MB from Carpenteria sends me a photo of his late brother’s Philco Predicta TV set, circa 1958, which features an outer spaceship-shaped swiveling 21” screen, attached by a remarkable single brass plated post, mounted, with what appears to be a giant ice tong, on a teak veneered base unit. The cloth covering hides a speaker. The design was elitist, superb, and fashionable Americans loved it: retro-futuristic to us today, people found this simply futuristic in 1958-1960. Yet in 1926, the great inventor, Lee De Forest, said, “While technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming” as quoted in Mark Gawlinski’s Interactive Television Production, 2003. Boy was de Forest WRONG.
As if in the hopes of a more fruitful viewing experience, this Predicta housed 13 buttons for as many channels. This was a sign of plenty, in an era when we only had three channels: in 1958, we could select Maverick on ABC, The Danny Thomas Show on CBS, or Wagon Train on NBC. I think I liked the lack of choice better than 600 plus channels today.
In part, this TV owes its existence and name to Philo Farnsworth (1906-1971). Inventors all over the world had thought about television for 30 years. The early inventors battled over two competing systems, the mechanical, utilizing a series of mechanical disks, as opposed to the electronic, espoused by Farnsworth. Holding over 300 career patents when he died, in 1927, young Farnsworth hammered down the patent for a complete television system of receiver and camera at the age of 21. However, this was old in productive years for the brilliant inventor. At the age of 14, on his parent’s Midwest farm, Farnsworth created the idea of the ‘image dissector’, a technique for scanning an image in a series of lines. As a freshman in high school, he determined the possibility of TV to be entirely electronic. Elements of an image were converted into electricity, one element at a time, through the use of caesium, light emitting electrons conveyed an image.
Philo worked at Philco, in Philadelphia from 1931-1933. Philco put out a commercial consumer TV as early as 1948, a table 10” screen model, which sold for $395. Try saying that three times fast!
MB’S BLACK AND WHITE Philco was futuristic also in the flat depth of the picture tube and the swivel screen, useful in the days when more than one person watched TV in the same room. Today we have a TV per room. Back then, you might have a TV per neighborhood. TV, as ubiquitous as it is today, was long in coming. The First International Congress of Electricity was held at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900. The Russian television pioneer Constantin Perskyi made the first known use of the word "television," speaking about a confluence of inventions that would amalgamate into the devise we see illustrated. In fact, many inventors from places as diverse as Scotland and Russia all independently worked on the ideas around TV, at the turn of the last century.
MB’s is a table version with a wood cabinet. Philco also made a 17” version with a colored enameled metal cabinet (I like the turquoise one), and also a magnificent standing version. A new design, highly artistic, the early, untested flaws forced Philco to pull the Predicta after a few short years on the market, making MB's a rare object today.
Philo Farnsworth was the farm boy who invented TV, yet the Predicta was the work of two talented European designers, Severin Jonassen and Catherine Winkle, who elevated the picture tube on that ice-tong support. The finest Predictas, in my mind, and, to the market for collectors, are the 40” pedestal models lovingly called ‘the gas pump’, ‘the barber pole,’ or ‘the cyclops.’
The elite design, a black and white capacity only, and poor performance was about to make the Predicta obsolete; however, the nail in the coffin came in the form of the market entry of color TV in 1960. Philco headed towards bankruptcy.
MB, if your model has all its vacuum tubes, your Groove Tube is worth $600. If you had that iconic pedestal model, you'd be looking at $1,200, however.
And many owners of Philco Predictas cannot repair them. I notice a trend to make them into computer monitors...which is desecration. I think Philo would agree.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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