Why 'Who was Emmy?' is a trick question
Most of the leading entertainment awards are named for real people. The Tony Awards celebrate Antoinette Perry, while legend has it that the Oscars are named after the uncle of Academy librarian Margaret Herrick. Television’s annual Emmy awards—this year’s takes place on Sunday—would seem to follow.
Except that there was no “Emmy.”
Before the first awards were presented in 1949, the Television Academy debated what to call the woman-with-atom statuette that represents the relationship between art and science. The winning name was chosen to honor the image orthicon tube, an important bit of TV technology. The initial proposal of “Immy” was changed to “Emmy” because it sounded more like a name that might belong to the the woman in the statuette, according to the Academy’s official history of the awards.
Why honor a tube? Immy, er, Emmy, was no mere component. The image orthicon tube revolutionized what it was possible to show on TV.
As TIME explained in a 1945 feature on the new R.C.A. innovation, television cameras before that time weren’t sensitive enough to pick up images in dim lighting, whereas the image orthicon tube could detect even a single candle—and amplify it so that the image on screen would be brighter than the reality it was capturing. For the first time, it was possible to properly televise night-time sporting events, parades on gray days or theatrical performances lit by ordinary footlights.
No wonder the Television Academy wanted to give Emmy some credit.
Even so, the 1945 article lamented, the tube couldn’t single-handedly fix what ailed TV. “The new tube,” TIME noted, “does not solve television’s basic problem: how to scare up enough programs which people will want to look at.”
Read the full story from 1945, here in the TIME archives: Unblinking Eye