John D. Ogsbury and the Helderberg TV experiment, seeing England’s king and queen 140 miles away

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

John D. Ogsbury, on the far right, is shown here as a much younger man than when he ventured into the Helderbergs to witness General Electric’s experimental long distance TV transmission.

One uncomfortably warm June morning, 82-year-old John D. Ogsbury climbed into Warren Baker’s car for a drive up the hill out of Altamont into the Helderbergs for one of the most memorable experiences of his life.

Ogsbury, owner and senior editor of The Altamont Enterprise, had been born three years before the Civil War on a farm near McKownville. His family moved to farms in Parkers Corners and then Dunnsville where he received his education in the one-room school.

Leaving the farm in 1874, he worked at a variety of jobs, some taking him out of the area as far away as South Carolina and California. On his return, he continued to be unsettled until, in 1886, his new mother-in-law loaned him $300 to buy a part interest in The Knowersville Enterprise.

John D. Ogsbury had finally found his niche! Initially he was in partnership with Junius Ogsbury, but in 1914 he became sole owner of The Enterprise.

A few years later, in 1920, he brought in his youngest son, Howard, to be a partner. Within a few years, his son was in charge of the day-to-day operations while John D. Ogsbury acted as senior editor. After 1933, he began an annual winter sojourn in Florida, and on that June morning he had only recently returned from his Florida hiatus, having first stopped off to attend the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair.

Officially inaugurated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 30, the fair had spread out over 1,216 acres in Queens, New York, and focused on the future with an upbeat opening-day slogan: “Dawn of a New Day.”

Emphasizing modern technology, American companies such as General Electric, RCA (Radio Corporation of America), and Westinghouse erected large buildings featuring their products and research. One of the attractions that succeeded in capturing the public’s attention was television, which at that time was called a “futuristic technology.”

The G.E. building included a complete TV studio where intrigued visitors could stand in front of a camera, look over at a screen and see themselves on television, while an actual DuMont television was an eye-catching object in the lobby of the RCA building. There, a sizable display area had been given over to television in an effort to stimulate consumer interest in the new medium.

Schenectady’s G.E. was at the forefront of television research beginning in the 1920s, initiating WRGB in 1928, at first an experimental station broadcasting under the call letter W2XB. Soon after this, G.E. started W2XBS (now WNBC) in New York City.

Even though stations were being established, television programming was extremely limited in 1939. In spite of the decade-long Depression and the European war clouds generated by the aggressive actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan, by the close of the decade, several other American companies were competing with G.E., engaged in research and development to make television an attractive consumer product.

G.E. engineers knew current television transmission that couldn’t reach beyond the horizon severely limited its range, in turn limiting its potential audience and sales of television sets. They began maximizing the area that could be reached by WRGB, considering possibly even receiving transmissions from atop the Empire State Building, chose high elevation atop the Helderberg escarpment to erect an antenna near Thacher Park seeking to expand WRGB’s viewing area.

Then, on Mr. and Mrs. K. Vander Kruik’s Pinnacle Point Road farm in New Scotland, G.E. had constructed a small metal building, variously referred to as a shack or shanty, where an experimental television receiver and antenna poles had been installed.

John D. Ogsbury’s destination that day was this odd little structure where he would be one of a very few invited guests to witness the live television broadcast of Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the World’s Fair, transmitted from New York City to upstate New York as an experiment to test its feasibility.

As tensions and the threat of war grew in Europe, the royal couple was on an extensive tour of Canada with an American side trip to Washington, D.C.; New York City; and a weekend at Hyde Park entertained by the Roosevelts, all with the goal of winning support and friendship for Britain.

The American public was enthralled with the details of the king and queen’s progress and, when they visited New York City that day, in spite of the early June heat wave, an estimated three- to four-million people turned out to see them at the various places they visited in the city or along the routes in between. G.E.’s plan was to televise their visit to the fair live. At that time, there were only a few hundred sets in the New York City area that would have been able to pick up the broadcast.

In the meantime, on arriving at the location of the G.E. relay station in the Helderbergs, it was necessary for the 82-year-old Ogsbury to climb a steep incline in hot midday temperatures.

As Clyde D. Waggoner, the engineer who had arranged for Ogsbury’s invitation recalled, “At first Mr. Ogsbury felt it would be too much for him, but when I explained world history was being made right here on the doorstep of Altamont he agreed to take the chance.”

Ogsbury described his experience in the June 16 edition of The Enterprise, reporting that the climb was “a fairly steep grade one-third mile to the top.” At the G.E. shack, the doors and windows had to be kept closed so as not to admit light, which would fade the picture on the 8- by 10-inch television screen, creating a very uncomfortable, overheated situation for the cramped audience.

When the royal couple arrived at the fair, late because of the huge crowds en route, Ogsbury and the others were finally able to get a glimpse of them live as they emerged from their car, walking into the Federal Building for lunch. During the time when they were to be inside, scenes of the fair were to be broadcast, but by now the elderly man felt he had had enough, returning to Altamont.

Those who remained in the shanty had a second look at the king and queen as they emerged from their lunch, walking within 10 feet of the camera. Not only did the audience in the small metal structure have the thrill of seeing the royal couple, but by being witnesses of the experiment, they were the first to view long-distance transmission of a live broadcast.

Normally John D. Ogsbury did not write content for The Enterprise, but on this occasion, after being urged by Clyde Waggoner to record his impressions of this historic moment, he summed up his experience with the words, “It seemed impossible that I could be right here on the outskirts of Altamont and see instantly what was taking place in New York, 130 or 140 miles away.”

He recounted seeing the king and queen of England better than the one-and-a-half million people at the fair because he had a “ringside seat.” Telling his readers that he had had a “hot and hard climb up the rough ground of the hill,” and once at the top, he noted that the small metal shanty holding only eight to 10 people became “dreadfully warm inside.”

Then he gave a full description of the royal arrival and with help from engineer Waggoner, was able to give a layman’s version of the G.E. experiment. Ogsbury ended his lengthy article with the enthusiastic comment, “All in all it was a red letter day for me. I had never hoped to see anything so wonderful.”

In June 1939, any local Enterprise reader who wanted to buy his own television could call Television and Radio Service Co. in Delmar, a business that advertised regularly in the paper. At that time when most sets cost between $600 and $700, the average annual income during this Depression year was $1,850.

That same week as the Delmar company was advertising in the paper, there was a tire dealer offering used automobile tires for “$1 and up,” and a large ad to convince visitors to see Knox Cave said admission was $.40 – “See it soon so that your $.40 can be used for payroll and keep men at work.”

It’s unlikely that very many Enterprise readers could have afforded a television in June 1939, as wonderful as it was.