Who invented TV?


Dear Straight Dope: Okay, I know the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and Marconi invented radio. So how come I can’t name who invented television at the top of my head? You’d think he’d be celebrated a little more than he is; but that’s notthe case. How come tv’s creator isn’t in the top ten of famous inventors? Arnold Wright Blan, Sugar Hill, Georgia

Ian replies:

There are a lot of rather complex reasons, among them the intricacies of TV’s design, widespread obsolescence, patent and other legal battles, a couple of world wars and a depression, and marketing. Most of the people who had ideas for TV, and even built televisions and TV cameras, worked for, or sold their ideas to, large companies, and the others came to wish they had.

First of all, it took many different, widely varied technological advances to lead to TV. TV historian Jeff Kisseloff remarked that “Three hundred [people responsible for some part of the invention] is, in fact, a conservative figure since it took nearly a century of research before Milton Berle could show up in your living room in drag.” Some of these developments came from advances in motion pictures, some from the telephone, and others from radio.

Now, one thing you might keep in mind is that Marconi, often credited with the invention of radio, didn’t really invent the box on your desk that pulls voices and music from the air; what he did was send wireless telegraph signals. It took ten more years until Reginald Fessinden and Ernst Alexanderson worked out a way of transmitting more than just dashes and dots. However, these men did their work for GE, while Marconi was his own boss, and named his company after himself, so his name endures.

Early TV was based on the photoconductive properties of selenium and an apparatus called the Nipkow disk. In 1872, Joseph May and Willoughby Smith, of England Telegraph Construction and Maintenance, noted that when selenium was exposed to light, its electrical resistance decreased. Almost immediately, they thought of transmitting pictures by electricity, but never came up with a way of doing so. Paul Nipkow, a German engineer, was the first to come up with a way to scan an image onto a photoconductive surface, in 1883. His idea was a disk, with holes cut in a spiral pattern, so that as it spun, it read an entire image, one dot at a time. However, Nipkow never overcame the many problems of what came to be called mechanical scanning of an image. Despite many advances to be made in the next 50 years, these problems were inherent in the very concept of mechanical scanning, and eventually rendered it obsolete. However, these advances were crucial to TV’s development, and Nipkow is rightly considered one of the inventors of television.

Inventors who put their efforts into the improvement of mechanical scanning should also be mentioned. John Logie Baird, a Scotsman, was the first to send ‘pictures by wireless,’ as he termed them, sending the shadow of a cross across his laboratory in 1923, using Nipkow disks and selenium-coated screens to scan and recreate the images. Baird gave a public demonstration of “seeing by wireless” in 1925, transmitted the first face over television in 1926, achieved the first transatlantic TV broadcast in 1928, and started regularly broadcasting, under license of the BBC, in 1929.

Another TV pioneer, Charles Francis Jenkins, was also the inventor of the movie projector. The only projector he made was stolen from his office (by his own partner), sold to the Gammon Theater Group, and subsequently marketed as the “Edison Vitascope.” Jenkins won a judgment against Edison and Gammon, settled for $2500, and lost the chance to become known as the father of the movies. However, in America at least, he was long considered the father of television. In trying to eliminate ‘flicker’ in projected films, he came up with a variation on the Nipkow disk, a circular prism, cut in the same spiral pattern as the disk, which was able to scan an image without some of its deficiencies (e.g., it had no holes which limited resolution of the picture). Experienced as he was with film, Jenkins concentrated on devising a way to broadcast film, rather than live images. Jenkins’ first demonstration of “radiovision,” a 10-minute broadcast of a windmill, was given in 1925, two months after Baird’s. Jenkins was also broadcasting by 1929, and selling TV receivers and kits at a loss, hoping to popularize his invention to the point where selling commercial time would be viable.

By this time, big business started to become aware of the commercial potential of TV. In 1927, both AT&T and GE unveiled their televisions. AT&T broadcast Herbert Hoover over their phone lines, and then a vaudeville act over wireless, but their interest was primarily in personal communication, and found that ‘one-on-one radiotelephonic-television,’ what we might call videophone communication, was impractical, and they abandoned their research soon after. GE, on the other hand, devoted many years and a large sum of money to the development of commercial TV, under the supervision of the aforementioned radio pioneer Ernst Alexanderson. GE exhibited TV using mechanical scanning in 1929 and broadcast dramatic plays and political speeches over the airwaves. In press releases the firm called Alexanderson the father of television.

But mechanical television was doomed from the start. It needed such powerful lighting that actors could not stay on screen for more than a few minutes at a time. Nipkow disks and similar apparatuses had to be incredibly large – some as much as eight feet – to produce an image of sufficient resolution to be viewable, and resolution still only approached 70-80 lines per screen (compare with 500-600 in today’s television sets). Electronic TV was the way to go, and Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth paved the way.

Zworykin, a Russian, developed a rudimentary electronic receiver using a cold cathode tube, and first received a picture in 1911 – four luminous horizontal bands. Zworykin was put into the Russian army as a radio specialist, and defected to Germany during the revolution. He eventually found himself in New York, working for Westinghouse. He left the company, and was hired back in 1923 when Westinghouse realized they wanted in on the TV market. Zworykin, by 1925, had developed an electronic method of scanning an image, which consisted of drops of photoelectric potassium hydride on a plate of aluminum foil, which was oxidized so that each drop of potassium hydride was insulated from each other. When exposed to a bright picture, individual pixels of potassium hydride would retain a charge, and thus a visual scene was transformed into an electronic one. Zworykin then devised a scanning electron beam, which would read the back of this screen line-by-line, and then could transmit the information to the cathode tube receiver he had invented 14 years before. The images were coarse, had a dismaying amount of flicker, and would fade in and out without reason. However they were there, and the first TV setup that resembled the ones we use now was emerging. He called his design the kinescope, and TV historian Albert Abramson claims “Zworykin’s tube was the most important single technical advancement ever made in the history of television.”

Philo Farnsworth was 15 when he hit on the same idea. Still in high school, Farnsworth first diagrammed his concept, using a lens to focus an image through a tube onto a flat mosaic of photoelectric cells, to his chemistry teacher in 1922. He was ultimately credited with the invention because he envisioned a superior way of scanning the image, using magnetic coils to move an anode finger, with a scanning aperture, over the image. He went through years of trying to find financial backers, and competent assistants, and filed a patent for his system in 1927. Soon after that, he made his first transmission: a horizontal line. The next year, a black triangle. His investors asked him when they would see some dollars from his project, so in his demonstration to them, he broadcast a slide of a dollar sign. Soon after, Farnsworth developed improvements such as the multipactor tube, and the sawtooth wave method of scanning, using a vacuum tube pulse generator.

In legal battles over the patents involved in TV, Farnsworth was declared the true inventor of electronic television: “Zworykin has no right to make the count because it is not apparent that the device would operate to produce a scanned electrical image unless it has discrete globules capable of producing discrete space charges and the Zworykin application as filed does not disclose such a device” (Patent Interference No. 64,027, Farnsworth v. Zworykin, 4/24/34). After this, Farnsworth granted licences to RCA and Columbia in America, and to Baird and the BBC in England. RCA, through its National Broadcasting Company, began regular broadcasts in 1939. Commercial broadcasting, from which Farnsworth had long believed he would garner a fortune, began in 1941, with Bulova paying NBC $4.00 for one minute of commercial time. However, WWII intervened, and all television broadcasting was banned in the US in April, 1942. By the time commercial television was again viable, Farnsworth’s patent had passed into the public domain, and when the boom on TV sets for the home came in the late 40’s, Farnsworth’s name was no longer mentioned as the inventor of the set. He tried to go into manufacturing, but was unsuccessful, and eventually had a nervous breakdown. According to his wife, “he wouldn’t even allow the word television to be used in our home. When the Encyclopedia Americana asked him to do the article on television, he just threw the letter in the wastebasket. I was very worried that we might lose him altogether.” Farnsworth was approached by the government to go to Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project but declined. He died in 1971, trying to work on atomic fusion, which he felt could be used to eliminate pollution and save the planet. After giving humanity so much, the least we should do is remember the name of Philo “Phil” Farnsworth.

For further reading, please see David and Marshall Fisher’s Tube: The Invention of Television, and The Box: An Oral History of Television, by Jeff Kisseloff.


Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.