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Surprising Science:

Who is the Father of Television?

In this picture of Baird's Televisior the housing for the spinning disc can clearly be seen. The picture appeared on the small screen at the right. (Courtesy Early Television Foundation)

Ever hear of Vladimir K. Zworykin? How about John Logie Baird? Or maybe you know the name of Paul Nipkow? If not, how about Charles Francis Jenkins? No? Well surely you have heard of Philo T. Farnsworth!

Who are these people? They all have a claim to the title of "The Father of Television." Which one, if any, is the rightful owner to that moniker, however?

The creation of television, one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, has it roots firmly planted in the 19th century. It was the logical outgrowth of the technology of the telegraph and the photograph. As early as the 19th century, inventors were filing patents on the devices that allowed for transmission of moving images over wire.

Almost all technologies that display moving pictures depend on a phenomena called persistance-of-vision. If the human eye is presented with a series of still pictures very quickly, faster than about 10 a second, it sees them not as individual pictures but one continuous image. A motion picture camera uses a long strip of film to take image after image of a scene, capturing any movement within the series of pictures. As these are played back through a projector, it gives the viewer the illusion of a continuous moving scene.

Inventors wishing to transmit a moving picture electrically would have to find a way to do something similar by capturing image after image and sending them down a wire to be reconstructed for viewing at another location.

Mechanical Television

A German, Dr. Paul Nipkow, built the first, crude machine to do this in 1884. Nipkow's camera device was based on a spinning disc with 24 small holes punched in it. The holes were arranged in a spiral so that as the disc was spun they would one-by-one sweep out area where an image was focused onto the disc with a lens. On the other side of the disc was a light-sensitive photo cell that would generate an electrical signal when it was struck by the light coming through the holes. In this way the image was turned into an electrical signal. Every time the disc rotated one full turn, another image would be sent down the wire.

How a mechanical TV works: The lens focuses the image on a spinning disc. Holes sweep by the image allowing one small point of light to pass through to a photocell at a time. The photocell changes the varying light to an electrical signal which is sent on a receiver which reconstructs the image.(Copyright Lee Krystek, 2002)

Nipkow's receiver worked in reverse of his camera. Instead of a photo cell there was a neon lamp. The neon lamp's brilliance varied depending on the signal coming from the camera and the light would pass through another spinning disc, synchronized to the first, so that on the other side of the disc a fuzzy image would form.

There were many problems with Nipkow's invention and it never made it out of the laboratory: For one thing the neon bulb did not generate enough light to make a very usable picture. When a brighter bulb became available in 1917, other inventors began to have an interest in Nipkow's work. In America Charles Francis Jenkins started to build a system using a variation of the spinning discs designed by Nipkow. In England an inventor named John Logie Baird started experimenting with a similar system.

Baird was 34 years old when he started building his "Televisor" system. Working on a shoestring budget, he built his first device using objects found in the attic where he was experimenting. An old tea chest was used to support the electric motor that turned the discs. The discs themselves were cut out of cardboard. Other parts were mounted upon pieces of scrap lumber. His lens came from an old bicycle lamp. Glue, sealing wax and wire held the device together.

Amazingly, the jury-rigged system was able to produce a tiny, flicking image. In 1926 Baird demonstrated a more refined version of his mechanical television system to members of Britain's Royal Institute. This lead to news coverage in the London Times and money from financial backers so he could perfect his device. By 1930 Baird was transmitting images over the BBC transmitters at night after normal radio programs had ended. This became the world's first regular television service.

Despite the success of Baird, this form of television, which was referred to as mechanical television because of the turning motors and discs involved, had many technical limitations. Engineers working on mechanical televisions could not get more that about 240 lines of resolution which meant the images would always be somewhat fuzzy. The use of a spinning disc would also limit the number of new pictures per second that could be seen and this resulted in excessive flickering. It became apparent that if the mechanical portion of television could be done away with, higher quality and steadier images might be the result.

Electronic Television

The first man to envision an electronic television system was a British electrical engineer named A. Cambell Swinton. In a speech he gave in 1911, Swinton described a design using cathode-ray tubes to both capture the light and display an image. A cathode-ray tube was a glass bottle with a long neck on one end and a flattened screen on the other. The bottle was pumped clear of air so that an "electron gun" in the neck could shoot a stream of electrons toward the flattened end of the tube which was covered with a coating of phosphor material. When the electrons hit the material it would glow. By sweeping the electron stream back and forth in rows from top to bottom and varying the intensity of the stream, Swinton reasoned, an image could be drawn in the same manner that Nipkow's disks did.

A modified version of the tube could also be used as a camera. If the flattened end could be given a sandwich of metal, a non-conducting material and a photoelectric material, light focused on the flattened end with a lens would produce a positive charge on the inside of the surface. By sweeping the electron stream across the flattened end, again in rows, the charges could be read and the image could be turned into a signal that could be sent to the display screen to be seen.

Swinton's idea almost exactly describes the way modern electronic television works. While his forevision was near perfect, Swinton, nor anyone else at the time, knew how to actually engineer such a system and make it work. An electronic system, if it could be made to work, however, would operate at much faster speeds than any mechanical system could and would allow the picture to be composed of more rows, therefore increasing the quality of the image.

Philo T. Farnsworth.

It was eleven years after Swinton's lecture that a teenager from Utah became interested in electronic television. Philo T. Farnsworth had read about Nipkow's disc system and decided it would never produce a high quality picture. After experimenting with electricity, he declared to one of his high school teachers that he thought he could devise a better system. He proceeded to lay it out for the surprised man on the classroom blackboard. The teacher encouraged Farnsworth and Farnsworth set out to California to build a laboratory where he could experiment with his ideas. Working in darkened rooms in Los Angeles and later San Francisco, Farnsworth kept his work so secret that his laboratory was once the subject of a raid by police, who thought that he was using a still to produce illegal alcoholic beverages.

By September of 1927 Farnsworth was transmitting a sixty line picture from camera to screen using an entirely electronic system. It was at this point in time his work drew the attention of David Sarnoff. Sarnoff was chief of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA): the leader in supplying radios and radio parts to the United States.

Many of RCA's radio patents would soon expire, so Sarnoff was searching for another market he could corner and television was the obvious choice. After hiring Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian immigrant who had been experimenting with mechanical television for a decade, Sarnoff sent him to California to look at Farnsworth's work. Later Sarnoff would visit Farnsworth's laboratory himself.

Sarnoff and Zworykin quickly realized the value of Farnsworth's invention and Sarnoff tried to buy the young man out for $100,000. Farnsworth, thinking he could make more in collecting patent royalties from RCA than selling his invention to them, refused. Sarnoff, miffed, said, "Then there's nothing here we'll need" and sent Zworykin off to build their own version of the technology.

Farnsworth's designs kept showing up in Zworykin's work and lawsuits between the two companies followed. Eventually RCA was forced to pay Farnsworth $1,000,000 in licensing fees, but the onset of WW II delayed the introduction of television to most of the United States and the market for electronic television did not really take off until after the war. By then many of Farnsworth's key patents had expired and he never made the money he probably really deserved for his contributions to electronic television.

An early electronic television built by RCA.(Courtesy Early Television Foundation)

Adding insult to injury, most of the history of television was written by RCA employees and they, perhaps in revenge for the license they were forced to take out, left Farnsworth's contributions completely out of the story.

Demise of Mechanical Television

So what happened to the mechanical television being broadcast in Britain? Baird soon realized he needed to get the help of the BBC to make his mechanical system a complete success. By the 1930's, however, the BBC realized that the future was with electronic TV, not mechanical. Starting in November of 1936, Baird's mechanical system was broadcast on alternating weeks with an electronic system from EMI. The British public was invited to choose which one they liked best. The electronic system was clearly superior and Baird was taken off the air. Though Baird would try to sell his system to movie houses, those plans ground to a halt when WW II started and the BBC's TV service was shut down until hostilities were over.

In 1939 RCA and Zworykin decided to demonstrate their new electronic TV system at the World's Fair in New York City. Not much more development was done until after the WW II was over, but by 1946 people could buy a ten-inch table model for $375.

So who was the true Father of Television? This ubiquitous invention, like many others, had many people contributing to its creation. It's obvious, however, that much of the credit for making electronic television should probably go to Philo Farnsworth. Court after court hearing Farnsworth v. Zworykin acknowledge that his ideas found their way into the first commercial systems built by RCA. Many of the processes that operate inside a TV today were developed in his darkened, secret lab in California.


A Partial Bibliography

They All Laughed by Ira Flatow, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.

Inventing Modern America by David E. Brown, The MIT Press, 2002.

The Scientific Breakthrough by Ronald W. Clark, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2002. All Rights Reserved.