A Brief History of the Teleprompter- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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A Brief History of the Teleprompter

How a makeshift show business memory aid became the centerpiece of modern political campaigning

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(Continued from page 1)

Of course, at the time, the machine itself was bulky and utterly apparent to in-person audiences—TV cameras at the 1952 GOP convention reportedly agreed to intentionally cut it out of the frame when filming so as to preserve the aura of authenticity. Starting in the 1960s, this issue was solved, to some degree, by reflecting printed text onto angled slabs of thin glass on either side of the podium—the side-by-side teleprompters we’re familiar with today. “Once the side-by-side teleprompter was developed, speakers could also maintain eye contact with the crowd, because they could scan from side to side, from left to right,” Jamieson says.

This formula for creating a seemingly authentic air of spontaneity, Jamieson notes, has generated a paradoxical side effect. “When you’re reading off side-by-side teleprompters, the pacing of the speech changes, because you’ve got to switch from teleprompter to teleprompter as the scroll moves.” As a result, she says, “we hear a discernible teleprompter cadence,” a ‘line-pause-line’ rhythm that has penetrated political speechmaking to degree that we rarely even think about it. Additionally, the alternating pattern leads speakers to move their heads left and right as they switch form screen to screen, as though they’re watching a ball hit back-and-forth during a tennis match.

Over the years, subtle advances in teleprompter technology continued. Into the early ’80s, the text was typically still printed on pieces of paper—the National Museum of American History has the teleprompter text of Walter Mondale’s 1984 Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech where he notoriously admitted “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Starting in 1982, though, when Hollywood sound mixer and stagehand Courtney M. Goodin created Compu=Prompt—a software-based system that projected text from a modified Atari 800 PC—computers began to displace printed scrolls across the industry. Computerized systems held several advantages, including the fact that text could be edited and loaded at the last second. Still, in rare instances, technical difficulties with software have forced speechmakers into thinking on their feet. For Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union Address, the machine was loaded with the wrong speech, so he began his live speech off-the-cuff and from memory until the correct text appeared.

Most recently, voice-recognition software has allowed for systems that automatically scroll text based on the speaker’s actual rate of speech. These are now commonly used in newscasts and other broadcasts—but for crucial political speeches, the importance of an ideal scrolling rate leads both parties to rely upon manual scrolling. “You’re a slave of the teleprompter,” Jamieson says. “If someone scrolls too rapidly, you sound completely unnatural, but if they scroll too slowly, you sound as if you're drunk.”

Nowadays, political campaigning—especially national conventions—is built entirely around the machines, says National Museum of American History curator Larry Bird, who’s attended every Democratic and Republican convention since 1984. “Everything is put onto that device, even the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance,” he says. “It’s really become the symbol, to my way of thinking, of the completely canned television spectacle.” (Of course, there are exceptions: “This year, when Clint Eastwood came out and did his routine, the thing wasn’t even on,” Bird says.)

Despite the remarkable journey of his invention from makeshift line prompter to the ubiquitous centerpiece of every campaign, for the vast majority of his life, Hubert Schlafly never had the experience of using a teleprompter himself. Shortly before he died last year, though, he finally tried it out, when he was inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame in 2008. As he stood on stage, his 88-year-old voice straining, he read his speech, repeatedly shifting back and forth, left and right.

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