Less than 1 percent of American households had a TV set in 1948. But if you were lucky enough to hail a special cab in Chicago during the summer of '48, you got a brief taste of America's television-obsessed future.
Chicago taxi driver Charles De Lorne was able to give his passengers quite a show, thanks to a special TV set installed in his front passenger seat. But the futuristic contraption wasn't there out of the kindness of his heart. De Lorne's cab-TV was installed by George Fyler, an engineer at Motorola, as a promotional stunt to get TV sets in front of the public — and hopefully sell a few of these new appliances along the way.
The mirror-based set had a large antenna that mounted on the front right door with a prominently branded "Motorola Television" brace readable from the sidewalk. But it was really what was inside that counted.
"Passengers say reception is fairly good with very little interference from other vehicles or buildings," the October 1948 issue of Radio Craft magazine reported. "Though the picture is a little shaky over the bumps."
Given our screen-saturated world, it's hard to fully appreciate just how unusual it was to see a TV in a cab during the late-40s. There were only about 30 TV stations operating in the entire country back in 1948, and the vast majority of those were in the Northeast. The South didn't even have a TV station yet that summer. Atlanta's WSB started broadcasting in September of 1948 to just an estimated 750 sets within receiving range.
But given the experimental nature of the medium at the time, the programming was actually kind of interesting. There were few TV rules, as it were. So many broadcasters were making it up as they went along. During this postwar period Americans saw some of their first cooking shows, like James Beard's I Love to Eat on NBC and Dione Lucas's To The Queen's Taste on CBS. And there was even reality TV, with Candid Camera premiering in 1948, a year after the creators had debuted Candid Microphone on radio.
It's too bad the programming in today's cabs isn't half as inventive and experimental as TV in 1948. But I suppose nothing's really changed. Those obnoxious little screens we all fight to mute as soon as we get in the back of today's carb are just another promotional stunt — albeit one we're probably less excited to see.
Images: Aline Edwards checks out Charle De Lorne's taxi-TV set via the Associated Press