An autocue, or teleprompter, is a device used to help people appearing on television remember their lines. In the early years of television, networks could count on a deep pool of veteran crew members with years of experience on film sets. But as with any new field, it also yielded some unexpected challenges.

In film, actors were expected to learn their lines and have them down by heart before they stepped onto the set. But the need to learn new dialogue on a weekly, or even daily, basis meant that actors were exposed to embarrassing mistakes, especially during live broadcasts.

Enter the autocue, or in American English, the teleprompter.

Answering the challenge was Fred Barton Jr., an otherwise unknown actor who was one of the original partners of the TelePrompTer Corporation, founded in 1950. Barton suggested the concept of the device to his cohort Hubert Schlafly, who built the first teleprompter, a simple typewriting machine which scribed the required dialogue in inch-high letters onto paper cue cards for the subjects of the shot.

In fact, cue cards have been and are a popular alternative to autocues for their flexibility and ease of use. The main reasons you don’t see them more often is that they can be prone to human error, and it somehow doesn’t quite seem to fit the dignified image most leaders or authority figures are hoping for to have a bunch of cardboard slats wagged at them rather than a clean, crisp piece of unobtrusive glass.

Jess Oppenheimer’s drawing of his autocue, from the 1959 patent reissue.

Soon, due to the explosion of television in the United States, every network was using Schlafly’s teleprompter to some extent, and the first politician to use it was former President Herbert Hoover at the 1952 Republican National Convention. It became especially popular for television newsreaders, descended as they were from radio newsreaders, who were, as the title implies, accustomed to reading from prepared scripts.

As other politicians came to embrace the value of television for broadcasting policy positions and annual speeches, the device gained more traction. Dwight Eisenhower used the Schlafly teleprompter for his 1954 State of the Union address, the first by a sitting president.

But Schlafly’s design was not without competition. In 1954, Jessurun Oppenheimer, a producer and writer who worked on, among other things, legendary sitcom I Love Lucy, patented the first scrolling paper teleprompter with pre-written lines printed on it, to help Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz remember the enormous amounts of dialogue they were required to know for their wildly popular show. It was this scrolling teleprompter which was first marketed as Autocue in the United Kingdom, and it soon came to be the definition of the device in the popular imagination.

The paper scroll teleprompter eventually gave way to the glass, or ‘through-the-lens,’ autocue, particularly popular for politicians. This version of the device is placed right over the lens, so the subject (such as a president) can look directly into the camera and read their lens without having to resort to the off-putting effect of constantly glancing to the side. These rely on a high-quality piece of glass, called a ‘beam-splitter mirror,’ of the kind used in telescopes, so fine that a camera can shoot straight through it with no one the wiser. Fixed just below this is a monitor fixed perpendicularly to the glass, with the prepared script scrolled backwards throughout the speech. As it scrolls, the text is mirrored into the glass, throwing up razor sharp text for the benefit of the speaker, while allowing them to maintain natural eye contact and without forgetting their lines.
President Donald Trump, infamously reliant on autocues for his frequent political rallies

President Donald Trump, infamously reliant on autocues for his frequent political rallies

This is distinct from the so-called “presidential-style” teleprompter, which uses a similar mirroring effect, except with a glass shield or paddle mounted on a stand. These are more obvious, but no more invasive than the through-the-lens variety. To the person reading from it, the text is perfectly clear and legible, but to bystanders, it looks like a tinted piece of glass. This version of the device became well-known through its use by notoriously photogenic President John Kennedy, as well as his successors, and the unobtrusive image of the glass autocue would become popular for public speakers and televised events until the present day.

Somebody has to run this device, though, and that person is cleverly called an autocue operator. Whereas with early systems, this technician would be required to rotate the bobbins holding the paper scroll, matching their pace to the speaker’s tempo, this process has become largely digitised these days. Instead, the autocue operator is responsible for maintaining, setting up, and checking the machines themselves, as well as rehearsing with the speakers and transcribing, loading, and mirroring the transcripts, while adjusting the digital readout to roll at a comfortable and timely pace for whoever the camera happens to be trained on. This operator will use a toggle to mark the reader’s position in the script, and can also make corrections and adjustments to the scrolling speed of the text.

Apart from news, public speeches, and television dramas and comedies, autocues are also enormously useful for marketing and training videos, in which even professional actors may not be familiar with the subject at hand. Providing a ready script for these performers helps them understand and present information accurately and entertainingly, while eliminating most risks of mistakes or forgetfulness.

Ronald Reagan at the 1988 Republican National Convention at the Superdome in New Orleans, flanked by glass autocues. Wikimedia Commons.

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