MHS Celebrates: Manitoba 150 in the Winnipeg Free Press: The Medium was the Murky Message

by Garry Moir
Winnipeg, Manitoba

W. R. (Billy) Clubb was known for many achievements. He was a prominent politician serving in numerous cabinet portfolios. His herds of shorthorn cattle were considered among the best in the province. He was an avid curler. He was also one of the first Manitobans to appear on television ... an experience that turned out to be as humbling as it was exhilarating. The esteemed Clubb was soon to discover how unforgiving the television camera could be and that, just maybe, he had a face better suited for radio.

Fifty of the province’s most prominent “movers and shakers” had gathered at Eaton’s department store on a pleasant Sept. 22, 1933, evening. The lieutenant-governor was on hand, as were the premier and several top cabinet ministers. The mayor of Winnipeg had been invited, along with numerous business and civic leaders. Having been treated to dinner, they were herded into the assembly hall on the seventh floor. Most didn’t know what to expect, except that they were about to see something they had never seen before. They were there to witness a demonstration of what some called “long-distance seeing,” better known as “television.”

Inside the assembly room stood a strange looking contraption that included a 10-inch screen attached to a large disc filled with holes. The “television set” and camera had been brought to Winnipeg by the Western Television Co. of Chicago. Similar demonstrations had already taken place in Toronto and Montreal.

Master of ceremonies for the evening was D. R. P. (Darby) Coats, the province’s best-known radio personality and broadcasting pioneer. Coats had played a part in getting the country’s first radio station on the air in 1919, known as XWA in Montreal. He had then come to Manitoba to run the nation’s first publicly owned radio station, CKY Winnipeg. He waxed eloquent about the potential for television, even suggesting it might be used by police to catch criminals or firefighters to battle blazes.

While others offered technical explanations of what was about to occur, Coats took a small group of “volunteers” seven floors down to Eaton’s Annex, where a studio had been set up that included a rather large camera that also had a disc attached to it. All was in readiness.

Coats officially became the first Manitoban to be seen on television. Up on the seventh floor, the guests were amazed to see his face. While the picture was bouncy and far from perfect, he was reportedly recognizable and the voice was clear and distinct. Next up was the minister of education, Robert Hoey, who would have been happier just about anywhere else. According to newspaper accounts, “he murmured ‘good evening’ to the TV audience and ducked quickly out of range.” By contrast, the mayor, Ralph Webb “showed himself to be an able television performer” and even conducted a telephone conversation when he was on camera. The aforementioned Clubb did not fare nearly as well. Whatever words of wisdom the public works minister had for his small television audience were lost because of his appearance. “Owing to a peculiar feature of television,” reported the Tribune, “his face and jowls showed what appeared to be a three-day growth of black beard.”

If it was any consolation, Clubb was hardly the only early TV participant who came off as less than telegenic. “One’s face might be as smooth as a billiard ball,” lamented Coats, “and yet appear like Lincoln’s on the screen.”

Over the next week, thousands of Winnipeggers poured into Eaton’s to watch similar demonstrations that were part of an electronics exhibition staged at the department store. Local entertainers had a chance to perform in front of the camera to an audience seven floors above. Coats’s four-year-old son Jim recalls being held up to the camera to say “Hi, Daddy.”

Manitobans, however, were far from ready to jump on the TV bandwagon. Most complained, noted Coats, that it wasn’t up to movie-house standards.

“The picture was of a sea-green colour, traversed by undulating lines, as if viewed through a trembling venetian blind. Ladies watched their friends singing before the microphone at the transmitting end and then went up by elevator to view the effect on the screen. Presently they would return to cheer the already jittery artist with, ‘My dear, you look simply awful.’” Even the Chicago promoters admitted that television had “not arrived at the state of perfection where its constant showing would be palatable to the public just yet.”

In fact, the television people were watching in Winnipeg in 1933 would never become a reality. What Manitobans witnessed that week was something known as mechanical television. It was the brainchild of John Lougie Baird, an eccentric Scottish inventor who spent endless hours and most of his money trying to perfect his invention. According to legend, items used for his initial experiments were hat boxes, wood from a coffin, a cookie tin, string, glue and a bicycle lamp.

Throughout the 1930s, mechanical TV would face a formidable rival in the contest for the dominant television technology. What would come to be known as electronic television, with its large picture tube and electronic camera gadgetry, would ultimately prove far more effective in capturing and transmitting an image. Mechanical television was relegated to the dust bin.

That is not to say the Winnipeg demonstration did not spark considerable interest. Stories about the advancement and potential of television appeared regularly in local newspapers. Coats took a keen interest and would eventually play a role in bringing TV to Manitoba. During a visit to London in 1935, he was astounded at the investment the government- owned British Broadcasting Corp. was making in the new medium.

That same year, television was the topic of a Winnipeg Tribune editorial. “It is obviously probable that before long, television may be a matter of more than academic interest to Canadians.”

Even a local clergyman got into the act. In 1939, Archbishop Alexander Harding toured England and during the course of his visit was plunked in front of a BBC television camera for a talk. On his return to Winnipeg, he cited the television experience as the most exciting event of the trip.

A handful of Manitobans were not prepared to wait for the arrival of local television. In 1949, an employee of Trans Canada airlines named Len Thompson would lay claim to having the first television set in the city. He built it himself.

Thompson then proceeded to construct an 18-metre-tall tower on his property at 187 Langevin Ave. to draw in distant signals. The closest station to Winnipeg at the time was KSTP in Minneapolis, which had gone on the air in 1948. A Tribune article in September 1951 reported that Thompson “already had four to five months of real pleasure in the last two years picking up programs from Minneapolis quite regularly and from New York, Cleveland and Detroit on (signal) skips.”

As the decade of the 1940s drew to a close, it was estimated about a dozen people in Winnipeg owned a TV. In just four years the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. would launch Manitoba’s first television station. What had seemed like a distant dream that September evening in 1933 was about to become a reality.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Douglas Richard Proctor “Darby” Coats (c1892-1973)

Page revised: 4 July 2020