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I'll Take What's in the Box

Radio broadcasting was already more than a decade old when the Ouimet television (691044) was built in Montreal in 1932. Its young designer, Alphonse Ouimet, employed the mechanical scanning method that had been made famous by John Logie Baird in Britain and Charles Francis Jenkins in the United States. Both the Baird and Jenkins interests, in fact, owned shares in Canadian Television Ltd, Ouimet's employer.

Then, as now, television depended on a scene being rapidly scanned in a series of lines that would, when reassembled on the screen of a receiver, give the illusion of a complete image. The entire scene had to be scanned more than 12 times per second so that the viewer would perceive the changing series of still images as a single moving picture. Mechanical scanning usually incorporated a Nipkow disk, a circular plate perforated by a series of holes laid out in a spiral pattern. As the disk was spun in front of an illuminated subject, one hole after another would sweep across an adjacent segment of the scene. Light reflected by the subject would pass through the hole and strike a photoelectric cell behind the disk, producing a varying electrical current. In the receiver, this current would control a lamp, which would pass light through the hole of another spinning disk and retrace the original light pattern on the back of a translucent viewing screen.

Low definition, high style, Montreal 1932.Inside this trendy box a spinning disc traced flickering red and black pictures on the screen.(Peter Lindell/CSTM)
Like most televisions employing the Nipkow disk, Ouimet's receiver produced a small faint image. Because it scanned only 60 lines (unlike the modern standard of 525 lines) it could not show fine detail. Moreover, its neon lamp emitted reddish light, so the televised image was black and red. As well, viewers needed a second radio receiver to pick up the audio signal, which was broadcast on a separate channel. In spite of these limitations the fashionable art deco cabinet of this production prototype reflected the ambition of Canadian Television Ltd to market Ouimet's set as a luxury, "high tech" consumer item.

Radio station CKAC in Montreal began regular, live, experimental television broadcasts in 1932, although by this time only a handful of people had built or bought receivers to view them. In October thousands of curious viewers flocked to a public demonstration held by Canadian Television Ltd at the Ogilvy department store in Montreal. This was the Depression, however, and Canadian Television Ltd was unable to raise the funds to begin building sets and soon went out of business. CKAC suspended television broadcasts in 1933. Alphonse Ouimet joined the new Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission and later became president of its successor, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). When the CBC reintroduced television to Canada in 1952, a beam of electrons that scanned the inside face of a cathode ray tube had long since replaced the awkward mechanical scanner.

Like most of the video artifacts in Connexions, the Ouimet television is a receiver. Unlike radio, television first emerged as a broadcast medium, with a powerful central transmitter radiating messages to a multitude of small receivers. The viewer was a consumer, not only of programs but also of the products they advertised. In fact, the audience itself became a product, packaged and sold to advertisers. Now, thanks to inexpensive video cameras and recorders, people can become creators of television, or at least be more selective about what they watch and when they watch it. Large corporations still control the mass distribution of video images, however, and commercial television thrives.

See our Collection Profile - Television