Early Books on Television: 1926 – 1939

British techies will boast that the origins of television can be traced to a room above a shop in Hastings ( blue plaque ) where John Logie Baird constructed the first TV receiver—generating moving images on a mechanical principle. Americans, however, will argue that their man, a certain C. Francis Jenkins, who was also involved in cinema technology, was doing almost the same thing six months earlier in 1923. Unfortunately, neither of these pioneers can be said to have invented the television that we tune into today. Most of the credit for that probably belongs to Philo Farnsworth, the farmer’s son from Utah who in 1927, aged 21, produced the first electronic image. So, whatever way you look at it, the Americans invented television, just as they invented rock music.

Most of the collected works on early TV appeared before 1930. The first book on TV alone was Alfred Dinsdale’s well-known Television, or Seeing by Wireless (1926). A book that although not uncommon is sometimes seen at prices into 5 figures. The second significant work, which appeared a year later is Television for the Home by Ronald Tiltman, whose frontispiece show the author being televised by John Logie Baird himself. If you hanker for a Dinsdale and can’t afford his Seeing by Wireless you could target a copy or a run ( if you can find one ) of his genuinely rare Television Journal (6d a month), whose July 1929 cover rather hopefully looks ahead to a time when the family might gather around the box of light on a winter evening--an extraordinary image for 1929, when radio was still in its infancy and TV broadcasting was several years away.

The more common Book of Practical Television (1935) by G. V. Dowding, an electrical engineer, is a pretty comprehensive technical exposition of 320 pages and many fascinating illustrations, which compares the mechanical and electronic versions of television and places them in a historical context. It even suggests how an enthusiast might build his own receiver. I paid a mere £1.50 for my copy a few years ago, but you’d be lucky to secure one for under £30 now. For historians of TV, issues of the Radio Times from circa 1934 are valuable sources of information and can still be had for a few pounds. Copies of The Listener from 1936 to 1939 are equally useful and much cheaper still. Of the latter, look for transcripts of the live discussions by such pre-war TV pioneers as John Piper and Geoffrey Grigson--- and search out the wonderful set-to in 1939 between Grigson and Wyndham Lewis speaking on the side of modern art and the anti-modern defenders of the establishment. Incidentally, in 1936 appeared one of the earliest mentions of television in a literary work. In ‘ And if this mountain cease' from Poems (1936) by the poet and critic Michael Roberts we find:

And if this mountain cease
If the rock-crystal breaks, and darkness comes
if the mind’s television ceases
if no one answers….

Slightly later but decidedly rare is the literary magazine edited by Lawrence Durrell International Post (1939) -- it had a TV critic and was full of promise, but went to just one highly elusive issue. [RR+]

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