Television in the Age of Radio: Modernity, Imagination, and the Making of a Medium

Television in the Age of Radio: Modernity, Imagination, and the Making of a Medium

Television in the Age of Radio: Modernity, Imagination, and the Making of a Medium

Television in the Age of Radio: Modernity, Imagination, and the Making of a Medium


Television existed for a long time before it became commonplace in American homes. Even as cars, jazz, film, and radio heralded the modern age, television haunted the modern imagination. During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. television was a topic of conversation and speculation. Was it technically feasible? Could it be commercially viable? What would it look like? How might it serve the public interest? And what was its place in the modern future? These questions were not just asked by the American public, but also posed by the people intimately involved in television's creation. Their answers may have been self-serving, but they were also statements of aspiration. Idealistic imaginations of the medium and its impact on social relations became a de facto plan for moving beyond film and radio into a new era.

In Television in the Age of Radio, Philip W. Sewell offers a unique account of how television came to be--not just from technical innovations or institutional struggles, but from cultural concerns that were central to the rise of industrial modernity. This book provides sustained investigations of the values of early television amateurs and enthusiasts, the fervors and worries about competing technologies, and the ambitions for programming that together helped mold the medium.

Sewell presents a major revision of the history of television, telling us about the nature of new media and how hopes for the future pull together diverse perspectives that shape technologies, industries, and audiences.


Pulp publishing mogul Hugo Gernsback kicked off the June 1927 issue of Radio News with an editorial proclaiming, “With the official recognition of Television by the Radio Commission, as well as the actual successful demonstration early in April by the American Telegraph and Telephone Co., it may be said that television has finally arrived.” This was not television’s first moment of arrival, and it was far from the last. Gernsback’s pronouncement and the editorial that followed do, however, point to some significant matters. First, that the United States’ most widely read radio magazine and its editor-in-chief were heralding television’s arrival several decades before it became a domestic commonplace testifies to a long period during which television existed as an object of conversation and imagination rather than a device in the home for (most of) the public. Second, the variance in capitalization between the first and second uses of the word television may be a sign of lax or eccentric copyediting, but it also hints at an uncertainty about usage that was in fact typical of articles about TV in the 1920s. Third, that Gernsback framed this arrival in terms of corporate display and governmental sanction suggests the matrix of institutional claims that would be made on and for the medium. Finally, since this was but one of many arrivals, Gernsback’s declaration indicates that what credibly constituted television and its moment of accomplishment and recognition was subject to change and dispute. All of these circumstances stem from the roles that culture and language—particularly as manifested in systems of authority and evaluation—play in making and managing a social, technical, and economic phenomenon such as television. In the case of early television those roles were played on a number of stages as individuals and institutions thought and talked about television.

This book explores the very real impact that language and culture have on our world and how we live in it, taking as its case study the role that imagination . . .

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