Hubert Schlafly: Inventor of the autocue who also helped originate pay-per-view television
Saturday 14 May 2011
Hubert Schlafly, an Emmy Award-winning engineer, was the co-inventor of the teleprompter, or autocue, and executed the first satellite transmission of a cable programme, both of which helped shape modern television. He also engineered the HBO satellite transmission of the "Thrilla in Manila" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
He was widely regarded as a visionary, pioneer and first-rate collaborator in the field of telecommunications. His device revolutionised TV in the 1950s, letting actors, politicians, presenters and newsreaders read scripts while looking directly at the camera.
Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1919, Hubert "Hub" Schlafly was an only child. He graduated in 1941 from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Electrical Engineering, then spent several years working for General Electric and the MIT Radiation Laboratory before joining 20th Century Fox in New York as Director of Television Research in 1947.
The invention of the teleprompter came about following a request by the actor Fred Barton Jr, who wanted a way to remember his lines and approached Irving Berlin Kahn, nephew of the composer Irving Berlin and vice-president of radio and television at 20th Century Fox. Kahn went to Schlafly, head of research. "I said it was a piece of cake," Schlafly later recalled. Fox, though, refused to invest in the device and so the three men founded the TelePrompTer Corporation, which later became a leading cable television network with franchises in more than 140 markets serving around 1.4 million customers. Schlafly was its president until 1972.
The TelePrompTer, a device with a motorised scroll bearing a printed script in half-inch font, made its debut in December 1950 on the CBS soap opera The First Hundred Years. In 1952, the former President Herbert Hoover became the first politician to use it when he delivered his keynote speech to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. However, as Hoover digressed and began to ad-lib, the teleprompter stopped scrolling. Then, in front of the entire nation, Hoover announced the tele-prompter's restart so he could continue. The secret was out and before long everyone in television wanted to use the new technology. Schlafly received more than 10,000 newspaper clippings from around the world following Hoover's use of the device. It has been employed by every US president since.
The autocue arrived in Britain in 1954 and was used for the first time that April by Peter Dimmock, who presented the BBC's Sportsview. It was then used on Ted Ray's television comedy series. The device, initially in a suitcase-like unit, evolved andwas replaced by glass panels, and eventually by computerised text scrolling across screens to the tempo of the speaker. Further refinements included a podium with concealed prompting devices, plumbing for drinking water and a platform to lift or lower a speaker.
The company branched out into cable television, and Schlafly developed the first pay-per-view system, allowing subscribers to order programmes delivered by coaxial cable. In June 1973 he oversaw the first satellite transmission of a cable programme from Washington to a convention of 3,000 cable operators in California. Following legal problems and the conviction of Kahn in 1971 for bribing government officials, Schlafly left the company.
In 1956, he foresaw the advent of computers, the internet and cell phones, following a request for his predictions for the world in 2001. "Systematic information storage will be in a form instantly available for response to remote inquiry," he said. "Communications will be highly refined, without the encumbrance of any wires to or between terminal devices. In fact, this advanced state of communications may substantially reduce our need for transportation."
Schlafly received many awards, including two Emmys (1992 and 1999) for his invention and for his contributions to cable television, and the Vanguard Award for Science and Technology from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. In 2008, aged 88, he was inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, he revealed to the audience that it was the first time he had used a teleprompter to deliver a speech. He held 16 patents. He was also a generous supporter of many philanthropic causes.
Hubert Schlafly, engineer: born St Louis, Missouri 14 August 1919; married 1944 Leona (Lee) Martin (died 2003); died Stamford, Connecticut 20 April 2011.
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