Television comes to Chicago
Many people today believe that the age of TV began with Uncle Miltie and his Texaco Star Theater. In a sense this is true. Berle, along with the local taverns were undoubtedly responsible for the surge of television set sales in 1948, forever securing the boob tube a place in our living rooms. But the history of TV dates back much further than that, to the 1920s when experiments with mechanical low definition telecasting began. Mechanical television systems, utilizing a spinning disc perforated with tiny holes illuminated by light, was for many years thought to be the future of television.
As early as 1927, the Federal Radio Commission (predecessor to today's FCC) had decided that television transmissions be allowed on the standard medium-wave frequencies (commonly known as "AM") and also on short-wave. However the use of these frequencies would fall into decline by 1931 as stations began telecasting on a new bandwidth, VHF (for very high frequency- though at first it was called ultra high).
MECHANICAL TELEVISION IN CHICAGO
On the east coast, home of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), television experimentation was at full swing as the company had the capital (and the technical know-how) to invest in the new medium. RCA began station W2XBS in New York in April of 1928 proving its seriousness in the new video medium. On June 19th of the same year, the Chicago Federation of Labor's AM radio station WCFL (then operating at 620 KHz) broadcast the head and shoulders of Edward Nockles, a secretary of the parent company, utilizing the "Voice Of Labor's" visual station W9XAA. While New York had RCA and David Sarnoff, Chicago's situation was a little different. Support for the future of television came from the involvement of newspapers (WMAQ with The Chicago Daily News) and a unique mechanical transmission system designed by a 23 year old inventor by the name of Ulises A. Sanabria (who had designed the equipment used in the W9XAA broadcast).
In 1930, Western Television Corporation, a company run by Sanabria, using the mechanical television scanning equipment designed by him, joined with Nelson Brothers Bond and Mortgage Company and began experimental telecasting that was reported as being seen as far as 450 miles away. The video portion aired on Western's W9XAO on the 2000-2100 KHz short-wave frequency and the audio was transmitted via Nelson's AM outlet WIBO. By 1931, regular telecasting had begun with about three hours of programming a night including by that fall, football games on Saturday night.
On January 12th 1930, W9XAO telecast its first drama The Maker Of Dreams, starring Irene Walker. In January of 1931, the two stations teamed up to present a program made especially for television- Their Television Honeymoon, a musical comedy.
By 1933, both W9XAO and WIBO were both off the air due to a FRC ruling which forced WIBO (and WPCC, another AM station sharing it's 560 KHz frequency) to shut down to make way for a Gary Indiana station, WIND (which is still on the air today). Without the use of WIBO, W9XAO had nowhere to go but off the air. This would not be the only time the government would step in and force stations off the air due to changes in frequency allocation. Western Television Corporation was also a casualty of this decision. In Western's case, the days of mechanical television were numbered. Electronic television was just around the corner.
Although short-lived, the first television boom was not without its gems. The most popular station at the time was W9XAP, owned first by The Chicago Daily News, and later by NBC. W9XAP used the 2100-2200 frequency to broadcast its video signal using Western Television equipment and the audio went out over The Daily News' AM station, clear channel WMAQ. W9XAP began broadcasting on August 27, 1930 using a 1000 watt transmitter located at the newspaper's headquarters at 400 West Madison St. W9XAP lasted until August 31, 1933. It marked the end of the mechanical era but not the end of television.