Santa Rosa waited twenty years for it to happen. Twenty years! Yet when the big day arrived almost no one was able to enjoy it.

The date was December 22, 1948; the event was the first TV broadcast in the Bay Area (except for test patterns and other experiments). In Santa Rosa, the lucky folks who had a television got to watch an episode of Howdy Doody, a travelogue about Santa Clara county and a hockey match between the San Francisco Shamrocks and Oakland.

During the game Santa Rosa received a shout-out from the station for getting calls from local viewers. The Press Democrat remarked the KPIX broadcast came in “surprisingly well” while the Argus-Courier noted reception was “first class…[with] a number of excellent clearcut, contrasty pictures on the screen. Such deficiencies as loss of the sound component and flickering were still noticeable.” So aside from no audio and a lousy picture, everything went just swell.

1949consoleFew were watching that night because there was no reason to have a TV unless something was being broadcast – and it was difficult to justify the enormous cost of building a station without a large audience to watch commercials. Chicken, egg, repeat. Television sets were also extremely expensive; the Admiral console shown at right with its massive 10″ screen cost the modern (2021) equivalent of over $6,000.

Over the prior two decades, however, Santa Rosa was told that television would transform us. Speculating about this brave new world was a frequent topic at Rotary lunches and other club meetings; the Press Democrat used barrels of ink printing editorials and columns on What It Would All Mean – despite, of course, probably no one around here having actually seen a television.

PD editor Ernest Finley seemed determine to wish it into existence. “Television radio” (as many called it in the early 1930s) “will come into common household use, just as the telephone and radio are today. And it will not be long,” he wrote in 1931. Later that year he speculated it was “about three years away” and said it was still “at least three years away” in 1938 and “still far away” the following year.

Finley, who founded KSRO in 1937, had muddled ideas TV would operate like radio with specialized bands, such as used by police: “Crime detection would be greatly facilitated if officers could send a row of suspects across a television screen…’Is the man you are looking for among these suspects?'”

Or maybe it would be more like today’s live webcams, where we could dial in the frequency of places around the world: “…we can view St. Peter’s, Rome, visit Niagara Falls, see the pyramids of Egypt by moonlight without subjecting ourselves to the annoyance and expense of making a long journey…We may be doing a lot of things differently a hundred years from now than we do them today.” Well, he got that much right.

But pundits in the 1930s said it was certain: Television broadcasts would destroy the motion picture industry, wipe out newspapers and empty the sports stadiums. Or maybe television broadcasts would be completely controlled by Hollywood, daily papers would thrive and ballgames would attract far more viewers than could possibly fit in a stadium. It was definitely going to be the best and/or worst of times.

1937tvperm(RIGHT: 1937 ad for “Celovision,” a hair treatment which used cellophane. The name became simplified as the “television permanent wave” when it was still available at the Uptown Beauty Salon on Exchange Avenue in 1948)

Oddly, “television” became a buzzword slapped on things which had nothing to do with, you know, television. There was the women’s hair wave shown at right and also in 1937 the White House toy dept. sold the $1.98 battery-operated “Irwin Television Rifle” which flashed a sharp beam of light when the trigger was pulled. And then there was chiropractor W. T. Abell and his “television radionic instrument” hokum, discussed below.

1939rca(LEFT: Bruner’s ad in Oct. 15, 1939 Press Democrat)

Come the late 1930s, all the talk of TV being right around the corner was badly hurting the sale of radios, particularly after it became clear the FCC was about to approve TV stations on the East Coast (commercial broadcasting began in New York City and Philadelphia in September 1941).

To their discredit, manufacturers suckered in consumers by promising their radios were “television ready,” “built to receive television sound” or had a “television audio key.” Pedersen’s sold a radio/phono console advertising “Magnavox television can be added to your Magnavox at any time.”

Most (all?) of these c. 1940 radios were probably just providing an input jack so the television’s audio could play through the radio speaker – assuming the TV came with a matching output jack, of course. But by the time KPIX and other stations began broadcasting here, terms like “television attachment” nearly disappeared from newspapers, except in For Sale ads of people wanting to unload their ten year old radios for which they paid a premium price.

Sonoma county was certainly TV-curious; the Ward’s ad shown here was in the Press Democrat August 5, 1948 and invited customers to see an actual television set, although nothing would be onscreen since nothing was being aired yet. Until that first KPIX broadcast in December, the PD continued to write about television as if it were some exotic curiosity, even though stations on the East Coast had been broadcasting for seven years. As a result, the paper still sometimes spouted hyperbolic nonsense.

1948wardsAfter a 1946 news item appeared about a BBC experiment to see if subjects could be hypnotized remotely, a PD editorial called for legislation against “hypnotic commercials,” writing “it will no doubt be necessary to set up a new set of regulations to govern practices in presentation of television programs when that science reaches out generally into the homes of America.” PD sports columnist Bill Claus in 1948 called for laws against watching TV while driving – although such a rig would’ve filled up the passenger side; the smallest set available weighed 26 pounds, was the size of today’s microwave ovens and would have required its own auto battery plus DC-AC inverter.

After New Year’s 1949 the paper began writing about television more realistically, including a little item on the Brandeburg family of Santa Rosa visiting relatives in Los Angeles where they watched the Rose Bowl game and Rose Parade on TV. A front page box titled “Television Tonight” announced where the public could stop by and see it for themselves: Berger’s Cigar Store, the Tack Room on Redwood Highway South, The Office on Third street.

Even after KGO began broadcasting in May, only thin gruel was offered for viewing. The broadcast day was typically just from 6:45PM until signoff around 10 o’clock, although there would sometimes be a Saturday afternoon ballgame.

In the early part of 1949 there would be a kid’s show at 7, usually film of an episode of Howdy Doody or Kukla, Fran & Ollie. There were many open slots in the schedule “to be announced” or filled by newsreels or promo material (“Washington State: Appleland”). Some shows were seemingly about as interesting as watching paint dry (Clem’s Barbershop, Tele-Tales). There was 10-15 minutes of news on KPIX and a weekly five minute program called Wanted Persons (oh, the late Ernest Finley would have been so tickled).

But later in the year the programming on KPIX, KGO, and newcomer KRON was much improved and the same as seen on the East Coast, albeit a week or so later: Milton Berle, The Goldbergs, Ed Wynn, Arthur Godfrey, Lone Ranger, Studio One. It was a mix of filmed studio productions and poor quality kinescopes of live shows, as there was no coast-to-coast broadcast until 1952 (although a speech by President Truman aired a year before).

By the end of the year likely the entire town had seen sports or a program at someone’s home “television party,” in a tavern or club or in a store window. The most talked about demonstration happened in November, when Armand Saare, who had a radio and TV dealership, rented a hall which was large enough to seat 300 people to watch the Big Game between Cal and Stanford. At either end of the NSGW lodge on Mendocino Ave. (this lovely building from 1909 is still there, but often overlooked) he set up two televisions with 19½ inch screens, which would have seemed huge at the time.

Every family in Santa Rosa didn’t rush to buy televisions in 1949, of course, but enough did to spawn a new little industry: TV installation and repair. Newspaper ads from the dealerships increasingly emphasized their service departments, particularly skill in antenna installation. Anyone paying (the modern equivalent of) thousands of dollars for a set was not going to scrimp on adding an antenna, which was no simple thing. Besides properly mounting it to the house or mast and aligning it for best reception, Santa Rosa then required payment of a $9 building permit per antenna, plus inspection.

Looking backward, it seems we didn’t notice that a kind of earthquake was rippling through the Bay Area in 1949. A new technology had arrived which began disrupting the pattern of our daily lives; it demanded more of our attention than radio ever had and we wasted time watching it even when there was nothing of particular interest to see. TV crept into our lives because we thought of it as just a simple entertainment upgrade, “radio with pictures.”

Everyone of a certain age can recall the year their family got that first television. I certainly do, as well as some of my favorite shows from the time (what I can’t remember is how many countless hours were spent watching dreck). Having a TV gave kids important things to talk about the next day at school – funny things heard on a cartoon show, new toy commercials, who could do the best Klem Kadiddlehopper imitation and whether TV wrestling was phony or not.






In late 1948 and 1949, chiropractor W. T. Abell ran ads in all local newspapers claiming he was a "scientific television radionist." His ads claimed "each type of cell, heart, liver, kidney, etc. has a normal vibration peculiar to it" which his "Electro-Metabograph" could detect. The device was simply an oscilloscope. Abell had been doing this scam around the country since early 1930s, primarily in Southern California, and had only recently added "television" to his pitch - before it seems he was only pretending to have a special sort of x-ray machine. Among his other quackery was "Abell's artificial ear drums" which he claimed could cure deafness.
In late 1948 and 1949, chiropractor W. T. Abell ran ads in all local newspapers claiming he was a “scientific television radionist.” His ads claimed “each type of cell, heart, liver, kidney, etc. has a normal vibration peculiar to it” which his “Electro-Metabograph” could detect. The device was simply an oscilloscope. Abell had been doing this scam around the country since early 1930s, primarily in Southern California, and had only recently added “television” to his pitch – before it seems he was only pretending to have a special sort of x-ray machine. Among his other quackery was “Abell’s artificial ear drums” which he claimed could cure deafness.

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In 1908, Santa Rosans flocked to see the first demonstration here of the latest technological marvel: Something they called “radio.” The representative from Marconi’s company wowed audiences for four nights talking about messages sent to/from ships at sea and between distant places, all communications in the precise stutter of Morse Code. (The demonstration was actually part of a con game; see here for details.)

What was demonstrated here was really known as “wireless telegraphy;” in that era, the transmission of voice (or music) was called “wireless telephony,” and it would still be two years before the first broadcasts could be heard anywhere in the Bay Area from pioneer station KQW in San Jose (although that signal probably didn’t reach as far as Sonoma County). Not until after WWI would the the first commercial radio stations in San Francisco begin operating. But even after there was something to hear other than dots and dashes, it was still difficult to listen to; radio was a headphones-only affair until the first electrical speakers appeared in the mid-1920s.

For the first twenty-five years of the Twentieth Century – and particularly the first decade – Santa Rosa was a pretty quiet place. Sounds were more occasional than constant, and rarely interruptive. Here there was no smokestack industry running heavy machines that gave cities of that time a constant low hum. The farm town grew slowly, so there was no ongoing racket of major new construction (except for the months after the 1906 quake).

The private sounds heard from houses were small and likely appealing; someone practicing piano or another musical instrument or singing. Aside from player pianos, recorded music was soft; the graphophone and phonograph of the day had wooden or metal speakers that could barely be heard in the next room.

Outside, there would have been dappled background sounds: The clop of horses and the chug of the occasional automobile, probably the crow of roosters because so many homes kept backyard chickens. Twice a day, everyone heard the garden water schedule whistles, and at night, most everyone would hear the low of cows in Noonan’s stockyard at the corner of College and Cleveland Avenues. There were sometimes fire bells heard clanging. In those first ten years of the century, people individually created little noise; many walked or glided silently on bicycles or rode the electric streetcars. There was civic pride in that most of the downtown streets had been recently paved with smooth, noise-muffling macadam (which makes the thumpity-thump around old Courthouse Square from those ersatz cobblestones all that more ridiculous).

In his landmark book on soundscapes, “The Tuning of the World,” R. Murray Schafer points out that ambient noise levels generally increase each year all over the world, no matter what the society or whether it’s urban or rural. There are no more quiet places; sound is now heavy and continuous, much of it the result of incessant aviation and road traffic. Another major factor was the invention of the radio loudspeaker. Now the little box that was never quiet could be heard everywhere, and soon was.

The crowds at that 1908 exhibition were promised wonderful things would result from the development of the “wireless,” and things wonderful surely came to pass, but at a price they could not have foreseen. Some twenty or more years later, there were probably Santa Rosa residents who were in that audience who now found themselves kept awake by dance music playing on a neighbor’s radio, as they wondered what happened to the peaceful little town they used to know.

Very Interesting Lecture and Exhibition at the Skating Rink Last Night

H. C. Robinson, representative of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph exhibitions lectured in the Pavilion rink on Monday night to a very large and interested audience on the science and possibilities of wireless telegraphy, giving practical demonstrations of sending and receiving messages without wires, including several feats of ringing fire bells, lighting electric lights and operating danger signals through the mysterious agency of Hertzian waves.

It was perhaps the first working of wireless apparatus Santa Rosa people have ever had the opportunity of inspecting and having the various phenomenon explained by a man who evidently knows the science thoroughly.

The lecturer gave a complete history of the discovery of the wireless principle of transmitting signals through the air. He took it up from long before the time Dr. Hertz discovered his now historic “ether wave” until the present day, when it has become a part of the modern complex civilization, and has passed out of the stage of being a novelty and a curiosity. He told of what progress has been made in the past few years by Marconi and how necessary wireless telegraphy has become in war and peace. He said that nearly every warship and all the great navies is now equipped with wireless apparatus. He told of how the great liners on the ocean keep in touch with the entire world while passing from continent continent. Newspapers are printed on hundreds of the “greyhounds of the sea” daily, through the aid of wireless; ships report themselves hundreds of miles out at sea, passengers can communicate with their friends at home as easily as if they were on land and had the telegraph and telephone at their disposal.

It is now a common thing, said the lecturer, for news dispatches to be sent from ships, and he mentioned the fact that Secretary Taft received the news of his mother’s death by wireless while on board the steamer President Grant in the English Channel.

Not only is wireless used by ships at sea, but America and England are linked together by wireless, and it is only a matter of a short time when cables will be as much out of date as stagecoaches are now in the big cities. Even on the Pacific Coast the seaports, from San Diego to Alaska, are in constant touch with each other, and during the recent telegraph strike much news was transmitted by wireless.

Mr. Robinson went into the commercial possibilities of wireless and told how it would soon supplant the telegraph and cables. There is no doubt about its success, he said, both from a commercial standpoint and in every other way it has reached the stage, where it was recognized as the greatest discovery and invention combined in the present century.

Tonight, Wednesday and Thursday night similar electrician exhibitions will be given by Mr. Robinson. Admission is free.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1908

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