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  • Wildest Dreams
  • Robert Fyne
Gary R. Edgerton . The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia University Press, 2007. 512 pages; $37.50.

When the first telegraph line, stretching from Washington D.C. to Annapolis, became operational in 1844, with its prophetic “What hath God wrought” message, not one person envisioned the future implications of this simple forty-four-mile wire. As the harbinger of the telephone, then radio, television, computers, and, finally, the Internet, the telegraph signaled the future of global digital communications.

But it is the television that Gary R. Edgerton sets at the center of the media revolution. Consumers gaze into video screens, large or small, to experience of an astounding portion of their lives. Why is this? How did TV—a simple concept first envisioned in the 1920s—enter post-World War II mainstream life and within a few years transform the nation’s psyche? What subliminal forces changed, almost overnight, a society’s outlook on most social, economic, and political issues? And, perhaps, more problematically, what are the implications of the Digital Era, in which cameras record and recycle our lives? Has Big Brother arrived? Are we heading into the wall-screen world of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? These are some of the questions that a university communications chairman explains in a marvelous, detailed, and comprehensive narrative that examines the phenomenal rise of this electronic behemoth.

As the author of several media-history books, Edgerton now offers The Columbia History of American Television, tracing the industry’s shaky start when a Russian immigrant, David Sarnoff—who claimed to coordinate rescue attempts with ships heading for Titanic survivors by working seventy-two straight hours as the sole New York City telegraph operator—began his meteorite career at RCA by creating a rudimentary television receiver for the 1939 World’s Fair. Two years later, World War II accelerated the company’s research, and after serving in the Army’s Signal Corps, General Sarnoff (all workers dutifully addressed their director by his former military rank) oversaw the development of a commercial product that by Christmas 1947 was found in 200,000 stateside homes. Clearly, the days of rural America were in decline. The popular GI Bill sent thousands of young men into universities and permitted veterans to purchase a home with no money down. And what did these homeowners purchase first for their living rooms? Without hesitation, the latest twelve-inch, black-and- white television, complete with outdoor antenna wiring.

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Everyone knows, of course, what followed. Almost overnight television upset the nation’s applecart as meals, schools, social events, bedtime schedules, political elections, even family conversation took on hybrid forms. With additional technological strides—the colorized picture, cable networking, instant replay, picture-in-picture, and video recorders—this onetime novelty now controlled daily activities and individual thought. In fact, many young Americans cannot fathom life before television. Did people really sit quietly in the front room, listening to the radio every evening? With a newspaper on their laps?

For better or worse, the television industry, after six decades of fine-tuning, is here to stay, and Dr. Edgerton’s 512-page study thoroughly explains how this once-fledgling industry—which some call a viable art form—slid into the American home, turned innocent viewers into addicts, and bred a national culture. With engrossing period photographs and a detailed bibliography, this remarkable book, unquestionably one-of-a-kind, belongs in every reference library. [End Page 86]

Robert Fyne
Kean University,


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