The Best TV Test Cards and Patterns of the 20th Century

Off-air recording of TVE 1 version (1990–93 version, on 3 March 1992) - a circular blue pattern on gray grid background, orange square, rainbow squares, the letters tve in yellow

Television test cards were elaborate, strange patterns and graphics used for visual calibration or for filling gaps and dead air in the early days of TV broadcasting. Often appearing for hours overnight when stations would “sign off”, they would have entered the cultural imagination as hypnotic oddities—likely untrusted and alien—but would come to fill a nostalgic void made up of colorful, wild, and geometric glowing shapes. What weird, luminous, and mesmerizing patterns do we use today to calibrate our realities and fill up our empty spaces? Lets take a look at some TV test cards and patterns.

The first tuning signal and the BBC alphabet cards

a hollow black circle with a horizontal line under it over an old black and white tv screen shown to depict the first tuning signal by the bbc from 1934

The first tuning signal test card was broadcast in 1934 by the British Broadcasting System and was just a simple hollow black circle with a horizontal line under it.

The BBC, in a fugue state of mania and driven to madness, attempted to invent a test card for every letter of the alphabet. Early designs, as seen above in cards A and B, were relatively simple. However, patterns became more complex and strange the farther BBC engineers stumbled through the alphabet and time.

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At peak hallucinogenic-technicolor-pattern chaos, BBC engineer George Hersee even put a photo of his daughter on Test Card F to celebrate the first color broadcasts. First airing to the British public in 1967, Test Card F would continue to embarrass her for 31 years.

BBC Test Card C via ephemeralfilm

SMPTE color bars

a draft drawing of early tv test pattern color bars in black ink on white
An early concept of the classic color bar test pattern
the basic rainbow color bar tv test pattern
SMPTE color bars on a wide format backdrop

SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) color bars were/are used where the National Television System Committee (NTSC) was/is utilized.

A newly built television set undergoing image calibration using a test card at a Grundig factory in Nuremburg, West Germany, Dec 1959 (via Wikipedia)

“Indian-head test pattern”

the RCA indian-head test pattern showing a Native American wearing a headdress surrounded by strange circles and grids in black on top of an old tv screen texture
The RCA “Indian-head test pattern” showing a Native American wearing a headdress surrounded by strange circles and grids, an allegedly necessary scene for television engineers and technicians to do their jobs properly in the 1900s

Both problematic and weird, the colloquially-known “Indian-head test pattern” was introduced by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1939 and would beam into homes for two decades. It was generated using something called a monoscope camera but was initially hand drawn by a real human. The original drawing was allegedly found in an RCA dumpster in New Jersey years later which makes sense.

Swedish botanist and radio and TV personality Nils Dahlbeck posing in front of the Indian-head test pattern and the Chalmers University of Technology experimental TV station test card in 1957
“Swedish botanist and radio and TV personality Nils Dahlbeck posing in front of the Indian-head test pattern and the Chalmers University of Technology experimental TV station test card in 1957” (expertly enhanced using AI and computer vision via Wikipedia)

Phillips circle pattern / PTV pattern / PM5544

an intricate draft of the circle test pattern in black ink on white
A diagram of the signals featured in a PM5544 type test pattern (original graphic via Wikipedia)
a wild looking test pattern with rainbow grids inside a circle on top of more gray grids
Recreation of the original 4:3 Phillips circle pattern (original pattern via Wikipedia)

Danish engineer Finn Hendil originally designed the Phillips circle pattern in something called the “Philips TV & Test Equipment laboratory” in Amager, Denmark in 1966. What else happened at strange Danish laboratories in the 1960s?

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Left: A Phillips circle test pattern on a cathode ray tube television set, connected to a frequency counter and a sampling oscilloscope. Right: A Philips circle pattern as a mural on a public housing block in Tampines, Singapore (both images via Wikipedia)
An off-air photo of a version of PM5544 ported through Sender Freies Berlin/Radio Free Berlin (photo via Wikipedia)

Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF) Monochrome Test Card

Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF) or German Television Broadcasting was the state television broadcaster for the German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany) from 1952-1991. It broadcast this strange test pattern to East Germany and parts of West Germany. Was this considered Marxist—Leninist propaganda? We think so!

Soviet / UEIT / УЭИТ – Универсальная электронная испытательная таблица

Recreation of the UEIT-2 test card (via Wikipedia)

The UEIT (Universal Electronic Test Chart) was a Soviet test card and was designed to test TVs operating in the analogue SECAM (séquentiel de couleur à mémoire / color sequential with memory) standard. What other beautiful artifacts of vision are sequential with memory?

TVE color test card

Off-air recording of TVE 1 version (1990–93 version, on 3 March 1992) - a circular blue pattern on gray grid background, orange square, rainbow squares, the letters tve in yellow
Off-air recording of TVE 1 early 90s version. Apparently the appearance of this pattern on television meant that workers had gone on strike, so it was a kind of signal of success (via Wikipedia)

The TVE test card was adopted by Televisión Española with the introduction of Phase Alternating Line (PAL) color broadcasts. Once again this freakish design was created at the Phillips TV and Test Equipment Lab in Denmark, this time by some guy named Finn Hendil. Both designs—along with many others that were no doubt destroyed or sucked into other dimensions or simply lit on fire by spontaneous Danish energies—were overseen by the tv test card mad scientist, Erik Helmer Nielsen. If anyone has a photo of this guy please mail it to us.

Bulgarian National Television (BNT/БНТ) test card

Colour test card used by BNT from the early-1970s until the 1990s — rainbow squares over a white circle over zebra stripes over a white and black grid
Color test card by BNT from the early-1970s until the 1990s

Bulgarian National Television used a hybrid test card. Who are we kidding they all look the same! BNT launched in 1959 and is hard to find outside of Bulgaria. Lucky for you we found a livestream on the internet here. Have a watch and let us know if you find any test patterns!

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This concludes our look at some of the best tv test cards and patterns from the 20th century. There are many great variations we did not include here but feel free to do your own research and let us know if you find anything worth tuning into. Additionally, this has got us here at the Department wondering what test patterns and space-fillers are all around us now in our everyday lives. What do you think?