Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Brief History of the Teleprompter

As President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney enter the home stretch of their campaigns, they've now been touring the country and delivering the same stump speech three times per day for the past ten months straight. Both of the candidates read their words while looking out at the crowds, instead of down at a piece of paper, conveying the idea that they've memorized their speeches and are connecting with their audiences. And while conservatives take great pleasure in mocking President Obama's reliance on a machine to help him deliver his speeches, the truth is that both candidates - along with politicians for more than a generation - read off of thin, nearly invisible plates of glass angled at a 45-degree slant at either side of their podiums. Perhaps more than any other technological advance - more than the touch-screen voting booth, the automated campaign phone call or even the slick TV attack ad - the teleprompter continues to define our political age.

The device started out in 1948 as a roll of butcher paper rigged up inside half of a suitcase. Actor Fred Barton Jr., a Broadway veteran, was nervous. "For those that had been either in theater or the movies, the transition to television was difficult, because there was a much greater need for memorizing lines," says Christopher Sterling, a media historian at George Washington University. "At the time, there was a lot more live television, which many people today tend to forget." Instead of memorizing the same batch of lines over the course of months, Barton was now expected to memorize new lines on a weekly or even daily basis. Cue cards were sometimes used, but relying on unsteady stagehands to flip between them could sometimes cause catastrophic delays.

Barton went to Irving Kahn, a vice president at 20th Century Fox studios, with the idea of connecting cue cards in a motorized scroll, so he could rely on prompts without risking an on-screen blunder. Kahn brought in his employee Hubert Schlafly, an electrical engineer and director of television research, and asked him if it could be done. "I said it was a piece of cake," Mr. Schlafly told the Stamford Advocate in 2008. Using half of a suitcase as an outer shell for his new device, he rigged up a series of belts, pulleys and a motor to turn a scroll of butcher paper that displayed an actor's lines in half-inch letters. The paper was turned gradually, as controlled by a stagehand, while the words were read.

On April 21, 1949, Schlalfly submitted a patent application for his "television prompting apparatus," and in the tradition of offstage "prompters" who had been relied upon to feed forgotten lines to actors, he called his device the TelePrompTer. When the application was approved, the New York Times noted that it "coaches television actors into letter-perfect delivery of their lines and permits news commentators to simulate prodigious feats of memory." It may have seemed unlikely at the time, but a new political age was born. {Read On}