History of In-Flight Entertainment Systems: How it all began

Photograph of the first in-flight movie, a screening of Howdy Chicago (Rothacker Film Company) as part of the Pageant of Progress Exposition in Chicago July 30 – August 14, 1921.

Providing living room-quality entertainment 30,000 feet above the ground is a remarkable technological achievement and one with a history of entrepreneurial and technological innovation. In this blog series we will show the history of in-flight entertainment. Let´s take a look at its beginning.

When “in-flight entertainment” - “IFE” - actually began is the subject of interpretation. According to the in-flight entertainment industry’s foremost archivist and historian, the late John Norman White, “in-flight ‘entertainment’ for passenger enjoyment was not the prime motivation of the earliest airborne presentations. As a matter of record, the term ‘in-flight media event’ is a much more accurate label to describe the purpose of the first onboard entertainment efforts,” he observed.

“The earliest validated instance of in-flight movies,” according to White, “took place in 1921 when Aeromarine Airways showed a movie promoting Chicago (Howdy Chicago) to its passengers on a number of flights during the city’s ‘Pageant of Progress.’”

One of the first in-flight movies: The Lost World

A few years later, as chronicled in the July 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine, passengers on an Imperial Airways flight traveling over Germany were presented with one of the first in-flight movies—a screening of the 1925 silent film The Lost World. Even more remarkably, the film was accompanied by the sounds of a live orchestra broadcast by radio waves from the ground. The Berlin Broadcasting Station provided both signal and orchestra. For the daytime flight, the pilot flew through dense clouds to darken the aircraft.

“In 1948,” according to White, “Pan American World Airways advertised ‘Movies 7,000 feet above the Atlantic.’ A special gimmick was devised to attract media coverage of the in-flight presentation of the movie ‘Stagecoach.’ A team of horses pulling a stagecoach galloped up to the aircraft while it was waiting on the tarmac at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) and delivered a 16mm print of the movie.”

1961: TWA – first airline to show movies on regularly scheduled flights

But the “real beginning” of IFE, according to White, came about when a man with a movie-house background named David Flexer redesigned a Kodak Pageant 16mm film projection system to adapt it to the vagaries of flight, founded a company called In-flight Motion Pictures, and convinced TWA “to become the first airline in the world to show movies on regularly scheduled flights.” The service began in 1961 with the exhibition of the Lana Turner-Efram Zimbalist Jr. movie, By Love Possessed.

Flexer’s 16mm system remained unchallenged for nearly a decade until a new California company named Sundstrand (and then Trans Com), headed by IFE pioneer John Landstrom, developed a Super 8mm film system. Trans Com went on to lead the migration from film to videotape and to be acquired by the Sony Corporation and renamed Sony Trans Com.


Next week I will continue this blog series with the following topic: 
History of IFE Systems: From communal screens to personal screens

Be curious!



Image: Photograph of the first in-flight movie, a screening of Howdy Chicago (Rothacker Film Company) as part of the Pageant of Progress Exposition in Chicago July 30 – August 14, 1921.

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