RCA’s Clear Plastic TV Wowed Crowds In 1939

In the United States in 1939, television sets still had a long way to go before they pretty much sold themselves. Efforts to do just that are what led to RCA’s Lucite Phantom Telereceiver, which aimed to show people a new way to receive broadcast media.

Created for the 1939 World’s Fair, the TRK-12 Lucite Phantom Telereceiver introduced people to the concept of television. Production models were housed in contemporary wood cabinets, but the clear acrylic (itself also a relatively new thing) units allowed curious potential customers to gaze within, and see what was inside these devices.

One interesting feature is the vertically-mounted cathode ray tube, which reflects off a mirror in the top cover of the cabinet for viewing. This meant that much of the bulk of the TRK-12 could be vertical instead of horizontal. Important, because the TRK-12 was just over a meter tall and weighed 91 kilograms (or just over 200 lbs.)

Clearly a luxury item, the TRK-12 sold for $600 which was an eye-watering sum for the time. But it was a glimpse of the future, and as usual, the future is made available a few ticks early to those who can afford the cost.

Want to see one in person? You might be in luck, because an original resides at the MZTV Museum of Television in Toronto, Canada.

25 thoughts on “RCA’s Clear Plastic TV Wowed Crowds In 1939

  1. One reason why the CRT was mounted vertical, is because of the long neck of the tube. If they would mount the tube horizontally, the device would be very impractical. But putting it in a transparent case is brilliant and looks futuristic (to me) even in 2023.

      1. As a kid, I happened to have watched a fair amount of TV using a mirror. Early bedtime, plus a mirror placed so I could still see the TV…

        Side note = 1
        That viewing time basically improved my ability to read blurry and reversed text. Did not realize it then. Later, I realized I could read a lot of stuff easily while my peers struggled more.
        Side note = 0

        Mirrors get dirty and mix glare with the viewing image among other things that combine to seriously marginalize the otherwise pretty great direct viewing feature inherent to CRT devices.

  2. There wasn’t much tv in 1939. They broadcast from the NY World’s Fair, but I recall reading they had to set up tv sets elsewhere so people couod watch.

    It was a borderline time, even if you bought a set, not much to watch. It did improve, but it’s relative.

    TV was shut down during the war, and besides they needed industry to build weapons, not tv sets.

    Worse, after the war, the allocation was changed, so tv sets already bought were obsolete. Not sure if there were mods. (FM got moved to, but there were converters).

    Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be an early adopter.

    1. “There wasn’t much tv in 1939.” Has that really changed, despite having hundreds of “channels” and streaming services to choose from?

      In my “old” days (1960’s). Living in a somewhat large metropolitan area, we had 4 major networks, a couple of independent stations on “VHF” and even “UHF” channels I still remember watching first-run Star Trek TOS on UHF channel 39 in B&W.

      1. B&W or not, at least you got to watch it!
        I didn’t realize how lucky we were to get a GE Portacolor in ’66. But all that meant was that I got to watch cartoons in color in the morning. Mom took over with the soap operas mid day, and Dad got to choose prime time. Huntley-Brinkley report followed by Gunsmoke, or Wild Kingdom, or maybe the Wonderful World of Disney once a week.
        I didn’t get to pick Star Trek until we got the 19″ Wards Airline color console around ’72, and by then it was reruns. I was shocked to find early Lost in Space were B&W!

        1. The early LiS episodes in b&w were well written, worthy of the ‘sci fi’ label.
          Even Dr. Smith as an evil spy stowaway was an interesting character.
          Fav b&w episode, British actor Michael Rennie – as “The Keeper”.

          The show went off the rails when said Dr. Smith became more of a joke
          Who can – unforget – “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” ? ….or “space vikings” ?
          or “space hippies” ? (‘little master’…)..although Linda Gaye Scott was some
          great eye candy as a space “biker chick”

          1. Carrotman! Eat your veggies! Michael J. Pollard in particular. I knew it was over but what a ride, in 2 or3 seasons it was all told. Now it’s decades of the same Bravo Serra in one series. I loved it when Dr. Smith had the robot make Gin and it got drunk! Danger !!! Will Robinson!!! Danger!!!

        2. At the risk of sounding like a monty python meme, you were! When I was littleup untill about 4 years old, so around 1987 the only TV in our house was a black and white portable. I believe a fair part of that was because my parents just didn’t watch TV, favouring music and being social. But a larger part was simply the cost. Nowadays we have a 4year old, and the largest (and only) TV in our house is a diminutive 32″ that’s primary function is to let the little one watch cartoons, and this comment has just made me realise this!

      2. color? Wazzat? I first saw color TV in uni, as my parents saw no point. The first color TV they had, I bought for them (they bought the VHS unit… part of the deal) when I moved back for grad school.

    2. I often wonder how things might have gone with FM at the longer wavelengths. Reflections, a major contributor to that annoying “FM Fuzz” would have been significantly reduced.

      First time I heard a good quality AM Stereo broadcast, I found it fantastic! Sure, bandwidth being 10Khz rather than FM being up to what? 18? …seems like a lot, but due to how we hear frequencies, the actual impact was much less and no fuzz!

      Longer wavelength FM would have had some of the better qualities with less fuzz potential.

      Check this broadcast out:


      Anyhow, I am rambling. Oh well. Enjoy a great station doing it right. Very rare these days.

  3. I’m reminded that one of the things early broadcast radio and television gave us was something of a common – albeit nationalized – culture. With a limited number of channels and the standard limit of 24 hours in a day, we were socially conversant on common topics – entertainment, sports, news, etc. – at approximately national scale.

    There’s an argument to be made that the lines between “news”, “entertainment”, and “nationalized propaganda” can be very fine, and often indistinguishable, but within those confines most people shared access to the same popular topics.

    I think this helped strengthen personal and sociopolitical relationships and reduced internecine conflict. In essence, it was the exact opposite of the modern Internet and its “We Can (Mis)remember It For You Wholesale” model of information (distortion) theory.

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