When Television Was the Future

By Marc Glassman

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2022

 
Philco Predicta UG-3410 Princess television, 1959, USA. All images courtesy of MZTV Museum.

Moses Znaimer fondly remembers when he first saw a vintage Pedestal model of the Philco Predicta, the TV set that cast him on the path to creating MZTV, Canada’s museum of television. “It was the late Sixties, and I was a bright young thing on CBC,” he recalls, one winter evening from his office in the complex of buildings which houses the museum, his two radio stations—one boomer rock, one classical, Vision-TV, Zoomer magazine, blogTO, and the other parts of his media empire. “I was the new tech guy dispatched to interview the man who had invented the 33 and a third LP (long playing record), Dr. Peter Goldmark. At the time, he was the head of CBS labs, the world's foremost research institution into audio visual. The occasion was the announcement and the unveiling of the first home replay medium for visuals, to be known as the EVR cartridge.”


Neither Znaimer nor Goldmark knew that Japanese technologists were about to overtake the EVR with Sony’s far cheaper and easier to use U-Matic ¾” videocassette. In any case, Znaimer was less impressed with Goldmark’s invention than with the beautiful machine he saw in his office. Instead of keeping his mind on the interview, his head kept swiveling to the gorgeous object he spied out of the corner of his eye.


As his interview time with the inventor ended, Znaimer asked Goldmark about his television set, “What’s that?” Goldmark answered, “It’s a Philco Predicta.” And Znaimer, with his characteristic bravado asked, “Will you sell it to me?” Goldmark laughed and said, “Go get one of your own.”


It was when he returned to Toronto and found it impossible to find a Philco, then only a few years after it was discontinued, that Znaimer’s quest for television sets began. “I realized that people were not treating their TVs like something important, like the family silverware. They were treating it like the toaster. Most were ugly. When you got a new one, you tended to throw the old one out. No one was preserving their TVs.”



While this attitude might have made general sense, it is shocking that the Philco sets were tossed out along with the rest of the often boringly designed televisions of the time. Unlike the vast number of sets, the Philco Predicta is elegant, simple, and refined. Its design, with the prominent picture tube, has the precise and sleek postwar modernity like the prose of John Updike and the biomorphic look of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture.


Thirty years before the advent of the home computer, the Philco Predicta placed the screen in a paramount position for its audience’s appreciation and consumption. The Predicta’s technology is celebrated, not hidden. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Predicta is its picture tube. It boldly presents a green flat screen with an olive tinge. The screen is beautifully framed by a gold strip that joins it to its backing. In an age where we spend most of our waking time looking at screens, who wouldn’t want to acknowledge the Philco tube as an inspiration for modern digital designers?


It’s fascinating to compare the Predicta with other television sets from the late 1950s. While most of the designs from the era retain a certain tasteful style, the Philco rivals are far more old-fashioned, their sets realized as bulky pieces of furniture to be prominently placed in the living rooms of the bourgeoning middle-class. This meant encasing new technology in a familiar wooden form, which could conform with the existing décor of well-appointed couches and chairs set off by a lovely rug and mood lighting.


Philco’s rivals had been making sets from the early 1950s. Perusing a 1956 Motorola TV set catalogue, one sees what is called a “masterpiece.” It’s quite large, big enough to include a 24” picture tube in a wooden piece of furniture, with a yellow power panel that has multiple functional buttons. Next to the tube is a red mesh twin-speaker system “for richest, truest sound.” The set is constructed in mahogany with gold and brown wooden legs that include a small magazine rack.


All the Motorola devices work with the notion of the TV set as an item of furniture fitting in with the bourgeois lifestyle of the period. Perhaps the most futuristic is the cheaper Consolette 21” set, which has a blond, far thinner case with “long, tapered legs.” The catalog shows its ideal consumer as a starstruck boy who stares at a rocket ship on the screen.


Catalog page advertising the Motorola 21C4 Consolette television, 1956, USA.

Motorola’s main competitor in that period was RCA, which made very popular sets and controlled the major broadcasting network of NBC. A typically stylish model, the 1958 RCA 21” B&W model 21D8525, would have been a cornerstone in any suburban (or urban) home. Using mahogany for its console, set off by a gold-toned mesh speaker cover, the set placed the screen in the middle of a lovely furniture case—gorgeous but not a device recognized for its advanced technology or design.


Rather similar is the Canadian-made Rogers Majestic 1957 B&W. Like most Canadian items from the period, the set is more functional than ornamental. As usual for the pre-Philco Predicta period, the screen, though it’s the major component, is not made into an attractive feature. What we see is a gawky teenager of a device: a television mounted on spindly legs of auburn wood with its technical components—volume, picture, and channel switcher—covered in light mesh below for a purely functional display.


What is clear is that the Philco was way ahead for the period, going beyond the notion of a nice addition to the living room furniture. More than 50 years after he first saw the Pedestal Philco Predicta, Moses Znaimer can still remember what attracted him to the set. “To me, it looked like a girl,” he impishly says. “It was radically different from anything else. There was the slenderness of the body and the exposed picture tube. You couldn't find that in any of those dark wooden cases.” The top panel of the elegant “barber pole” stand is enameled yellow with plastic dials to adjust for picture quality; below are horizontal slats resembling the best audio equipment of the period and, unsurprisingly, making the sound exceptional.


Given Znaimer’s comment, it's ironic that the Philco Predicta was designed by a woman, Catherine Winkler. Was it a self-portrait? We’ll never know. Winkler created the Predicta with her colleagues Richard Whipple and Severin Jonassen. The swivel picture tube made viewing more flexible and gave it a futuristic look, which led to its nicknames of “the Atom Bomb,” “Cyclops,” and more unfortunately, “the gas pump.” A new plastic called Tenite protected the glass and caused the tube’s greenish hue as well as giving the set, whether at 17” or 21”, its unique look.


The Penthouse, introduced in the inaugural year of 1958, has a less interesting wooden cabinet. But what is extraordinary is the connection of the picture tube to a 25-foot-long extension cable, which made it possible to exercise something resembling remote control for consumers. You could move the tube quite a distance from its base, foregrounding the tube and whatever was appearing on the screen. Apparently, the Penthouse was used in bars, where the staff could easily control its operation and respond to the requests of customers.


Another model was the Siesta, a technical advance, which had a clock that could turn on the TV set at a designated time. With other iterations, the three designers simply went for product diversity. The Holiday had an elegant wooden tabletop while the Debutante was more functional and American in its styling. The final design, another upright Predicta dubbed the Continental, had Danish Modern inspired finned supports attached to the box.


After all these years, it seems hard to believe that the Philco Predicta was a failure and may have contributed to the company’s downfall. The problems were technical: the 21” inch tube apparently had poor picture quality, though not the 17” one, and several of the models in either size overheated easily. Ironically, given the cutting-edge design, the Predicta was not capable of showing colour television, then the growing technology in the field. That certainly would have been a disincentive for consumers looking to embrace something new. In fact, the Philco Predicta became so well known as a failure that it was dubbed “the Edsel of television,” a period condemnation that wouldn’t resonate today.


While technology may have taken down the Philco Predicta, their innovative design is clearly worthy of their pride of place at MZTV. The sets retain their elegance and futuristic appeal after more than 60 years.


Marc Glassman is the editor of the documentary magazine POV, an Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University and Classical 96.3FM’s film critic. He is, additionally, a journalist and event producer.