November 01, 2009

Indian Head Test Pattern

Indian Head test cardThe Indian Head Test Pattern was a black and white television test pattern which was introduced in 1939 by RCA of Harrison, New Jersey as a part of the RCA TK-1 Monoscope. Twentieth century television later became so important socially that this purely technical electronic instrument (covertly identified as a branded industrial product) became a historical cultural icon of television's early days as a mass medium. Its name comes from the original art of a Native American featured on the card.

As television broadcasting ritual

The Indian Head Test Pattern became familiar to the large post-war Baby Boom TV audiences in America from 1947 onwards; it would often follow the formal television station sign-off after the United States national anthem. The Indian Head was also used in Canada, following the Canadian national anthem sign-off in the evening. This test pattern was later used by Venezuelan TV channel Venevision, in conjunction with the RMA Resolution Chart 1941, in the mid and late 70s before the Venezuelan anthem (Gloria al bravo pueblo).

The Indian Head pattern could variously be seen: after sign-off but while the station was still transmitting; while transmitting prior to a typical 6 AM formal sign-on; or even during the daylight morning hours on newer low budget stations, which typically began their broadcast day with midday local programs around 10 or 11 AM.

As cultural icon

An actual Indian Head Test Card, the pattern as printed on art-grade white cardboard, was only of secondary importance to television system adjustment, but many of them were saved as souvenirs, works of found art, and inadvertent mandalas.

The original art work was completed for RCA by an artist named Brooks on August 23, 1938. The master art was improbably discovered in a dumpster by a wrecking crew worker as the old RCA factory in Harrison, NJ was being demolished in 1970. The worker kept the art for over 30 years, and then used the Internet to locate and sell it to a test pattern collector.

Television appearances

  • The test card is perhaps best recalled by some baby boomers for its brief albeit iconic part in the opening sequence of The Outer Limits (1963-1965).

  • In the series Futurama, the Indian test card is seen with the Native American head being replaced by that of a Native Martian from the series.

  • A parody with a laughing Indian was the logo for the first season of Second City Television.

  • Film appearances

  • In the 2008 animated film Justice League: The New Frontier the Martian Manhunter learns about American pop culture by watching television; he morphs into several characters, ending with the Indian as the station announces that it's going off the air. This is in keeping with the era in which most of the film is set: the 1950s. The card itself appears later in the story as a Please Stand By notice after The Flash briefly commandeers a television station.

  • In the 2009 film Watchmen the test card is on a monitor in the control room of the television station in which Dr. Manhattan is interviewed in an alternate history 1985.

  • Other appearances

  • On Cheech and Chong's Big Bambu album, at the beginning of a long sketch spoofing TV shows, Cheech drops by Chong's pad and asks what he's watching. Chong replies, "I don't know, it's a movie about Indians, but it's really boring." Cheech says, "Hey man, that's not a movie, man. That's a test pattern, man!" Chong answers, "Far out." A test tone is audible in the background.

  • A parody of this test card appears in the computer game Streets of SimCity for 5 seconds before going to the main menu.

  • The test card makes an appearance as a loading screen in the game Fallout, and a reappearance in Fallout 3.
  • The Indian Head Test Pattern!Many have asked, YES, I am still offering these patterns for sale. I have thousands of them, and all you have to do is place your order.

    I acquired the original artwork in 2004. It was found in a dumpster in the old RCA Tube Manufacturing building in Harrison NJ. I have the master hand drawn artwork for the Indian Head Test Pattern and the Indian Head. I had the artwork professionally restored to the way it looked in 1938.
    A posting about the NEW FRONTIER sequence mentioned above:

    A Year of Cool Comic Book Moments--Day 303

    Comment:  I couldn't find anything on the actual Indian in the test pattern. Why did Brooks draw an Indian? Whose idea was it: his or RCA's? Did he use a model? What was the Indian supposed to symbolize? The great and noble history of RCA, perhaps? Or was it just somebody's idiosyncratic choice?

    For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.


    Anonymous said...

    All circles look like rifle reticles. Getting ready to aim towards the indians head. To me it's kinda like teaching early america to always have the native american image inside your reticle of hate.

    J. Nightwalker

    dmarks said...

    I think that'd be a pretty good point, except the "chief head" is was off center, as to not make it any sort of target.

    dmarks said...

    And no matter how hard I try, I can't see those rings as looking target-y. Maybe there's a certain rifle scope with a view like that that I am not familiar with.

    Anonymous said...

    Earlier this year I was messing around with artwork ideas by adding rifle reticles to certain images and the largest circle looks like a reticle of some kind. You can google 'reticle' and then check out the images.

    J. Nightwalker

    Unknown said...

    Rob, fascinating story on the test pattern. Way to go in recovering the artwork.

    Unknown said...

    I remember this test pattern so well - I remember staring at it mesmerized after the stations signed off - I grew up in Oklahoma - I thought the Indian Head symbolized Indian Territory - I thought the test pattern was only for our state - but then maybe I was a very worldly kid. Looking at it today I think the circles do look like targets - but they look like archery targets. They remind me of the kind of targets my uncle used when he practiced archery. Maybe that was the intent of the Indian Head to connect archery and Indians?