A Very Short History of the Teleprompter
A teleprompter, or autocue, is essentially a device, a display device which prompts a person speaking with an electronic visual text of a speech or script.
In effect, it is akin to using cue cards. The screen upon which the words are scrolling is directly in front or below the lens of the professional video camera taping the event.
The speaker need not look down to refresh his memory by reading the notes. He appears to us (the viewers) to be speaking spontaneously or to have memorized the speech.
Were he or she to be using the outdated cue cards he/she would look distracted because the cards are usually set away from the lens axis.
Necessity is the mother of invention, says the proverb sometimes attributed to Plato. That seems to be the case in the invention of what we know today as the teleprompter.
Back in the 50’s a few men saw the need for the concept of the teleprompter. Fred Barton was an actor who thought of a way to help himself and other performers who found it difficult to memorize large amounts of dialogue.
Irving Kahn, a vice president at 20th Century Fox was approached by Barton with the novel idea. Kahn turned to Hubert Schlafly, an electrical engineer and director of television research. Apparently, when asked if the idea was feasible, he said it was a piece of cake. He is credited with building the first teleprompter.
After trial and error he rigged a series of belts and pulleys and… well, you know the rest. The contraption was operated by a hidden technician. The words were printed on a paper scroll. It was turned gradually as the actor read. Everyone took notice of this new marvel. The New York Times noted that it “coaches television actors into letter-perfect delivery of their lines and permits news commentators to simulate prodigious feats of memory.”
It became clear that the use of a teleprompter had endless possibilities. Politicians saw its promise.
Teleprompter lore has it that in 1952 Hubert Schlafly received a strange phone call summoning him to the Waldorf-Astoria and told to bring “the gadget”. He found himself face to face with Herbert Hoover!
The ex-President was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Republican convention that summer, and he worried about fumbling his words in front of the TV cameras. He needed a secret weapon. The teleprompter was it! Hoover was not only open to using it – he saw its importance for the future. At the Republican convention, he was impressive. It looked to everyone as if he were looking directly at the audience, reciting his speech from memory. At a certain point he paused – a bit too long – the teleprompter operator also paused – a little too long. He was waiting for Mr. Hoover to continue to speak. It was an awkward moment. An annoyed Mr. Hoover muttered, “Go ahead, teleprompter, go ahead.” The gaffe made the teleprompter an overnight celebrity. A version of this incident has also been attributed to President Eisenhower. Both used the teleprompter. Both had mild tempers. Both could have lost their place on the scroll and their patience.
“We must have gotten 10,000 newspaper clippings from around the world,” Schlafly, who died in 2011, recalled in an oral history interview conducted in 2000 by the Cable Center, a nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. “That got us into the public-speaking business.” Ironically, Mr. Schlafly, did not use a teleprompter himself until he was 88, while rehearsing his speech for induction into the Cable Television Hall of Fame.
Virtually every President since Herbert Hoover has used the Teleprompter. President Johnson relied on it during the 1964 campaign and on subsequent speeches. During the most recent Presidential campaign much was written about President Obama, Mitt Romney and other hopefuls and their reliance on the Teleprompter.
It is amazing that what began as a memory aid has become the centerpiece of modern political campaigning.
In conclusion, the Teleprompter is here to stay!