A Brief History of the Teleprompter

In 1948, the actor Fred Barton Jr. had a problem. A Broadway veteran, Barton was now making the transition to the new medium of television – but, he was having difficulty memorizing his lines. Unlike theater, where an actor was given months to rehearse and memorize their lines, or radio, where a performer could inconspicuously read their scripts, television required memorizing a new set of lines each week, sometimes even daily. One solution was the use of cue cards, bulky pieces of cardstock with lines of script written on them.

fig. 1. LIFE Mar 12, 1951, “SPEECH IS RUSHED to Pentagon studio by two sergeants. Changes were painted into the speech almost up to the time of the telecast by Eisenhower.”

These memory aids would be held off camera by a stagehand in the sight line of the actor. Barton approached Irving Kahn, the head of 20th Century Fox, with an idea to go a step further and create a motorized cue card machine. Kahn asked his head of television research, an electrical engineer named Hubert “Hub” Schafly, if he could assist in the invention of the device. Schafly quickly created a mechanically operated device which allowed for the linear presentation of a scroll of text. The scroll was a more efficient use of space than the cue cards, and could be held in a suitcase. Fox didn’t want to promote the new device, so Kahn, Schafly and Barton founded TelePrompterCorp. The patent for the original teleprompter was filed on April 21st, 1949 by TelePrompterCorp under the name Fred Barkau, the legal name of actor Fred Barton Jr. In the moment of filing, the identities of the actor with the idea, “Fred Barton Jr.”, and the legal name of the man claiming the invention at the patent office on the behalf of a corporation “Fred Barkau” split, like the performer in front of a teleprompter.

The patent application for the original teleprompter, or “Television Prompting Apparatus”, presents a device that consists of a motorized scroll controllable by a series of magnetic solenoids and motors. In the patent application, Barkau describes the invention as an “apparatus for use out of range of the cameras in a television or motion picture studio for prompting or continuously presenting to the performers’ view the running script of the dialogue or narrative being telecast or filmed.” The idea of motorized time is the crucial element in the development of teleprompter technology. The motor scrolling the text on the teleprompter synchronizes the camera with the rate that the actor may perform. This analogous relationship between the camera and the prompter is further seen in the later pages of Barkau’s original patent, which propose a version of the teleprompter which would present lines projected onto a screen by a film strip. It is presented as having clear economic benefits for television or movie studios: the more a device can reduce the production time that it takes for an actor to memorize lines, the better. Like an assembly line conveyer belt, the prompter is “positively moved in either direction, either continuously or intermittently.” It is an instrument for the motorized construction of performance. The teleprompter presents itself as a device for aiding in memorization, but could be more accurately described as a device for presenting what appears to be memorization.

fig. 2. Original Teleprompter Apparatus. Fred Barkau, “Patent for a Television Prompting Apparatus”, accessed online at https://www.google.com/patents/US2635373

The history of the teleprompter is indissociable from the history of 20th century optical media technology, as the device develops out of the demands made on the performer produced by the rate of change present in film production, broadcast television and eventually cable television. The amount of time that it takes to memorize lines, the amount of time it takes to rehearse, the amount of time it takes to record: it is at in the actor’s line of sight, standing before the cameras, where the complex temporalities of memorization, knowledge and performance meet and conflict. It’s no coincidence that Barkau refers to the strip moving through the teleprompting apparatus as “containing intelligence.” The teleprompter is reminiscent of Freud’s observations on the Mystic Writing Pad. Freud, writing in 1925, observes that we often write down notes as an aid to memory, but that the mere act of writing itself does not fully capture the dynamic relationship between perception and the unconscious. He calls upon the example of a novelty device called the Mystic Writing Pad that allows one to write upon a piece of wax paper while making impressions on a malleable surface below.

fig. 3. Film strip apparatus for projecting teleprompter. Fred Barkau, “Patent for a Television Prompting Apparatus”, accessed online at https://www.google.com/patents/US2635373

For Freud, this is closer to the image of the relationship between the unconscious mind and the conscious mind, where impressions are made on the perceptual cell and pass through to the unconscious. Jacques Derrida, in Writing and Difference, writes that Freud’s observations assert that there is no memory without the aide-memoire, an external source of remembering.10

fig. 4. Set of “The First Hundred Years” featuring teleprompter. March 12, 1951 issue of Life Magazine

The debut of the teleprompter in action was on the soap opera “The First Hundred Years”, the subject of a feature article in the March 12, 1951 issue of Life Magazine. Entitled “WAYS TO END TV FLUFFS”, the article features a great image of the awkwardness of the devices. Attached beneath the cameras, one can imagine the analog quality of the paper moving on the scroll. The second iteration improving on Schafly’s original scrolling teleprompter is commonly known as the “looking through the glass” model, which allowed for the actor to make eye contact with the viewer of the television program. The origins of thisiteration of the teleprompter technology are in the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, an optical illusion employed in theater for projecting an actor as an apparition on the stage. The actor can speak into a camera while reading a text in real-time, perfect for news anchors and politicians. The glass is 30% reflective, 70% transparent, and creates the illusion of floating text for the speaker. This was invented and popularized by Jess Oppenheimer, a writer on the television show “I Love Lucy”. The first time that the mirrored teleprompter was used in television broadcast was to promote Philip Morris cigarettes by Lucy and Desi. Desi asks for a cigarette, and Lucy says “Not a cigarette! A Philip Morris!”. Desi stares into the camera, eyes wide (fig. 5). There is an uncanny, haunted quality to the mirrored teleprompter, perhaps because this mirrored teleprompter aspires to invisibility.

fig. 5. Desi and Lucy advertising cigarettes. Philip Morris King Size Cigarettes. Access online

Perhaps our political age is characterized most of all by the prevalence of the presidential teleprompter. The presidential model teleprompter is a practical evolution of the above ideas. A piece of mirrored glass at an angle with a screen at its base, so that a politician can appear to be making eye contact with members of the audience while reading from prepared remarks. In these circumstances, a teleprompter is run by a team of technicians. They load a speech into a computer, and sit there watching the speaker, moving the text as they move through the speech. As they begin to read, the speaker is bifurcated: extra-present, authoritative, as they speak, yet somehow absent as they read. The sculptural quality of the teleprompter formats the individual into a theatrical body at the intersection of private and public space. It’s a lubricant for the catharsis of the political rally.

In the 2016 election, candidate Donald Trump made much of his ability to speak “outside” of mainstream political institutions. A climax of this rhetoric was his dismantling of his teleprompters at a campaign rally in Florida.11 This particular model of teleprompter, commonly referred to as the the Presidential Teleprompter, employs a mirrored piece of a glass mounted on a stand reflecting what is displayed on a screen at the base. When it is used at a political event, it is a material signifier of a peculiarly American intersection of speech and technology. “It feels better without them, right? I like it better...”, Trump quips suggestively. “I’ve seen Hillary, and she has these teleprompters... she uses the thickest glass, and they are black on the outside so no one can read what she’s saying!” The message is clear: the thicker the teleprompter, the more protected the speaker, the less potent, pleasurable the speech. Onstage, Donald Trump has taken the glass off of the teleprompter. He performs the gesture of his ability to speak being “blocked” by the equipment by placing the glass in front of the microphone. A flash of light catches the glass, and Trump is absent, miming, yet present in a flash of light.