The inspiration behind the electronic teleprompter came in the late 1940s from Broadway actor Fred Barton. Fred wanted a device that could help him remember his lines. Actors were having trouble making the transition from theater to television. Instead of having several weeks to learn a script for a show, they were now expected to learn lines for the new art form of nerve wracking live television on a weekly, or even daily basis. He went to 20th Century Fox Vice President for Radio and Television Irvin Kahn with the idea of cue cards on a motorized system. In turn, Kahn sought the expertise of Hubert Schlafly, an electrical broadcast engineer and director of television research at Fox. Schlafly developed the first paper scroll prompter. It consisted of pulleys and butcher paper in half a suitcase. It debuted in 1950 on the soap opera The First Hundred Years. Then the Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show.
Schlafly, Kahn, and Barton were convinced that there was a huge potential market for their invention, so they started a new company, naming it TelePrompTer Corp. The first big break of the company outside the studio came when former president Herbert Hoover introduced the TelePrompTer as a political speaker tool in a speech before the 1952 Republican National Convention.
He applied and was awarded a US patent for the device. His version of the teleprompter was used for the commercial productions of Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first sitting president to use a teleprompter for his State of the Union address.
In 1954 as well, Eisenhower wanted to give a television version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. Two teleprompters were used to give the living room television audiences the impression that he was looking directly at them, talking informally. Decades later in 1975, the Chicago Tribune featured an article about preparations for Gerald Ford’s State of the Union address. The article noted that an aid suggested he use the old teleprompter system from the White House basement, unused since the days of Lyndon Johnson.
There were rumors that Ford, who was nearsighted, had a hard time reading the dated teleprompter equipment, so he ended up buying new system. According to this article, the inexperienced staffers of the White House tried to control the delivery of Ford’s speech by having the technician slow down the speed of the scroll, so Ford would speak more slowly. This is a practice frowned upon by professional teleprompter equipment operators because it puts tremendous stress on the speaker, and will make the speaker want to kill the teleprompter operator when they finally finish.
Most people are unaware that those two barely noticeable panels of glass on either side of the President are teleprompters, and not bullet-proof glass.
Outside the political circle, television shows, corporate events, and news networks, teleprompters are often used in live concerts to assist performers with their lyrics. Notable artists who used teleprompters include Frank Sinatra, Prince, Liza Minnelli, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Dr. Dre and more. Having a discretely placed prompter is considerably less obtrusive than an artist leafing through and reading from a lyric book. After all, many of these performers have hundreds of songs in their catalog and may have not sung a song requested from the audience for years.
Teleprompters are lighter and clearer these days due to flat panel high-resolution monitors. Make sure that you rent equipment and pay for the services of an operator from a reputable business. Contact one in your area now and learn about their added services and rates.
Here’s a photo of Hubert Schafly using a teleprompter for the first time in 2008, while being inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame, nearly sixty years after its invention.