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Color TV Transformed the Way Americans Saw the World, and the World Saw America

Color television is taken for granted these days, but when it was new, it was sensational. Vice President Richard Nixon even compared the development of color TV to the Soviets' space program in 1959. Of course, he was displaying some Cold War one-upmanship, but color television changed our perception of the world. However, networks were slow to broadcast programs in color, and consumers were even slower to buy color sets. The development of color TV actually goes back to the 1920s! Believe it or not, the technology was pushed with the aim of helping physicians practice surgery. It was demonstrated at medical conventions in the 1940s.

Peter Goldmark, the head of the CBS lab and one of the inventors of color television, noted that audiences at medical conventions responded strongly to the images produced by his system. “The operations were so realistic that some of the viewers, including doctors, fermented in front of the television screens,” he wrote in his 1973 autobiography. “We began to measure the impact of our television shows by the number of faintings we could count.” Goldmark championed his color system by not only asserting its ability to represent the real in true fidelity, but by claiming that the electronic color image of the surgery had even more psychological and visceral impact on viewers than watching it with their own eyes.

Read about the history of color television at Smithsonian.


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