A Teaching Moment: Setting The Record Straight
Few know that ‘I Love Lucy’ Producer-Director Jess Oppenheimer holds the patent for the “in the lens” teleprompter. This is the same reflector/mirror system we use today, but first used on television by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, for a filmed Philip Morris cigarette commercial which aired on “I Love Lucy” on December 14, 1953. I don’t know why the “in the lens” design from Oppenheimer didn’t catch on till the mid to late 60s, but a bit more history may reveal the answer.
Let’s start with the obvious question. Were there teleprompters before this? Yes. The mechanical paper roll models…free standing and camera mounted as seen here.
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.
Although Schlafly, Barton and Kahn pitched the device to 20th Century Fox, the company was not interested. They promptly quit the company and started their own, founding the TelePrompTer Corporation. At first, the machine was used for its intended purpose: televised entertainment. It was part of a live production for the first time on December 4, 1950, as actors in the CBS soap “The First Hundred Years” read their lines off a device mounted to the side of the camera. “Initially, it was either above or below the lens of the camera, or to the right or the left, so you could always tell, unfortunately, because you could see the person’s eye was slightly off,” Sterling says.
Quickly, others saw just how useful teleprompters could be—and as they began adding their own refinements, the term itself became a generic catchall for all sorts of automatic prompting devices. The TelePrompTer Corporation kept making their product, but many others began designing their own versions. Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of “I Love Lucy,” took out a patent for the first in-camera teleprompter, which used a system of mirrors and glass to project the script directly in front of the lens. “Once you could literally shoot through the teleprompter, the on-screen talent was looking straight at the audience,” Sterling says. “Home viewers saw a smoother presentation, with a hell of a lot more eye contact.” Soon, broadcast news operations started using the machine, replacing the printed scripts anchors had previously held in their hands, starting at the network level and then filtering down to local markets.
By the time the next presidential election rolled around, in 1952, Kahn saw the next frontier for his device. After reading that aging former President Herbert Hoover had had difficulty reading speeches while campaigning for Gen. Dwight D. Eiseinhower, Kahn traveled to Chicago, the host city for the Republican National Convention, and persuaded Hoover and other speakers to try out the machine. The technology was an immediate hit—between that convention and the Democratic gathering later that month, 47 of the 58 major speeches were teleprompted. Two months later, though, candidate Eisenhower gave the technology an inadvertent publicity boost that allowed it to become legendary. It was used for a State of the Union address for the first time in 1954 by Eisenhower himself.
Over the years, subtle advances in teleprompter technology continued. Into the early ’80s, the text was typically still printed on pieces of paper—the National Museum of American History has the teleprompter text of Walter Mondale’s 1984 Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech where he notoriously admitted “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Starting in 1982, though, when Hollywood sound mixer and stagehand Courtney M. Goodin created Compu=Prompt—a software-based system that projected text from a modified Atari 800 PC—computers began to displace printed scrolls across the industry. Computerized systems held several advantages, including the fact that text could be edited and loaded at the last second. Still, in rare instances, technical difficulties with software have forced speechmakers into thinking on their feet. For Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union Address, the machine was loaded with the wrong speech, so he began his live speech off-the-cuff and from memory until the correct text appeared.
Most recently, voice-recognition software has allowed for systems that automatically scroll text based on the speaker’s actual rate of speech.
Despite the remarkable journey of his invention from makeshift line prompter to the ubiquitous centerpiece of every campaign, for the vast majority of his life, Hubert Schlafly never had the experience of using a teleprompter himself. Shortly before he died though, he finally tried it out, when he was inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame in 2008. As he stood on stage, his 88-year-old voice straining, he read his speech, repeatedly shifting back and forth, left and right.