With the death of Huber “Hub” Schlafly this week, our thoughts turn to the invention of a piece of kit which became the marvel of the broadcasting industry.

Our first autocue was a primitive system andrequired little actual physical setting up but a great deal of work in preparation. The autocue unit was small with a front silvered mirror suspended on a bracket. It was tripod-mounted and had a drawstring hood which tightened around the camera lens to eliminate unwanted reflections. The majority of work required was in preparing the script, which had to be hand-written with black marker onto a roll of acetate. This was then fed onto a roller system and slid, drawer-like, into the autocue housing. This primitive set up had three nuisance factors built in.

1. The motor driving the rollers could be heard and the acetate would rustle as it scrolled along.

2. The script, which had to be written in shooting order, was not easily edited and additional text couldn’t be added without rubbing out and rewriting. The replacement text had to be squeezed into the available space so would often need to be written in smaller handwriting making it harder to read.

3. The acetate needed to be unwound from the rollers at the end of the shoot and soaked in someone’s bath in order to wash the text away before being dried and rewound for the next script.
Even so, the effort was well worth it and saved countless production hours and miles of video tape.

Our next system was a vast improvement but at a cost and went from being small and portable with a self-contained mount and mirror set up to a far more cumbersome affair. There was still a tripod mount and mirror but now replacing the acetate and roller set up was an altogether bigger and heavier video monitor suspended from a bracket. The text came via computer and floppy disc drive which were both built into a flight case. Another flight case contained a video monitor for the computer so the autocue operator could edit text, jump around within the script and control the scroll speed. We often used this kit on location and for hours at a time so we needed a huge amount of 12 volt battery power. All in all we found ourselves having to lug around a much larger and heavier kit.

Nowadays, thankfully, the kit is dramatically reduced in size again. Systems are small and light enough to be camera-mounted, monitors have been replaced with ipads and iphones and there are available numerous downloadable apps.

Hubert, and the rest of the teleprompter development team, could not possibly have anticipated the impact that their invention would have on broadcasting, politics and beyond. Actors, presenters and politicians can now flawlessly deliver lines straight down the lens or off-camera giving far more convincing and compelling performances.

This wonderful invention revolutionised our industry and increased productivity overnight by removing the need to rely on having a good memory to deliver a great story. Now, remind us… what were we saying???

The photo at the top is from

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