In Living Color: The Road to Color Television

When American audiences tuned into NBC in 1957, they might have heard the announcer proclaim that “the following program is brought to you in living color!,” and they would have seen an animation of a peacock unfurl its six-colored tail feathers… in black and white. Although the first patent for a color television system was issued in 1902, and John Logie Baird successfully demonstrated a working color television system in his London laboratory in 1928, most American homes only had black and white televisions until the late 1960s. Why did it take so long for people to turn to color?

The difficulties in developing color TV, coupled with the allure of being the first company to unveil television, led the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to abandon their research into color and focus exclusively on black and white television. Television made its monochrome debut in 1939, in an era where most films were in color. Engineers at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) continued to work on developing color television and, in 1950, the Federal Communication Commission formally adopted the CBS color television standards. Vociferous debate ensued, with CBS touting the quality of their images, and RCA arguing for the need to create a system that was compatible with monochrome standards. Three years later, the FCC reversed its decision and opted instead for a color system that sacrificed image quality for compatibility. By 1954, the first color television sets were on the market, but people were not buying them. Years of public debate followed by ambivalent reviews of color broadcasts from cultural critics made consumers wary of the new technology. With the standards fight won, RCA turned to a new battle—convincing people to buy color television.

From this side of history, where we carry screens capable of displaying brilliant color in our pockets, it seems like color television was an inevitable and natural outcome of a decades-long quest to add sight to radio sound. However, the history of color television encompassed much more than the logical progression of technological advancement. Seeing “in living color” had as much to do with politics and consumer uncertainty as it did with changes in technology.

To navigate this exhibit, click on the "Dreaming in Color" link in the sidebar on the right. 


This exhibition was organized by Florencia Pierri, Isabella Manusco, and Shayla Nolan. Exhibition design by Amanda Carroll