Sunday, November 9, 2014

1953: test pattern

i was about to jump into the 60's, when it seems everything changed (although i suspect appearances can be deceiving), when i realized i had skipped one of the most important events of the modern age, the second elizabethan period. 1953 saw the coronation of elizabeth the second (please, scots, forgive me.), and it was actually seen around the world. it was the first major event to be broadcast internationally. i watched it in the gymnasium of the jane redman elementary school, on what was probably a 14" screen. fortunately, i had a seat in the first row. because i was young, the revolutionary impact of what was  happening was lost on me at the time. because we were mostly unaware of what real revolution looks like, most of my elders had no clue either. but the ability to see anything anywhere anytime would change our world in more ways than we could imagine. it would make many of the events of the sixties seem revolutionary when actually what was unusual about them was just their visibility. it would allow the sort of coverage of the war in vietnam that the defense department would work strenuously to prevent occurring again.

also that year, the screen arrived in my home. it did seem like a revolutionary event. it came in the form of an crosley television set that was a major piece of furniture. it came in the back of a borrowed pickup truck. it
came from memphis, because televisions were rare in jonesboro. there was only one television station it would receive, wmct, channel 5 in memphis, and that one station was off-air most of the time. when i got home from school, there would be only the test pattern to watch until kate smith began the broadcast day. then there was howdy doody. it was magic, and it seemed magic.

it is hard to remember that awesome newness nowadays. i am typing on a screen in a room in which there are seven other screens. they range in size from about four times as large as the crosley (in area; the tv's about 2' thick, and hangs like any other picture) to the one on my wrist that has reminded me of two friends' birthdays, kept me informed on what music it's playing, and notified me of three e-mails while i've been typing. it is magic, but it no longer seems magic.

the test pattern may have seemed to be testing the success and fidelity of the signal broadcast. but it was also testing whether we would be willing to receive what the screen would send us. we were.

i suspect mr. mcluhan would be amused at the amazing parallels between the two elizabethan periods, both of them being entirely revolutionary. the reign of elizabeth the first would see the ascendancy of the sovereign printed word. the reign of elizabeth the second has seen  the printed word abdicate to the broadcast word. but no longer is it only words that are broadcast. both of the images in this post are broadcast, available on demand. i am listening to a swedish band singing 'blue on blue', also on demand. the sun may set on the british empire, this 61st year of elizabeth's reign. but there is a new empire out there now, which i watched begin sitting on the floor of the west school gym without knowing it.