The first personal computers were more than a decade away. Today’s teleprompters — a computer screen mounted to reflect into a glass in front of a television camera lens — had not been conceived. Teleprompters were cathode-ray tube televisions attached to a massive television camera with a clunky device. The image would be reversed to reflect correctly. Into that television would be a closed-circuit feed of a scrolling piece of paper on which was typed, in very large letters, the script the speaker was to read. In this case, of course, the speaker was the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1967, a special typewriter was required to type out the oversized-font, easy-to-read script on a roll of paper with sprocket holes along the side to enable an automated scrolling.
Just looking at the equipment for the technology of the time is an education.
Teleprompters allow someone reading a script to look directly into the television camera lens, giving an impression to a viewer that the person is speaking directly to them, instead of glancing down at a script and back at a camera. Research showed viewers tend to grow disinterested in people looking down at a script, and would more likely be engaged by someone appearing to look at them.
Teleprompters existed in the 1950s, but many local television stations did not use them until into the 1960s — news broadcasts of the time often featured the anchors reading from written scripts on a desk in front of the broadcaster. A few intrepid news anchors, throwbacks to a more theatrically-inclined era, would memorize an entire script every night.
The schematic is based on modern, smaller television cameras and modern, thin devices to project the word images. Older versions were larger — sometimes much larger.
One popular version put a simple paper scroller mounted above the lens of the very large, studio television cameras — a broadcaster’s eyes could focus an inch above the lens, and viewers couldn’t tell he or she was not looking directly into the lens.
Teleprompters emerged as a symbolic political whipping device in the early 21st century. Partisans wishing to impugn the intelligence of a politician complain that he or she cannot speak extemporaneously, without a script. Oddly, the charge was rarely leveled at President Ronald Reagan, famous for his use of scripts in almost every situation. Reagan’s White House pushed modernizing of the technical devices employed at the White House, including the latest in teleprompter devices.
The most frequently-seen politician-used teleprompters today are simple stands, “conference” teleprompters, designed as much to allow a speaker to use teleprompters with a live audience as to facilitate television use. The devices are simple stands with a highly-reflective, clear plastic or glass on the top, and computer screen on the floor shining up.
Modern teleprompters cost a fraction of earlier versions. Everybody uses them now — I’ve even heard of first-time candidates who did not have to go to teleprompter school.
Here I am, reading from a teleprompter at the George H. W. Bush Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, in 2011:
And more people using teleprompters, with years in captions, so far as I can get them.
A more modern use: