July 8, 2020

Televising Presidential Conventions Is Topic of “Sundays at the Sarnoff”

POLITICS IN REAL TIME: At an upcoming Zoom discussion, The College of New Jersey’s Sarnoff Center tells the story of the vital role radio and television have played in political conventions. The first Republican convention to be televised, shown here, was in 1940.

By Anne Levin

“Look Before You Vote: Televising the Presidential Conventions” was originally conceived as a pop-up exhibit at the Sarnoff Collection, which is on the campus of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in Ewing. But with the pandemic shuttering museums through the summer at least, plans had to be changed.

The exhibit has been replaced with a digital discussion. On July 26 at 1:30 p.m., Sarnoff curator Firoencia Pierri will host a program on the history of broadcasting the conventions, focusing on the technologies that were invented to cover the events.

“Using technology for politics has a long and intertwined history,” said Pierri, a doctoral candidate who has been curator of the collection for two years. “The first commercial radio broadcast was on election day of the Harding/Cox race in 1920, allowing people to hear the results before they read about it in the newspaper. It proved the power of radio. By 1924, the whole convention process was being aired over two stations run by RCA and AT&T.”

The Sarnoff Collection has been located at TCNJ since 2010. The David Sarnoff Research Center, later the Sarnoff Corporation headquarters on Route 1 in West Windsor, was the site of several historic developments, including color television, CMOS integrated circuit technology, and electron microscopy.

The first televised broadcast of a political convention was in 1940. “The conventions have a long history as places where journalists experimented with new inventions,” Pierri said. “I’ll talk about how in 1940, RCA used the broadcast to convince people to buy television sets. They were saying, ‘You have to be informed, so buy a television to watch. And by the way, buy an RCA TV,’” she said. “It was a similar thing with radios. RCA would say, ‘listen to the broadcast on a brand new RCA radio. It’s the best way to be an engaged citizen.’ “

A significant segment of the Sarnoff Collection’s audience is retired engineers and physicists, who also volunteer and help out with programs. With them in mind, Pierri will discuss technical inventions made specifically for political conventions. “The year 1952 was a watershed year, because that’s when NBC went all out with TV technology,” she said. “The broadcast of the Republican convention was the start of the largest and most complex array of television and radio facilities ever assembled, in color and in real time, coast to coast. It was a marvelous feat of engineering.”

Pierri is particularly partial to the “walkie lookie,” a backpack-mounted camera that was developed specifically for the conventions by the Sarnoff Research Center in West Windsor. The device was touted in 1952 as a portable TV camera and transmitter. “In fact, it was a 10-pound camera attached to a 50-pound transmitter, which was used to do man-in-the-street type interviews,” she said. “It was heavy and not really comfortable to use. But it made a huge difference.”

Pierri’s doctoral degree will be in the history of science. While she does not have training in technology, she has picked up a good bit of knowledge while working as the Sarnoff curator.

According to its website, the collection includes “artifacts related to David Sarnoff’s life; RCA, NBC, Victor Talking Machine Company, and Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America; the history of radio, television, broadcasting, audio and video recording and reproduction, electron microscopy, radar, vacuum tubes, transistors, solid-state physics, semiconductors, lasers, liquid-crystal displays, integrated circuits, microprocessors, computers, communications satellites, and other technologies RCA played an important role in inventing and developing; and some of the many people, beside Sarnoff, who made these technologies work.”

During normal times, items are on display and the public is welcome to examine them closely. “We like to have people handle the objects themselves,” said Pierri. “We allow people to look through old magazine articles, among other things. We let them get up close because we display items in small groups, and we can be on hand to keep an eye on how things are handled.”

The “Sundays at the Sarnoff” series are Zoom discussions held the last Sunday of every month, on topics from the intersection of technology, history, and culture. To participate, visit davidsarnoff.tcnj.edu.