by Art Chantry:
for a certain age bracket, this thing here is as familiar as the happy face. how many of us boomers sat up late at night, stoned to the gills, until the very last bad horror movie host signed off to let the national anthem play, only to go flash to this bizarre image (along with a high pitched whine)? typically, we (most everybody) would sit there and watch this thing for at least another half hour before we even realized the tv had run out for the night. then we’d watch it for another hour or so until we passed out.
this is the classic “indian head test pattern”. it was an actual image inside every tv moniter and set that would allow the station to adjust the picture from their distance. every set in every home could be adjusted back at the transmitter to make make sure everything was square and straight and in focus. to insure that the moire patterns were the ‘good’ desirable patterns (oval instead of square, for instance) and that you were getting the best possible picture.
what’s more, this test pattern became the standard all over the world! since we controlled the manufacture of televisions in america, we spread the tools everywhere. this image came with the package. the wording was changed into czecholslovakian or whatever, but it was the same thing everywhere you went. a little peice of american culture frying the brain of late-nighters the world over for decades and decades.
this thing was developed in the labs at the RCA factory in harrison, NJ. it’s one of those images that has always been there and seemingly always would be there . it lasted until color broadcasting became the norm and the test pattern switched to those lackluster color bars we see today. but, this thing still lives on in our collective memories and is still recognizable even today as the icon it accidentally became.
so, who did this thing? who designed it? who was the “artist”? i’ve got a few questions for him/her. like, “why an indian?” nobody knew. it’s origins remained a mystery, like an occult talisman broadcast into our eyes and minds by an ancient alien civilization trying to make contact throught he ether of time and space. until 1970.
RCA had been bought out and the old factory shut down and abandoned. it finally came time to tear the sucker down. the wreckng crews were smashing away and clearing debris. one worker was walking by the dumpster and noticed some interesting paperwork in the trash. he pulled it out – and there it was!!! the ORIGINAL ARTWORK for the indian head test pattern!! he was smart enough to save it and take it home. he kept it for almost 30 years as a sort of oddity in his closet. when the internet showed up, he decided to sell it. now we can see it for ourselves. the story and the artwork can be viewed on this website: http://www.pharis-video.com/p4788.htm
according to an inscription on the back, the artist created this thing in 1938 (way early!) and then he signed it “brooks”. if you look at the images, the guy actually found not only the flapped original mechanical artwork (register marks, white out and all) but, even the original black and white and grey drawing for the indian head illustration itself (originally done seperately and then photostatted and pasted to the mechanical, i believe? however, i’d need to see it in person to be sure).
so, who was ‘brooks”? simply because of the nature of what this thing is and the sort of client it is and the strange new technology at hand – and especially because of the name – i have to guess that this may well be the hand of the amazing industrial designer named brooks stevens. if this is actually a FIRST name rather than a full or last name, then it would make sense that this early work by a young man.
brooks stevens was the son of a milwaukee industrialist named W.C.Stevens. his father was prominent in his field and in the industrial circles of america and was instrumental in steering his son’s early career. indus
l design as a new career option was still in its infancy when young brooks stevens entered it in 1933. his father showed him the ropes and shared his philosophies and introduced him to many future clients. his reach went way beyond the midwest and connections at RCA seems likely. perhaps the student brooks was hired to whip this up for the labs as a freelancer? we’ll never know. this is all guesswork.
by 1938, brooks was still beginning his career. it was another 5 years before he hit his full stride and became one of the most important designers of household products, machinery, graphics, architecture, etc. etc. of mid-century america. this is the guy who created harley davidson motorcylces, miller beer packaging, the jeepster, evinrude, cars for studebaker, excaliber, amc, and frazier, refrigerators and washing machines and blenders and flying heliocars for the home. he designed the very first hybrid auto. and, oh yeah – this is the guy who created the oscar meyer weinermobile.
i think you’d have to compare the handwriting of stevens to that signature (era-specific) to make a better guess. also, there must be some sort of documentation somewhere in warehouse files. however, if this was a young ‘student’ – a freelancer in a brand new occupation description – that actually put this thing together, then it may never be found out. such is life. everybody’s dead and we as a culture don’t much care about this stuff (or else this wouldn’t have been tossed int the shitter).
and we still have no idea why there’s an indian on it,