A teleprompter (also known as an autocue) is a display device that prompts the person speaking with an electronic visual text of a speech or script. Using a teleprompter is similar to the practice of using cue cards. The screen is in front of the lens of the camera, and the words on the screen are reflected to the eyes of the speaker using a one-way mirror.
(Note that this is only true in principle — when the space between the lens and the mirror is covered in a shroud, an ordinary glass pane will work as a one way mirror).
As the speaker does not need to look down to consult written notes, he or she appears to have memorized the speech or be speaking spontaneously, and will look directly into the camera lens. Cue cards, on the other hand, will always be placed away from the lens axis, making the speaker look at a point beside the camera, which leaves a "distracted" impression.
The TelePrompTer company was founded in the 1950s by Fred Barton Jr., Hubert J. (Hub) Schlafly and Irving Berlin Kahn. Barton was an actor who suggested the concept of the teleprompter as a means of assisting television performers who had to memorize large amounts of material in a short time.
The first personal computer-based Teleprompter, Compu=Prompt, appeared in 1982. It was invented and marketed by Courtney M. Goodin & Laurence B. Abrams in Hollywood, California. This custom software and specially re-designed camera hardware ran on the Atari 800 Personal Computer. Their company later became ProPrompt Inc., which is still providing teleprompting services some 26 years later. Other paper-based Teleprompting companies Q-TV and Telescript followed suit and developed their own software several years later, when computers with enough graphics power to provide the smooth scrolling text became available..
It should also be noted that Jess Oppenheimer, producer of I Love Lucy, claims credit for the original concept of the teleprompter and was awarded the U.S. patent for its creation. Originally used so that Lucille Ball could read commercials on-camera, it soon became a staple for television news.
As late as 1992, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was still using an early mechanical teleprompter.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s Autoscript (a UK and US based company) pioneered TFT monitors rather than the traditional CRTs. This allowed significantly less weight on the camera itself and more portability. They also introduced high brightness monitors allowing prompters to be used in direct sunlight. A further breakthrough in 2005 introduced Voice Activated Prompting. Along with their partner, Sysmedia, Autoscript developed a prompter which required no peripheral to control the scroll of the prompter. The Voice activated prompter simply scrolled at the speed of the presenters speech.
The word teleprompter, with no capitalization, had become a genericized trademark because it is used to refer to similar systems manufactured by many different companies. The United States Patent Office does not have any "live" trademarks registered for the word "teleprompter," but this does not rule out the possibility of a company enforcing the trademark without registering it. Some other common generic terms for this type of device include:
Modern teleprompters for news programs consist of a personal computer, connected to video monitors on each camera. The monitors are often black-and-white monochrome, and have the horizontal scanning reversed to compensate for the reflection of the mirror. A peripheral device attached to the serial port has a knob that can be turned to speed up or slow down the scrolling of the text. The text is usually displayed in white capital letters on a black background for the best readability, while cues are in inverse video (black on white). Difficult words (mainly foreign names) are spelled out phonetically, as are other particulars like "Nine-eleven" (to specify that the event 9/11 should not be pronounced "nine-one-one", for example).
With the development of small cheap teleprompter software applications many different disciplines are now using simple desktop applications to help them deliver sermons, speeches and creating quality audios. Unlike their big brothers these small apps work on a desktop or laptop allowing the speaker to control the rate and flow of their speech. They are also used by many different organizations and schools to deliver pre written information by relative novices. They are usually called personal teleprompters.