contained the seeds of their own ultimate destruction. Photo 2 shows the image orthicon pickup device, which was developed by RCA under the general and was as revolutionary to TV camera technology in its day as CCD technology has been in more modern times. Nicknamed the “immy,” it inspired the naming of Emmy for our industry awards. Photo 3 shows the museum's curator, Dr. Alex Magoun, standing next to a kinescope of “The Milton Berle Show” playing on an early RCA TV receiver. The quality of the kinescope is surprisingly good, and if you look closely, you can discern “Mr. Television” himself, Uncle Miltie, along with guests Frank Sinatra and Tallulah Bankhead. Berle closed his weekly show with “This is Uncle Miltie saying good night.” Hopefully, we will get to hear that line again from a new home for the library.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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