W9XK - Iowa City

The television we know began in the late 40's and early 50's. But none of the stations that have become such a familiar part of our lives was the first television station to operate in Iowa.

One of the least known facts in the history of broadcasting is that Iowa's first television pictures originated from a station in Iowa City.

The Beginnings of W9XK

W9XK was licensed to the University of Iowa and transmitted a regular schedule of programs for six years in the 1930's. Pictures such as these off-screen images were telecast from 1933 to 1939 from studios in the electrical engineering department located in a no-longer existing building known as "Old Gold."

The photographs which document Iowa's contribution to this very early television experience are owned by broadcasting historian Rick Plummer of Cedar Rapids. Plummer said that not only did W9XK operate with a regular schedule, it used WSUI, the university radio station, to provide simultaneous audio of the programs.

"There were a lot of these television stations that were on the air that did not have an accompanying radio station, so they could broadcast the pictures or the sound but not both at the same time," Plummer notes. "W9XK could broadcast the pictures and sound simultaneously and that's what made them unique."

This is an off-screen photo of W9XK's station identification. It was the first TV station to offer educational programming on a regular schedule.

Jessupoff-screen.jpg (27735 bytes)This 1933 off-screen image of a photo of President W.A. Jessup appeared during the telecast which inaugurated the series of educational programs which featured University of Iowa faculty members.


Lincoln.jpg (19745 bytes) A sketch of Abraham Lincoln was transmitted during an art class lecture on W9XK by Professor C.I. Okerbloom, Jr. (The original sketch is seen at far left, next to the image as it appeared on the actual telecast.)

The Invention Process

When TV was being invented in the 30's, there were many reasons why the pictures were not as clear as they became later. One of them was the system which the Iowa station used to send out its video. It was a mechanical device which passed light through a rotating, perforated disc to create the image scan. Photo-electric cells made the conversion to electrical energy which was then transmitted on radio waves. However, the station generated only 45 lines of resolution, rather than the 525-line electronic scan which was adopted in 1941 as the industry standard.

Fig15.jpg (32230 bytes) Fig16.jpg (52490 bytes) The mechanical system was doomed to extinction before the end of the decade of the 1930's. John Logie Baird, a British inventor, had taken mechanical television to an advanced stage of development. But when he saw a comparison with Philo Farnsworth's electronic scan, historian Plummer says Baird knew it was no contest.

"It's said that when John Logie Baird went over to look at the electronic system -- and up until then he had not seen it -- he almost sat down and cried because it was vastly superior to anything the mechanical system could produce," Plummer said.

In 1936, the Iowa scientists also obtained an experimental license from the FCC for electronic TV and they built an operating station -- W9XUI.

"They sent the signals via closed circuit to other parts of the university but there's no evidence to suggest that that signal was ever transmitted over the air," Plummer recounts.

In the meantime, they didn't abandon W9XK. And for six years, Iowa's first TV station sent out its flickering images from the electrical engineering department, accompanied by sound from radio station WSUI. W9XK went off the air in 1939.

That was the year FDR spoke for the first time on TV. His televised speech from the 1939 New York World Fair was part of RCA's celebrated demonstration of the electronic television system, invented by Farnsworth and backed by David Sarnoff's high-powered corporate research team.

However, during the preceding six "great depression" years, a few people were watching TV from an Iowa station on receivers which also used a rotating disc to re-convert the signal into visual images.

Map.jpg (22804 bytes) The experience is recounted by Dr. E. B. Kurtz, who headed the project. In a documentary report he published in 1959, Kurtz described how W9XK's educational programs were seen not only in Iowa, but in places as far away as Somerset, Kentucky, where E. Parsons penned a note to the Iowa City station after watching a broadcast. It read, "We want to thank you. We heard your program on Thursday, December 12, 1935 at 7:15 p.m. We particularly enjoyed the transmission, which would have been fine had it not been for the static (snow storm). [signed] E. Parsons"

The concept of pure educational television which Kurtz and his colleagues pioneered was buried by the commercial system which dominated development of the electronic media in Iowa.

However, Iowa Public Television and radio stations WSUI, WOI and KUNI have played a distinguished role in the field of public broadcasting which emerged much later.