The technology that carried news of President Kennedy's assassination

Fifty years ago tomorrow, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Curator Hal Wallace looks at how Americans would have heard the news.

Today, most Americans expect to access a constant flow of information on demand. The idea that news of a major event might take days or weeks to travel across the country seems a relic of the distant past. Once aware of an event, people expect to obtain fresh information immediately and perhaps even to witness parts of the event in real time.

 

Photographer Carl Mydans of LIFE magazine snapped this photo of commuters on a train reading about the news of Kennedy’s assassination
Photographer Carl Mydans of LIFE magazine snapped this photo of commuters on a train reading about the news of Kennedy's assassination

The creation of a continuous news cycle happened only recently, however. News of the first three American presidential assassinations—Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881) and William McKinley (1901)—spread mostly by way of telegraph lines and newspapers, although some people may have learned about McKinley by telephone. Detailed information about those murders and the subsequent funerals disseminated gradually over the ensuing weeks. Visual images consisted of drawings and still photographs seen in printed formats.

 

This coffee cup supposedly held President William McKinley’s last drink before he was shot on September 6, 1901, by Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York. McKinley died September 14.
This coffee cup supposedly held President William McKinley's last drink before he was shot on September 6, 1901, by Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York. McKinley died September 14.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, took place in a radically different era. The adoption of radio in the 1920s and television in the 1950s created a nationwide audience for news. Word of the shooting in Dallas spread within minutes over both broadcast media. People not only heard about the tragedy in their homes or workplaces, but the development of affordable portable radio receivers meant that people in cars or in other outdoor areas could also listen to the latest bulletins. The broadcast audiences then verbally spread the news to other people directly or via telephone. (The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas, has a timeline of Kennedy assassination news coverage.)

 

By 1963, most homes had at least one radio and often had more. This AM, or amplitude modulation, radio receiver was created by well-known industrial designer John Vassos for the Radio Corporation of America around 1958.
By 1963, most homes had at least one radio and often had more. This AM, or amplitude modulation, radio receiver was created by well-known industrial designer John Vassos for the Radio Corporation of America around 1958.

During the days after Kennedy's death, people experienced the aftermath of the assassination via television. At that time, color television was expensive, so most people who owned televisions had black and white sets. They watched surreal events unfold in real time and saw images they would never forget: the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, the state funeral and procession to Arlington National Cemetery, and, most shockingly, the murder of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

 

Typically, American families who could afford a television owned one that everyone in the home watched. Television sets like the 1959 RCA one here on the left displayed black and white images. As the nation watched JFK’s funeral, less than 5% of American television sets displayed the mournful images in color. On the right is a 1957 Hotpoint model portable television, designed to be easily moved around a house or office.
Typically, American families who could afford a television owned one that everyone in the home watched. Television sets like the 1959 RCA one here on the left displayed black and white images. As the nation watched JFK's funeral, less than 5% of American television sets displayed the mournful images in color. On the right is a 1957 Hotpoint model portable television, designed to be easily moved around a house or office.

In retrospect, it seems sadly appropriate that John Kennedy's presidency came to its end on television. His performance during televised debates with Vice President Richard Nixon has been cited as contributing to his victory in the 1960 election. In January 1961, he became the first president to hold a televised news conference, reading a prepared statement about the famine in the Congo and other news before taking questions from reporters. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave a televised tour of the renovated White House in 1962. Later that same year, President Kennedy made one of his most significant speeches to the nation when he announced a naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt used this microphone, among several others, to speak directly to the American public in what he called his “Fireside Chats” in the 1930s. Much as Roosevelt embraced radio, Kennedy later embraced television.
Franklin D. Roosevelt used this microphone, among several others, to speak directly to the American public in what he called his "Fireside Chats" in the 1930s. Much as Roosevelt embraced radio, Kennedy later embraced television.

Although he was not the first president to appear on television (President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared on television during the April 1939 opening of the World's Fair in New York City), Kennedy embraced the new medium. Like Franklin Roosevelt's earlier adoption of radio or President Barack Obama's later adoption of the Internet, John Kennedy made television an integral part of his presidency from campaign to conclusion 50 years ago.

Hal Wallace is an associate curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History. He has previously blogged about a curious electrical switch in the museum's collection as well as artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse.

For more about the Kennedy assassination, check out these Smithsonian Channel video clips or this article from Smithsonian Magazine. The museum will also commemorate the JFK assassination with a special documentary film screening this Friday. See more televisions and radios from the 1950s and 1960s in this Flickr set.

Posted at 7:00 am EST in From the Collections