Lucy and Desi were the first to use a modern teleprompter on television
'I Love Lucy' writer Jess Oppenheimer invented the vital TV tool.
Jess Oppenheimer deserves more praise. In 1948, Lucille Ball was performing on a new radio program called My Favorite Husband. Her character, Liz Cugat, was mannered, sophisticated and married to a banker. After about ten episodes, the original writers bailed. Enter Jess Oppenheimer, a writer from The Baby Snooks Show, a program about a mischievous little girl. Oppenheimer decided to inject a little of Baby Snooks into Ball's character, whose name was also changed.
A couple years later, when CBS offered Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz the chance to produce a sitcom pilot, Lucy insisted that her secret weapon Oppenheimer come aboard the project. It was Oppenheimer who came up with the premise — a "middle-class working stiff" bandleader with a wife scheming to get into showbiz — and the title I Love Lucy. He would go on to become the series' producer and head writer. He was the "creative force behind the 'Lucy' show," according to I Love Lucy director William Asher.
The man was also a brilliant inventor, a holder of 18 patents. His inventions included a "Sensory development apparatus" and a "Container with integral suction tube," essentially a juice box. However, his most lasting contribution to television might just be the "Prompting apparatus" — what is commonly called a "through-the-lens" teleprompter.
Prior to Oppenheimer's contraption, teleprompting was done through a roll of paper that scrolled alongside the camera. With this invention, performers could stare directly into the lens, without the camera detecting the words. You've seen it used by news reporters, late night hosts and politicians.
Naturally, the first performers to put the device to use were Lucy and Desi. The two used the teleprompter in December 14, 1953, when they promoted cigarettes after an episode of I Love Lucy for sponsor Phillip Morris. It was something that would have looked a little like this: