Early German Television

August 16, 2008

By the middle 1920's, experiments with television were being conducted in Britain, Germany, Japan, and the US. The first tests were done with the Nipkow disk as the device for scanning the image and converting it to sequential elements to be transmitted and reassembled at the receiver. The characteristic signature of all images scanned with the Nipkow disk is the curvature of the scan lines. Systems with horizontally and vertically oriented scan lines were used. In Britain, John L. Baird's equipment used vertically oriented scan lines. In Germany, the preference was for horizontal scan lines.

On July 6, 2008, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a sequence of four photographs of the images produced by experimental TV receivers in Germany, illustrating the progressive improvement that occurred between the late 1920's and the 1930's. However, the main focus of the article is on the life of one of the models, Imogen Orkutt, used in the tests. As an example of the human interest side of these early television experiments, the story is quite interesting.

It's English translation is appended.


Link to original document.

How the TV images got sharper… these photos document the development from 1929 to 1934.
Museum of Technology, Berlin
Schura von Finkelstein (right) and Imogen Orkutt… were the names of the girls who contributed their beauty to the experiments.

Lost Treasures of Television (1)

Four Pictures And One Story

July 6 2008

y the end of the 1920's, the public had pretty much gotten over their astonishment at moving pictures in theaters. No one feared being run over by a locomotive coming at them from the silver screen. And then, suddenly, two barely identifiable female figures surfaced on a screen barely 1.6 inches square.

The two young women were part of a television research program of the German Post Office: An object located at point A would be made visible at a point B by means of transmission. At that point in time, the maximum image resolution of the system was only 30 horizontal lines. It was no comparison to film images, but it was just enough to rekindle amazement at the image in this little magic box. The public saw similar pictures at the first public demonstration of experimental television transmission during the German Broadcast Exposition in Berlin. The tiny images were optically magnified: It was television through a magnifying glass.

What Is "Near" and What Is "Far?"

The men of the post office documented their technical progress photographically. In parallel with the photo of the two ladies, they also used another scene: the passage of a warship through a canal.

By 1934, the German TV standard was a picture with 180 lines. The receivers used cathode ray tubes instead of Nipkow disks and the picture size was 23 by 26 centimeters (9 by 10 ¼ inches). Has the dream of television been realized when an object located at point A can be seen clearly at point B? What is near and what is far? What does one want to see? A quarter century later, in 1953, the North German Broadcast system undertook a poll to determine the reasons why its public would acquire TV receivers. One of the respondents answered, "You know, I've always sat in front of my radio and never been able to see these people and I thought to myself, if you could only see them!"

Looking at My Notes Too Much

In the same year, then President of the Federal Republic of Germany Theodor Heuss had his first experience with television. After his official New Year's address, he saw himself on the screen for the first time and noted, "I took advantage of the opportunity to see myself for the first time. I went about it quite critically and determined that, during my New Year's address, I looked at my notes too much."

1953 was quite a year for television. Television programming firsts included the quiz show, "Do You Know Europe," the crowning of the Queen of England, a cooking program with the legendary Clemens Wilmenrod, live theater with Willy Millowitsch, and the "Word for Sunday." In the same year, the President of the Bundestag (West German Parliament) sent a telegram to the Directors of the Northwest German Broadcasting system in which he wrote, "Just saw television program. Regret that the technology doesn't give us the means to shoot at it."

A couple of Marks on the side

Flashback: During early television tests in 1928, the two young women sang, "Listen to what's coming in from outside." The two look like they had just stepped out of a swimming scene in Billy Wilder's film, "People on Sunday." Their names are Schura von Finkelstein and Imogen Orkutt and by working for the Post Office test program they were making a few Marks on the side.

Imogen Orkutt was born on March 26, 1907 in Duesseldorf-Oberkassel and worked in a specialty store for children's clothing in Berlin in 1925. Her salary then was 25 Marks per month. Three years later, the Post Office paid her fifty Marks for posing with her friend Schura at Lake Wannsee. Naturally, at the time, the two young women had no idea they were writing television history when they had their pictures taken.

A Leap Into Silent Films

In the mid-twenties, Imogen Orkutt was drawn to film. In 1925, when her job as a trainee in the specialty store for children's clothing no longer appealed to her, she auditioned for bit parts in movies. The switch in careers seemed difficult, but not impossible. She appeared in various advertising films (earning between 900 and 1000 Marks per month, all of which she had to turn over to her parents) and even made it into silent films where she ran into such stars as Henny Porten, Heinrich George, Harry Liedke, and Otto Gebuehr. In 1929, she worked at the Berlin Radio Exposition, a 12 day engagement where television imaging was demonstrated to the public. At about the same time, she met Georg Cohn, her future husband. He was 23 years older than she, a surgeon by profession, and Jewish. At Georg Cohn's request, she gave up her attempt at a film career and became the receptionist at his medical practice. In 1931, Imogen Orkutt got her driver's license and in 1932 she and Georg Cohn were married. One of the witnesses at the wedding was Eva Busch, the wife of the singer and resistance fighter Ernst Busch.

Under the Nazis, life in Germany became unbearable for Imogen and Georg Cohn. They emigrated to Palestine, initially to Jerusalem (1939 to 1942), and then to Tel Aviv (1942 to 1956). She again worked as a salesperson, this time in a women's fashion store, and he worked intermittently for the English military in Egypt. In 1943, her only child, Peter, was born.

The Spell of the Imperfect

At the urging of her husband, Imogen Cohn returned to Germany in 1956. George Cohn found a position as a school physician and a court medical expert, but within a few months of their arrival he died. Imogen Cohn, having to make it alone with her 13-year old son, took over the management of one of a chain of laundromats from 1960 to 1975, and then worked as a salesperson in a newspaper and tobacco shop on Munich's Tuerkenstrasse, next to the legendary Arri Movie Theater. She died in the year 2000.

Four images from the early days of television. Line images. With the spell of the imperfect. Similar to the first moving pictures over the Internet, the television of tomorrow. Four images and one story.

What happened to Schura von Finkelstein is, as yet, unknown.

The author is the Program Director for the German Television Film Library of the Museum for Film and Television in Berlin.

Text: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Visual material: Berlin Technical Museum, Wolfgang Maria Weber
©F.A.Z. Electronic Media Incorporated
Downloaded from www.faz.net.

English translation: Otto Hinckelmann