We think of the mid-1950s as being the era when TV really began to change the world, but as early as the 1930s TVs not only existed, but so did broadcast TV stations. Though they were rare and recording the shows was not yet a component of the industry, in the late 1930s the BBC was already broadcasting variety shows and entertainments of all kinds on TV. Freak atmospheric conditions in 1938 allowed for these signals to be picked up all the way in New York City and 4 minutes of pre-war British television were recored for posterity.

early 1950s TV shopping
Via: Ben van Meerendonk/ International Institute of Social History

The footage was retrieved by British television enthusiast, Andrew Emmerson, who later said that “Rumors of a recording existing in America have circulated for years, but no one had ever got to the bottom of them.” The footage dates from 1938 when it was transmitted from Alexandra Palace in north London. Under normal conditions the weak signal of this experimental medium would have only traveled 30 miles or so, but this particular signal was affected by sunspots which caused the signals to be “bounced off the ionosphere” and travel much further.

It was at first believed that the rumored footage might have been part of the laboratories at NBC, but searches there didn’t turn up any results. Then Emmerson asked the American Vintage Wireless Collectors’ Society to put a call out to collectors for the footage. A staff member of a local New York TV station responded saying he had the footage, but who recorded it still remains a mystery to this day.

1939 Wolfsonian TV with vertical presentation and a mirror to reflect the screen forward
1939 Wolfsonian TV with vertical presentation and a mirror to reflect the screen forward. Via: Wmpearl/ Wiki Commons

In the days before recorded broadcasts each hour of TV was a live transmission and many of the shows were live performances. This rare footage was committed to 16mm film via a camera set up in front of the TV screen. It wouldn’t be until after the end of World War II that the kinescope was in use to record live TV for later use so there was no other recording made of this broadcast.

So, what was on this footage? The signal wasn’t very clear and there’s no sound, but it looks like a drama or opera set in the 18th century and a cartoon. This is among the oldest (if not the oldest) recorded TV footage on the plane as the earliest American TV footage dates to a year after this was filmed.

Have a look at the rare 1938 clip in the video below.