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US experimental television stations

Prior to the opening of commercial television stations, and even for some time after the first  commercial stations were licensed, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued licences to a number of experimental stations to allow testing of over-the-air transmission of television technology that was being developed in the laboratories.
        The earliest licences, granted from 1931, were allocated for VHF bands (43.0-46.0 MHz, 48.5-50.3 MHz and 60.0-80.0 MHz). The earliest licensees included NBC in New York, Don Lee in Los Angeles and Charles F Jenkins in Maryland. In 1933-34 more frequencies were allocated by extending the bands available to 42.0-56.0 MHz and 60.0-86.0 MHz, to which all VHF broadcasting was restricted after 1936.
        In 1936 the Radio Manufacturers Association recommended that the FCC should allocate seven 6 MHz channels for use by television. In fact, in 1937 the FCC established 19 such channels in the range 44-294 MHz, although the needs of FM sound broadcasting soon reduced availability for television. However, the increased bandwidth of each channel allowed experimenters to increase the resolution of television images. In 1938 Philco proposed a 525-line system that was eventually adopted by the National Television Systems Committee (NTSC).

Who were these pioneers?
Balaban & Katz had been cinema exhibitors in the Chicago area before being absorbed into Paramount. The application for an experimental TV licence (W9XBK) was granted in August 1940, apparently becoming a commercial licence by the following year.

Bendix Aviation Corporation (now known as Amphenol Aerospace Corporation) was a consumer goods manufacturer (domestic and car radios, phonographs) as well as being involved in aerospace research. It introduced the first automatic washing machine in 1937.

Cherry & Webb Broadcasting Company is an offshoot of a New England retail chain. Its interest in television in the 1930s is obscure.

Cowles Broadcasting Company was Charles F Jenkins' station on the outskirts of Washington DC, using his mechanical scanning system. Jenkins was granted the first television licence (W3XK) by the Federal Radio Commission on 2 July 1928, broadcasting on 1605 kHz and 6420 kHz with a power of 250 W, increased by 1931 to 5 kW.

Crosley Broadcasting Corporation of Cincinnati was an innovative radio broadcaster (WLW) and pioneer manufacturer of cheap receivers. It also ran a radio audience measurement service.

Don Lee Broadcasting System, based in Los Angeles, had built up a radio network in California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada and, from 1936, joined the Mutual Broadcasting network. It was the first experimental broadcaster on the west coast, being granted a licence for W6AO in December 1931. Initially it used mechanical scanning and broadcast only from film, of which 3m feet had been transmitted by the time the company demonstrated an all-electronic system (300 lines, 24 fps) on 4 June 1936.

Allan B Du Mont Laboratories was the only experimental television broadcaster apart from NBC to go on to found a television network.

Farnsworth Television & Radio Corporation was headed by Philo T Farnsworth, the pioneer of all-electronic television. Funded in the early 1930s by Philco before reverting again to private investment, Farnsworth uniquely among rivals kept pace with RCA's developments. In 1938 Farnsworth's shareholders were pressing for a sale of the company's patent portfolio but neither RCA nor Paramount had been willing to pay an asking price of nearly $1m. In February 1939, following a new stock issue, the company announced plans to move away from a pure research base into receiver production by acquiring production plants in Indiana but was affected by an announcement from the FCC in April 1939 that it was not ready to commit to a commercial television industry. In May 1939 RCA and Farnsworth began to negotiate a cross-licensing agreement that was eventually put in place in September 1939. This also saved Farnsworth from losing control of patents for work he had done while at Philco.

Intermountain Broadcasting Corporation in Salt Lake City, Utah operated radio station KDYL, which applied for an experimental television broadcasting licence from the FCC in 1945, using a demonstration kit acquired from RCA in 1939. It began regular commercial broadcasts as KDYL-TV on 19 April 1948, claiming to be the first privately-owned station in the USA and the first between Chicago and Los Angeles. The company was sold to Time Inc subsidiary TLF Broadcasting on 25 June 1953 for $2.1m.

Journal Company in Milwaukee, a pioneer of FM radio broadcasting, first applied for an experimental television broadcasting licence on 5 May 1930. It was granted (W9XD) on 4 September 1931. Research, initially in mechanical television, continued until 1938. In 1941 the Journal was awarded a construction permit for experimental station W9XMJ, which was converted to commercial licence WMJT later that year as part of the plans for Milwaukee's Radio City, which opened in 1942 with claims to be the most advanced in the United States. Although the facility included a television studio, control room and 300ft transmitter mast, television broadcasts did not begin until 3 December 1947, using RCA equipment.

NBC, subsidiary of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), was already the leading radio broadcaster and, under its powerful chairman, David Sarnoff, was determined to be first in the television field.

Philco Corporation entered the television field by financing research by Farnsworth, who was given space at Philco's laboratories in Philadelphia for about two years from summer 1931, about which time regularly scheduled experimental broadcasts began. However, Philco was more interested in short-term results than Farnsworth, who wanted to develop a strong patent base from advanced research. So it developed its own research project whilst remaining a Farnsworth licensee. Philco was the first company to demonstrate 441-line television in Philadelphia on 11 February 1937.

Gus Zaharis of South Charleston, West Virginia applied for an experimental  television licence (W8XGZ) on 17 January 1946.

Four academic institutions were also licensed:
Kansas State College
in Manhattan, Kansas
Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana
St Louis University, St Louis, Missouri
State University of Iowa, Iowa City

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Page updated 8 July 2004
David Fisher