Look, Up In The SKY! It’s STRATOVISION!

Posted by on November 23, 2008

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One of the post-war stars in society was the new medium of television!  Comparable to the Internet of today, it was astonishingly popular, even more than radio, according to William Manchester, in his work, The Glory and the Dream:

“…During every month of 1948 and 1949, more than 200,000 TV sets were sold, and that was only the beginning.” (2)

While the availability of television today is not given a second thought by most of us here in the United States, this hasn’t always been the case, especially in these early years.  There were a plethora of obstacles including buggy sets, bad antennas, and unproven technology.

One of the main obstacles to television broadcasting was transmission, or how to get the programming to the people.  Since it is a “line of sight” technology, terrain was a major obstacle to having clear programming.

One of the ways to tackle this issue became known as “Stratovision”, or the use of aircraft to transmit television signals.

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Charles Nobles, working for Westinghouse in the Forties, came up with the idea to transmit television signals via aircraft.  Says Lynn Hinds, in the article It’s Stratovision:

“…In December 1944, while flying over Texas, Nobles was struck by the similarities of radar and television. He saw the possibilities in transmitting television and FM radio from stratospheric airplanes. While ground transmitters were limited to about fifty miles, since they could only reach as far as the horizon, airplane transmission might cover more than two hundred….” (4)

Some of the first testing of this method used B-29 Superfortresses to see if the method was feasible.  Technologically speaking, it was a success, and engineers and technicians estimated that less than 10 planes with this technology could blanket most of the United States.

However, the technology, much like the Edsel a few years later, succumbed to a variety of problems, most of which were NOT scientific related.  These included licensing issues, vague warnings of a Westinghouse “monopoly”, and the other methods of transmission then appearing, including coaxial cable.

Not all was lost however, because this method was used off and on until the Sixties to transmit educational programming and perhaps fueled the way for the successful Telstar satellites, which came on board starting in 1962.

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I’ve assembled some good links below to get you started on some more research.  Especially interesting is the fact that some version of Stratovision was utilized, albeit briefly, in Vietnam, both for civilian and military purposes.  Check the American Heritage article for more information on this one.

Links:

University of Maryland–backstory on Airborne Television Instruction

Center Field Shot (pg. 72-Stratovision)

Time, August 20, 1945

Wikipedia: Stratovision

American Heritage

Sources:

(1) NARA

(2) Glory and The Dream, pg. 584-585.

(3) NARA

(4) Lynn, Hinds.  It’s Stratovision.  American Heritage, 1994.

(5) NASA Images.

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