The UI’s distance learning future that never was

Carl Menzer broadcasting at the University of Iowa, ca. 1925-1930

Carl Menzer broadcasting at the University of Iowa, ca. 1925-1930

A recent post at the Smithsonian’s Paleofutures blog — “A history of the future that never was” — cites the University of Iowa’s W9XK as the first American university station to broadcast TV. Read about this failed experiment to bring free education to the masses below.

Predictions for Educational TV in the 1930s

Today most universities offer online courses that allow students to study and take tests without physically being on campus, but in the 1930s the distance learning technology of the future was television.

Both radio and television were initially envisioned as methods for point-to-point communication, but once radio broadcasting became mainstream in the 1920s universities saw the potential of the medium to reach a broad audience with educational programming. This was especially true in rural farming communities where long distance commuting to a university was out of the question.

Universities in the U.S. may have been at the forefront of experimenting with radio broadcasting, but frankly, they weren’t great at attracting sizable audiences. As Douglas B. Craig explains in his book Fireside Politics, “many university stations [of the 1920s] began operations with high hopes of bringing education to the masses, but soon faltered as broadcasting costs increased, audiences diminished, and professors demonstrated that lecture-hall brilliance did not always translate into good radio technique. These problems were quickly reflected in an unfavorable allocation of frequency or broadcast times, sending many of these stations into a downward spiral to oblivion.”…

Experiments in television brought universities that had failed at radio a fresh start, but it was still unclear as to whether these technologies should be used for narrowly targeted or broadcast purposes. In 1933, the University of Iowa became the first American university to broadcast TV. The first public demonstration of television in the state had occurred just two years earlier at the 1931 Iowa State Fair, and there was tremendous excitement by scientists at the University of Iowa to see what it could accomplish…

View the full article at

View the Iowa Digital Library’s W9XK Experimental Television at Iowa collection