Live from...Wheaton?

Live from…Wheaton?

Where television was born

| Published:

In 1929, inventor Charles Francis Jenkins built a small, unassuming bungalow at the corner of Windham Lane and Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. From the outside, it was a simple enough suburban house. But the two, 125-foot steel towers rising from the yard hinted at something remarkable going on inside. 

There, engineers were busy electrifying the airwaves and sending out astonishing pictures from America’s first licensed television station. 

A prolific inventor whose 400 patents presaged the future, from paper milk cartons to front-mounted automobile engines, Jenkins had come up with the idea years earlier. In 1913, he published a forward-thinking piece in the Motion Picture News titled “Motion Pictures by Wireless.” Over the next decade, he set about making that vision a reality.

In 1925, he transmitted a murky image of a small, spinning windmill in Anacostia to a receiver at his laboratory in downtown Washington, D.C. Radio pioneer Lee de Forest was unimpressed at the time. “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible,” de Forest wrote the following year, “commercially and financially I consider it to be an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

Not to be discouraged, Jenkins enlisted the Amateur Radio Relay League in 1928 to fine-tune his invention. Club members modified their radios with a Jenkins-created device designed to receive moving pictures broadcast from his laboratory on Connecticut Avenue NW under the call letters W3XK—the first television license issued by the Federal Communications Commission. 

Given the low bandwidth, those first efforts were no more than moving silhouettes, and local residents complained of interference with regular radio reception. But league members were enthusiastic. 

Seeking a less disruptive location where he could build a permanent station, Jenkins drove out Georgia Avenue one day and came to a high point of undeveloped land, just south of the crossroads village of Wheaton. There he built his bungalow and began broadcasting from his new station in April 1929.

Jenkins’ silhouette vignettes soon gave way to black-and-white images broadcast with greater definition, mostly short, light-hearted, live-action films. Television sets were sold to the public for $85 to $135—though they had to be attached to existing radio receivers. Motion pictures were broadcast on one wavelength; accompanying sound, on another. Viewers tuned in to the two stations simultaneously and watched the shows projected from a mechanical spinning disc onto a 6-inch-square mirror. 

Those early pictures were slow and murky. But “it will not be very long now,” Jenkins prophetically declared, “before one may see on a small white screen in one’s home notable current events, like inaugural ceremonies, ball games [and] pageants.” 

In 1931, the Jenkins Television Corporation was sold to Lee de Forest—the original skeptic. Eventually Jenkins’ mechanical system was replaced by all-electronic systems. Industry growth was slow during the World War II years. But by 1960, 45.7 million sets were in use.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney. 

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