Actors, news reporters, politicians—they all rely on teleprompters these days. Forgetting or flubbing lines and giving the wrong information isn’t acceptable. The invention of the teleprompter was a blessing to every on-camera personality at its inception. Its technology was especially crucial during the rise of television, since actors and news anchors had to get it right the first time on live TV. Where did the teleprompter come from, though? What did the earliest ones look like? Let’s look at the evolution and history of the teleprompter, from Hubert Schlafly’s original invention to the cutting-edge prompters the President uses now.
The First Prompters
Centuries ago, prompters still existed—but they weren’t pieces of technology or even scrolls of paper. They were human beings! During stage productions, the prompter stood at a special spot mostly underneath the stage, at the front of the proscenium, with only their head visible. The prompter’s head was hidden from the audience by a small dome. That little dome became known in stage crew slang as a “gobbo” (the Italian word for “hunchback”). Audiovisual experts today still use the word “gobbo” to refer to a teleprompter. Only the actors could see the prompter’s face under that dome. The prompter had a copy of the script on hand and would feed the actors their lines if they forgot them. These days, stage plays and musicals have forgone the human prompter and focus on complete memorization of their lines.
Beginning To Scroll
In 1948, right at the inception of television, an actor named Fred Barton, Jr. was making his transition from theatre to TV. He was accustomed to memorizing one set of lines at a time and saying that same set of lines every night during the run of a Broadway show. Now he was in front of a screen, and he’d have new lines thrown at him every week! Nervous about keeping all those lines in his head, he approached Irving Berlin Kahn, the vice president of 20th Century Fox Studios, in search of a solution. Cue cards, he noted, could be clumsy. Was there a way to connect those cue cards and have them scroll continuously?
Kahn enlisted the help of the studio’s director of television research, a man named Hubert Schlafly. With an open suitcase, a rig of belts attached to a motor, and a big roll of butcher paper, the first teleprompter came into existence. In 1949, Schlafly patented it and dubbed it the TelePrompTer. When 20th Century Fox wasn’t interested in using the device, Schlafly, Irving Kahn, and Fred Barton, Jr. founded the TelePrompTer Corporation. (The term “TelePrompTer,” with the capitalization, originated as a trade name for this specific company. “Teleprompter,” without the capitalization, is the genericized term we use today.) A CBS soap opera called The First Hundred Years was the first televised production to use teleprompter technology—and you can tell. If you watch old episodes, you can see the actors’ eyes peering near the camera to read their lines.
The Technology Improves
The first in-camera teleprompter was patented by Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of I Love Lucy. Mirrors and glass were arranged to project the words right onto the lens! The actors looked more natural and made more eye contact with one another, and other people in the TV industry noticed. News stations phased out the paper scripts the anchors used to hold and replaced them with scrolling teleprompters.
In 1952, election season was in full swing and former President Herbert Hoover was campaigning for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Hoover’s eyes weren’t what they used to be, and he had a hard time reading speeches off paper. Irving Kahn leaped at the opportunity to show what his TelePrompTer technology could do, so he traveled to Chicago, where the Republican National Convention was being held. With the words in large print on a prompter, Hoover was more easily able to read his speeches. Republicans and Democrats alike used Kahn’s TelePrompTers, and soon, the technology became crucial for all politicians. Later on, after consulting on five political conventions, the TelePrompTer Corporation invented a special podium rigged with its own concealed prompter!
Throughout the 1960s, engineers continued to improve on the machine. It was bulky and difficult to conceal from live audiences. While the words themselves were still printed on paper, angled pieces of glass were placed on either side of the scroll. The side-by-side teleprompter is still in use today; it allows the speaker’s eyes to move from left to right, as if they’re scanning the crowd while they speak.
The Software Revolution
In the early 1980s, teleprompters were still using paper scrolls to display the words—but as the digital age began, audiovisual experts wondered how to phase out the paper element. And in 1982, a stagehand named Courtney M. Goodin rigged an Atari 800 PC with camera hardware to display and scroll the text on a screen. He and his co-inventor, Laurence B. Abrams, patented it under the name Compu=Prompt. They founded a company that came to be known as ProPrompt, Inc., and they’re still in business today. In January of 2010, Compu=Prompt won an Emmy award for “Pioneering Development in Electronic Prompting.”
Other prompting companies like Telescript, Electronic Script Prompting, and QTV soon sprang up. The market was soon flooded with teleprompters for sale, and prompter technology became available to folks outside of Hollywood.
Prompters of Today
These days, teleprompters still use the cleverly-placed mirrors and computers rigged to cameras that were perfected over the mid-20th century. They’ve gotten noticeably smaller and more portable than that roll of butcher paper from 1948.
Teleprompters are absolutely vital to politicians these days. When the whole country is hanging on your every word, you’ve got to stick to your speech and deliver it with confidence! Audiences can tell when public speakers aren’t following a teleprompter.
With the rise of YouTube as a platform and “content creation” as an occupation, regular Joes and Janes are also using prompters for their videos. Some of Glide Gear’s teleprompters for sale are even designed specifically for smartphones! Teleprompter technology has never been more affordable.
In 2008, Hubert Schlafly was inducted into the Cable and Television Hall of Fame. When he delivered his acceptance speech, he read it off a teleprompter—the first time he’d ever used his own invention. Three years later, in 2011, Schlafly died at the age of 91.
As you shop for the right teleprompter for you, think about how far the technology has come. Glide Gear isn’t selling rolls of butcher paper or bulky mirrors! Add finesse to your videos with a teleprompter, whether you’ve got a DSLR or a smartphone attached. Ponder the evolution and history of the teleprompter and take advantage of the technology the 21st century has ushered in.