Birth of Primetime TV was at the Univ of Iowa’s W9XK

The switch to digital telecasts is on, and to mark the occasion the Iowa Digital Library has released a new online collection celebrating the birth of American prime-time TV more than 75 years ago.

This “birth” didn’t happen in a laboratory at AT&T, General Electric or RCA, however. Instead, regularly scheduled TV programs were launched on the University of Iowa campus, in a building at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street in Iowa City.

W9XK, as the experimental TV station was known, went on the air in 1933. For six years the station presented a two-nights-per-week schedule of “sight and sound” lectures, musical performances, and drama. A small but loyal audience using special receivers viewed the telecasts from as far away as Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

Television was in its infancy in the 1930′s when the U.S. government licensed about 30 such experimental stations around the country, mostly in large cities. What set W9XK apart from the others was its pioneering schedule of programs, according to university archivist David McCartney.

“While other stations were airing test signals to prove the viability of certain types of transmission systems under development, W9XK went one step further and offered programs on a regular basis,” he said. “It was not only a technical effort of the College of Engineering but faculty from the School of Music, the Department of Speech and Theatre Arts, and other areas of campus also collaborated.”

The online collection is at http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/w9xk. It features photographs, correspondence, and newspaper clippings from the University of Iowa Archives.