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Messages in an electromagnetic bottle

Most T.V. channels straddle the 54-890 MHz (megahertz) frequency band. But even as technology changes, and more closed circuit-type T.V. transmission methods are used en masse, it is likely that future video signals will still leak into space. But for our discussion, we're interested in those early broadcast analog T.V. signals-signals out there. Somewhere.

What would happen if terrestrial audio-and-visual signals, dating back to the Golden Age of Television, were detected by extraterrestrials on distant planets? Is such an idea possible? And what would extraterrestrials make of our earliest T.V. signals?

Even with today's digital television retooling efforts, television is disseminated widely by an old medium-radio transmission. Broadcast T.V., in its purest sense, is a form of radio; that is, radio with pictures. It may come as a surprise to discover that the first powerful broadcast T.V. signals leaving planet Earth were neither the shortwave experiments by pioneering sci-fi writer and experimenter Hugo Gernsback in New York in the 1920s nor the broadcasts of 1950s American T.V. shows. Instead, the first T.V. signals to leave the Earth originated in Nazi Germany.

Earth's earliest, far-ranging video signals were German propaganda broadcasts between the 1930s and mid 1940s. While its video propaganda plans never panned out, the socialist Nazi government had hoped to equip every German household with a free T.V. set. While the technology existed for German television by the mid 1930s, the cost of CRT (cathode-ray tube) manufacturing and the infant medium's transmission infrastructure remained elusive. Hilter's opening remarks at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games appear to qualify it as the first deep-space signal.

Radio astronomer Chris Davis, of Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, claims that terrestrial T.V.-radio signals like the Nazicasts of the '30s and '40s could be picked up on distant planets with the proper hardware and software.

"A good amount of Earth's artificial radiowaves, like the shortwave frequency variety, never get past the ionosphere," Davis said in a recent BBC interview. "However, modern broadcast television signals can pierce the atmosphere. These signals easily traverse space at the speed of light."

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