Camden’s TV Mastery

How the South Jersey city revolutionized entertainment by becoming the birthplace of commercially viable TV.

Photo courtesy Bettmann/Corbis

Holed up in a nondescript building from 1929 through 1941, the Russian émigré Vladimir Zworykin fiddled with and finally perfected a video transmission and receiving system. His employer, the Radio Corporation of America, named it television.

In reality, a competitor across the river in Philadelphia, Philo Farnsworth at the Philco Corporation, had demonstrated a similar system in  1934. After a patent battle, RCA paid off Farnsworth, and Camden became the birthplace of commercially viable TV.

“A big event came in 1935, with the first long-haul link between Camden and RCA’s headquarters in New York,” says Fred Barnum, author of a company history, His Master’s Voice in America. The link used a rudimentary relay station on Arneys Mount, the highest point in Burlington County. “Basically,” says Barnum, “it was a couple of guys in suits and overcoats in the woods holding a TV receiver and then another transmitter.”

Zworykin’s team kept refining their system, and by 1939, RCA demonstrated television to the press, broadcasting from the company’s pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens as a cadre of reporters watched in awe at the RCA building in Rockefeller Center.

RCA’s Camden operations had grown up along the Delaware River on the site of the old Victor Talking Machine Company, which RCA acquired in 1929. The Victor Company, an early phonograph manufacturer, recorded the likes of Enrico Caruso and Jelly Roll Morton in its Camden studio and introduced the U.S. to the classic Nipper logo of a fox terrier listening to “His Master’s Voice” that would eventually be associated with RCA.

By the late 1930s, RCA was a leading manufacturer of radios and phonographs—and was gearing up for televisions—but the outbreak of World War II meant a switch to defense manufacturing. At the war’s end, RCA shifted back to consumer electronics, and from 1946 to 1952, the bulk of TVs manufactured in America were made by RCA in Camden. That era ended in the mid-’50s, after RCA moved TV production to a new plant in Indiana. In 1984, RCA began breaking up its Camden campus. Today, only three of the 30 RCA buildings remain. A stained-glass Nipper still listens for his master’s voice atop one of those buildings.

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