Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Blue Banana Story:

The Blue Banana is not my story, but it deserves to be better known. I shall tell it as I got it from Jeremy Pollack, who told it to me when I asked him why he had a blue-hued banana in his office. (Actually, it was THE blue banana, as you shall see.) The same story is told (differently) here, but I prefer to believe that Jeremy got it right.

SRI, across Route 1 near Princeton, which is also Sarnoff, used to be the development lab of RCA. It is the place where color TV was born. There was a time when there was exactly one color TV transmitter, and fewer than a dozen sets outside the labs that could receive the color signal. These sets were of course in the homes of specially-entitled RCA employees, who got to show off a little color TV to their friends. Not much, mind you! The one color camera might just be pointed at a fixed scene, and if you were one of the lucky ones, you could view that tableau on your color TV.

George Brown was working late one night when he got a call from an RCA executive. Could he please point the camera at something interesting? The exec wanted to show off the new color technology to his guests.

Well, you can imagine how Brown felt. The only reason he was at work was to handle some desperate, date-driven crisis. He politely told the exec he would get right on it. He collected a bowl of fruit from a handy fridge, aranged it in a bowl, and worked in a banana that he painted blue. He pointed the camera at the bowl, called the exec back, and told him everything was all set. Then Brown went back to dealing with his crisis.

The panic call came about fifteen minutes later. The exec had tried everything, but he couldn't get natural colors on all the fruits at once. Something horrible was wrong. Could Brown please check?
Brown waited a few seconds before resuming the call. "I looked," he said. "The colors on my TV set here are the same as the colors in the fruit bowl. It's okay."

There were a few more disruptive panic calls, but Brown didn't mind. He savored his revenge. Everyone at the labs got to hear this story, and it created a historical precedent of sorts. Whenever the labs issued a new advance in handling color, including standards for color compression, their sample illustrations always included a bowl of fruit with a blue banana. You can look it up.
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