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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

The Hypnotic Power of Television

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

People in the Texas Hill Country had been listening to radio for a quarter century before Elbert Hahne's television set turned invisible signals into squiggly images on a 10 inch screen.

The ability to send live images through the air had been around since the early 20th century, but in the beginning the technology had no practical purpose. Then the business establishment realized television's value as entertainment, paid for by advertising, and slowly built a network of TV stations.

By the spring of 1949 there were 2 television stations in Texas: WBAP-TV in Fort Worth and KLEE-TV in Houston. Neither station reached the Hill Country.

TV transmission signals traveled in straight lines and only carried about 60 miles. Beyond that distance the curvature of the earth blocked the signals.

Retailers were not even selling TV sets in San Antonio because there was no market. There were no TV stations in range.

Elbert Hahne, who sold and repaired radios at his shop on the Llano Highway in Fredericksburg, had his own ideas about television. He believed he could bring television to the Hill Country. All he needed was a TV set and really tall antenna.

On March 28, 1949, at just before 10 in the evening, Hahne, surrounded by family and friends, turned on the power to his brand new 10 inch Air King TV set fed by a 57 foot tower. As Hahne slowly turned the dial a wavy test pattern appeared on the screen followed by what looked like 2 tiny men in underwear fighting in a snow storm.

That live boxing match, broadcast by station KLEE-TV in Houston, was probably the first television program seen in Gillespie County.

By November 1949, Elbert Hahne and at least 3 other retailers in Fredericksburg sold TV sets. Business really picked up when WOAI-TV in San Antonio went on the air in December 1949.

The smart TV salesman let the television sell itself. Elbert Hahne placed a TV set in the window of his shop so customers could see it in operation. He put a sign on his TV tower that lit up when the television was on.

People came from all over the Hill Country to see Hahne's TV. Some left with TV sets of their own.

TV sets were expensive, but a buyer could purchase one on the easy payment plan.

Some old timers tell me that the early television shows were Howdy-Doody, Milton Berle, the CBS News with Douglas Edwards and the Friday Night Fights sponsored by Gillette.

Soon television was a part of popular culture. Students at Fredericksburg High School named the 1950 edition of their yearbook, the "Television Edition."

The images seen on a TV screen had amazing power first recognized by advertisers. Camel Cigarettes, sponsor of John Cameron Swayze's news program, required Swayze to have a burning cigarette always visible when he was on camera.

Television affected lives in ways never before imagined. The Fredericksburg Standard carried a story about a young woman married to an airman stationed at Bergstrom AFB in Austin who went to Chicago to see a friend. Her husband filed for divorce after seeing her on TV sitting between 2 sailors at a wrestling match.

While television was entertaining, it unleashed fears we didn't know we had. Firemen worried that heat produced by glowing vacuum tubes would start house fires.

Theater owners worried that people would stay home in the evenings and watch television rather than buy a ticket to see a movie.

Television took the blame for every problem that came along. Doctors blasted television for turning Americans into fat and lazy couch potatoes.

Educators believed SAT scores tanked because students watched "the idiot box" instead of doing homework.

Worst of all sociologists and psychologists warned that the hypnotic power of television competed with family, church and school in the formation of children's values. Society was becoming more violent as children imitated the brutality on the television screen.

Seems to me those fears are overstated.

While watching television at my house does include a certain amount of violence and foul language, that's just to see who gets the remote.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" February 1, 2020 Column

Sources:
"Around The Square," Fredericksburg Standard, October 13, 1948.
"Television For Fredericksburg? Radio Men Report Receiving Pictures Here," Fredericksburg Standard, March 30, 1949.
"You Are Invited To See Television," Fredericksburg Standard, May 18, 1949.
"Television Results in a Divorce Suit," Fredericksburg Standard, May 10, 1950.


"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • The Magic of Radio 1-15-20
  • Drama at the Tax Office 1-1-20
  • The Mysteries of Buffalo Cave 12-15-19
  • O. Henry in Fredericksburg 12-1-19
  • The Nimitz: Hotel with a History 11-15-19

    See More »

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    Columns

    "Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • The Magic of Radio 1-15-20
  • Drama at the Tax Office 1-1-20
  • The Mysteries of Buffalo Cave 12-15-19
  • O. Henry in Fredericksburg 12-1-19
  • The Nimitz: Hotel with a History 11-15-19

    See More »


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