Chronicling HDTV’s History

An IEEE associate member dedicates his time to documenting the history of high-definition television

16 August 2012
Philip Cianci's artwork, which he calls "Techno-Assemblages," are made of wood, ceramic tile, metal, and mixed media on canvas and wood. The artwork shown here is a depiction of the Grand Alliance Digital HDTV Transmission Prototype System.
Photo: Philip Cianci

 

 

This is the first in a series of guest blog posts submitted by IEEE members about their technical interests, career experiences, and personal stories. Philip J. Cianci is an IEEE associate member who has spent more than two decades documenting the evolution of HDTV through photographs, paintings, and stories. If you’re interested in submitting your story, e-mail the editors at institute@ieee.org.

On a sunny June day in 1984, I found paradise in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., 30 miles up the Hudson River from the Big Apple, when I arrived for an interview at the Holland-based Philips’ U.S. research laboratory. Within a year of my hiring, I found myself at the center of the rapidly intensifying HDTV storm. Philips’ U.S. Labs had just begun work on Advanced Television Systems (ATV) and in 1985 our first high definition prototype was designed and fabricated. My contribution to this augmentation channel NTSC-compatible system was developing code for the Intel 8088 microprocessor-based image processing circuits.

In the late 1980s I began to photograph everyday activities at the labs—equipment racks, my colleagues at work, and the country club-like grounds. The photos became the subject matter for creative experiments—using oil paint and multiple mediums applied to various surfaces, including printed circuit boards—chronicling daily activity in HDTV R&D. These were among the first systems designed and built in the United States, shortly before the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services was created by the FCC and the ATV standardization process began. My first painting, done on a surplus PCB, was of our next HDTV prototype. In time I began to write paragraphs and short stories, recording what I considered interesting and noteworthy observations and events about the HDTV saga as it unfolded.

As Philips Labs’ efforts to develop the next generation of television technology intensified, so did my creative output. While designing digital matrix and tri-level sync circuits, my painting became more ambitious, my writing more elaborate, and now covered not only Philips Labs’ efforts, but also our collaboration with other companies whose efforts culminated in the design, construction, and delivery of the Grand Alliance digital HDTV prototype to the Advanced Television Technology Center (ATTC), in Alexandria, Va. It was at that moment that I resolved to write an eye-witness account, and memorialize what it was like to participate in the HDTV engineering effort that digitally melded broadcast engineering with computer science and information technology.

Not content with leaving my paintings about HDTV history in storage, my next newsletter sent to my art patrons featured a painting of the Grand Alliance HDTV prototype strategically placed on the outside of the mailer, and it was also sent to Sarnoff Research Institute. The flyer eventually wound up in the hands of Dr. Alex Magoun, curator of the David Sarnoff Library at SRI who arranged the purchase of a number of my HDTV history paintings for the company’s library. A short time later, I was referred to Dr. Bernard Finn, then curator of the Smithsonian Institution's electricity collections, and I began to contribute materials relating to the development of HDTV. These included written personal recollections, technical reports, system drawings, and a T-shirt commemorating the shipment of the Advanced Television Research Consortium’s AD-HDTV system to the ATTC for testing. (The rest of this tale is told in Dr. Finn's forward in my book)

As fate would have it, I joined the engineering effort at the sports channel ESPN in 2003 during construction of the 120 000 square-foot all-HD Digital Center, then (and possibly still) the most ambitious file-based HD television production facility in the world. While working there as a broadcast media technology engineer, in 2006 I made an effort to find a publisher for my manuscript detailing the history of HDTV technology. Focal Press passed on the proposal, but I did author two books for them about television technology. In the first book, HDTV and the Transition to Digital Broadcasting, an entire chapter—“A Compressed History of HDTV”—was related to HDTV history. Undeterred, I continued to work on the manuscript and also started a website called the HDTV Archive Project, where I invited technical participants in the saga to contribute their experiences for inclusion in the archive and my book, should one ever come to be published.

Deciding that a book on the history of HDTV technology would benefit from publication by an established company, rather than being self-published, I e-mailed a series of author’s queries to potential publishers in early 2009, which led to the acceptance of my book proposal by McFarland & Company. With this vote of validity, calls for contributions were graciously run in publications by IEEE, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and the Society of Broadcast Engineers. The result of all my labors, High Definition Television: the Creation, Development, and Implementation of HDTV Technology, was published last January.

The book is available at online booksellers. IEEE members can order a signed copy at a 20 percent discount at my website.

My HDTV-related artwork can be seen at the Art Angler Gallery book launch and techno-artifact exhibit video.

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