How Television Came Into Being

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The saga of television reads like a thriller. No Eureka moment, no single scientist, no Nobel prize. But there was snooping, spying and court room drama

Krishna Murty Kommajosyula


When Logie Baird took his television machine to the Daily Express, he was promptly sent away. As Baird walked out, the editor called up his aide and told him, “Go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless! Be careful! He may have a razor on him!”

Zworykin went to the White House to meet Jerome Wiesner, former president of MIT and then scientific advisor to American president J.F. Kennedy. Wiesner introduced him to JFK as “This is the man who got you elected.”

”How’s that?,” asked JFK.

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”This is the man who invented television,” replied Wiesner.

It was in that moment JFK realised the importance of television in the elections, and then Zworykin cracked, “Have you seen television recently?”

A modern television—Samsung Series 9 LED 3D TV
A modern television—Samsung Series 9 LED 3D TV

A 14-year-old farm boy showed complicated sketches and equations written across the blackboard to his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, on March 1922. The boy thought that his teacher was the only person who could understand it. Perplexed at the non-chemistry lines, the teacher asked the boy, “What has this to do with Chemistry?”

The boy answered, “This is my idea for electronic television.”

His teacher was startled and asked, “Television? What’s that?”

The sketch was a rudiment of electronic scanning of a picture.

Television! This is the story of its inventors, their troubles and turmoils. The saga of television reads like a thriller. No Eureka moment, no single scientist, no Nobel prize. It evolved over decades through firm thinking, failures, frustration and, of course, success from a number of forgotten scientists. There were no big laboratories or big money as back up but there was snooping, spying and court room drama.

The press at that time was sceptical and the public unimaginative. Those ideas were far-fetched at that time and only a handful of men could have understood a television system, let alone an electronic one.

The TV saga

An old CRT TV
An old CRT TV

In 1881, Constantin Senlecq came up with the idea to transmit pictures by converting them into a stream of electrical pulses.

In 1884, Paul Nipkow, a young German scientist, proposed a metal disk with a series of holes in the shape of a spiral. As the disk rotated between the subject and light, the image was broken down to a number of lines of varying intensity. Photoelectric cells converted them into electrical signals to be sent to a receiver. The receiving disk which rotated synchronously reproduced the picture. Nipkow called it the ‘image rasteriser,’ which scanned 24 lines per picture with 10 frames per second. However, “the sensitivity was not enough and the selenium cell was very laggy.” Amplifiers were yet to arrive.

Two breakthrough principles of visual transmission were behind these ideas. The first was discovery of the photoelectric effect on selenium bars by Joseph May, a telegraph operator, and Willoughby Smith, an English electrical engineer, in 1873. The second was the theory of persistence of vision which explains how the brain continues to ‘see’ an image for a split second after it is gone—a kind of a memory effect of about 1/16th of a second. So a series of separate but continuous images are perceived as a single moving picture.

During the 1870s, Sir William Crookes created a vacuum tube called ‘The Crookes Tube,’ which produced a beam of electrons. By 1897, Ferdinand Braun fixed magnets outside the tube and deflected the electron beam, thereby the spot of light. This was the forerunner of the oscilloscope and the picture tube.

On 18th October, 1906, Arthur Korn transmitted a still photograph of Prince William over a distance of 1800 km using selenium photocells. In Paris, Georges Rignoux and A. Fournier transmitted still silhouette images using a rotating mirror-drum scanner with a matrix of 64 selenium cells in 1909. Later in 1911, Cambell Swinton suggested the use of CRT in the television system. But in Russia, Boris Rosing and his student Vladimir Zworykin were trying to transmit simple geometric shapes with a mechanical mirror-drum scanner to a ‘Braun tube’ or ‘CRT.’ Zworykin described them as ‘very crude images.’

Zworykin has a colourful story. During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Rosing was exiled and Zworykin almost became a victim of the army crackdown. The charge: He ‘mistreated’ a soldier by asking him to repeat the same words over and over again into a microphone while Zworykin was working with the equipment in another room (Mike testing 1 2 3 ?). However, the court dismissed the silly charges. But his knowledge soon came to be well-known and he was drafted as a signal corps officer in the Russian army during World War I. The story on television would not have taken a dramatic turn if Zworykin had not escaped to Paris. He briefly studied X-rays under Paul Langevin, before migrating to the United States in 1919.

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Although scientists were making great strides, technology on the other hand was still immature for the demands of television. When Lee DeForest developed a three-element vacuum tube ‘audion’ in 1907, this triode valve could amplify weak signals for the first time. Though Lee DeForest could put television on fast track, he was not convinced of the present or future of television. He said in 1926, “So I repeat that while theoretically and technically television may be feasible, yet commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need not waste little time in dreaming.” But it was around that time Baird and Jenkins were making major inroads into television.

Charles Jenkins, an American inventor, had been working on television since 1894. He even published an article, ‘Motion Pictures by Wireless’ in the Electrical Engineer, describing a method of electrically transmitting pictures. In 1920, at a meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, he introduced his prismatic rings—a device that replaces the shutter on a film projector. Using this important invention called ‘radiovision,’ he transmitted silhouette images of a toy windmill in motion on June 14, 1923 over a distance of 8 km from a naval radio station in Maryland to his laboratory in Washington. The resolution: 48 lines! On June 13, 1925, Jenkins publicly demonstrated synchronised transmission of pictures and sound.

March 25, 1925, the 16th anniversary of the Selfridge’s department store in London was an occasion they would remember. For on that day Baird demonstrated televised silhouette images in motion.

Logie Baird was born on August 14, 1888, but suffered from bad health even as a child. While other children of his age made toy telephones with strings and matchboxes, he made a telephone exchange and connected his home to four of his friends. Unfortunately, one of its low-hanging wires led to an accident and he was forced to shut his exchange down. Never one to waste resources or lose heart, the boy used these wires to set up a lighting system for his house. He even made a homemade glider which unfortunately threw him with a terrific bump onto the lawn.

In a return trip from Trinidad in 1920, he met by chance an old friend, Captain O. G. Hutchinson, who offered him help for his research. But in late 1922, he became gravely ill and was forced to quit his job. Destitute, he became dishevelled, shaggy-haired and sallow. His clothes wore thin, which he mended with crude patches but continued his thankless research. Can anybody beat Baird in his optimism?

In his own words, “Funds were going down, the situation was becoming desperate and we were down to our last £30 when at last, one Friday in the first week of October 1925, everything functioned properly. The image of the dummy’s head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me with almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it!

“I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement. I ran down the flight of steps to Mr Cross’ office and seized by the arm his office boy, William Taynton, hauled him upstairs and put him in front of the transmitter. I then went to the receiver only to find the screen a blank.

“William did not like the lights and the whirring disks and had withdrawn out of range. I gave him 2/6 (two shillings and six pence) and pushed his head into position. This time he came through and on the screen I saw the flickering but clearly recognisable image of William’s face—the first face seen by television—and he had to be bribed with half a crown for the privilege of achieving the distinction.”

Thus William Taynton became the first TV actor and a professional at that.

By now Zworykin migrated to America and started as a research engineer with the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. When he made a public demonstration of his technological marvel, the iconoscope in Pittsburgh in 1924, he was politely asked “to spend my time on something ‘a little more useful.’” Zworykin applied for a patent for an electronic television system in 1923 but the patents were never granted. He obtained a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in 1926 and continued to refine his system but Westinghouse failed to weigh its worth. He joined RCA in 1929—the year he obtained his first patent for colour television.

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Working on a similar system in Japan, Kenjiro Takayanagi demonstrated a 40-line television at the Hamamatsu Industrial High School on December 25, 1926. The first picture was the Japanese character for ‘I’, ‘’. This prototype is still on display at the Takayanagi Memorial Museum in Shizuoka University. The war prevented further research.

Back in Soviet Union, Léon Theremin developed a mirror drum-based television and increased its resolution from 16 lines to 32 lines. Then he invented the technique of interlacing the video signal. On May 7, 1926, as part of his thesis, he transmitted and projected near-simultaneous moving images on a 1.5-metre square screen at a scan rate of 64 lines, and by 1927 it went up to a 100 lines. This was beaten by RCA in 1931 with 120 lines.

Bell Telephone Laboratories was not too far behind. Herbert E. Ives and Frank Gray gave a spectacular exhibition of a mechanical television on April 7, 1927. The reflected-light television system had two receivers, a small one with a 5×6cm2 screen and a large one with a 61×76cm2 screen. Interestingly, monochromatic moving images also had synchronised sound, probably for the first time! Yes, sir, until then you had to keep a radio by the side to receive sound! A 50 aperture disk produced a rate of 18 frames per second transmitting the images over two paths: a wire link from Washington to New York City, and a radio link from Whippany, New Jersey. The study revealed that quality was almost equal. The then secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, also participated in this telecast. Television historian Albert Abramson remarked: “It was in fact the best demonstration of a mechanical television system ever made till date. It would be several years before any other system could even begin to compare with it in picture quality.”

He was wrong. By 1927, Baird could successfully transmit a signal over 705 km of telephone line between London and Glasgow. He went onto transmit the first transatlantic television signal between London and New York, and the first shore-to-ship transmission by 1928.

Television had now reached a reasonable stage where scheduled broadcast could begin. C.F. Jenkins was authorised to transmit images from an experimental station W3XK in Wheaton, Maryland, US. On July 2, 1928, Jenkins transmitted 48-line silhouette images sometimes in halftones taken from motion picture films. Forget the exorbitant price of $85 to $135, or of constant retuning, it was sheer excitement for the folks in the late twenties to watch a blurry moving image projected onto a 15-centimetre square mirror.

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In-line electron gun structure for colour cathode ray tube Philips Minineck (Image courtesy: http://obsoletetellyemuseum.blogspot.in)

In 1932, BBC inaugurated a television service. Baird had by now increased his electromechanical scan to 240 lines. Interestingly, the scenes were shot on a 35mm film, developed and then scanned while the film was still wet. On July 1930, BBC transmitted the first British television play, ‘The Man with the Flower in his Mouth.’ The screen size resembled a postcard.

But the real drama was building up elsewhere around this time and it was more exciting than any television serial.

Remember the young boy who showed his sketches to his chemistry teacher? It does seem quite unlikely that this unknown boy with little education, no money, and no equipment could steal the limelight from the greatest electrical companies in the world, but that is precisely what Farnsworth had set out to do.

Philo T. Farnsworth was born on August 19, 1906 at Indian Creek, near Beaver City, Utah. This young American farmer dreamt of a device that could project images transmitted through the air. His inspiration came while he was tilling a potato field back and forth one day in 1922. He thought of capturing the light in a jar, magnetically scan the picture into individual lines and transmit it in a series of electron beams. He would reconstruct the picture similarly.

His father advised Philo not to discuss his idea to anyone as he feared that these ideas could be pirated easily. Ideas, he reasoned, were too valuable and fragile. Leaving a legacy of only this advice, his father died of pneumonia. By 1923, the family responsibility fell on Philo’s shoulders. When asked if he planned to go back to school, he replied, “No, I can’t afford it.”

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It became difficult for Philo to finance his fledgling invention. “I’m quite sure it would work. Unfortunately, the only way I can prove it is by doing it myself; but I don’t have any money.” With a little financial help from his friend George Everson, Philo continued his work on his invention.

The first few trials resulted in very little, except for an electronic interference on the cathode ray tube. Not to be the least discouraged, he improved continuously and on September 7, 1927, he showed his audience the very first electronic transmission of visual intelligence—a black horizontal line on the television receiver built from a chemistry flask.

Philo finally filed for his first television patent on January 7, 1927; the official date of the invention of television.

By now Vladimir K. Zworykin was getting disillusioned at Westinghouse. Sarnoff invited him to be the head of RCA Research Labs at Camden. As he was packing his bags to join RCA, Sarnoff suggested that he might as well visit Farnsworth labs as an engineer for Westinghouse, under the ploy of negotiations for a patent licence. Zworykin prowled around Philo’s lab for three days trying to grab the secrets. When Farnsworth, twenty years his junior, finished the explanation of his image dissector, Zworykin remarked, “This is a beautiful instrument. I wish I’d invented it,” and left. Surprisingly, there was no discussion on patent licence and Philo wondered aloud to his wife if he had shown Zworykin too much.

3AC_box

Sometime later Sarnoff himself landed at Philo’s labs, of course when Philo was out of town. After a breathtaking tour of the labs, he offered to buy the entire enterprise for an unimaginable $100,000. As if to dismiss the entire matter, he added, “There’s nothing here we’ll need.” He left before George Everson, Philo’s brother-in-law, could ask him why he had placed his offer in the first place. When Philo rejected this offer, RCA did the next best thing; dragged him to court on patent rights. He had to spend most of his adult life in a legal fight with one of America’s largest and most powerful corporations. His old school teacher Justin Tolman walked into the court rooms to testify that Philo conceived the idea as a 14-year-old boy. Tolman even produced the original sketch of an electronic tube that Farnsworth had drawn for him in school. The sketch was almost an exact replica of the image dissector Farnsworth had invented.

In April of 1934, the patent office ruled, ‘Priority of invention is awarded to Philo T. Farnsworth.’ RCA appealed and lost. Sarnoff had to eat his words, “The RCA doesn’t pay patent royalties; we collect them.” RCA had to shell out royalty for patent licence for the first time to an independent inventor.

Thousands lined up to see the new electronic marvel at the first public demonstration of Philo’s TV at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1935. He positioned a camera near the door so that the visitors could see themselves on the nearby ‘receiver’—the bottom of a ten gallon jug. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American president on television in April of 1939.

On September 7, 1948, a patent was granted to Louis W. Parker for his ‘intercarrier sound system,’ which is now used in all television receivers.

After the expiry of Philo’s over a hundred patents, RCA started capitalising on them without paying a cent. He had to sell his assets to International Telephones and Telegraph in 1949. He became disillusioned, suffered a nervous breakdown and was bedridden.

When he appeared in 1957 on a popular TV quiz show, ‘I’ve Got a Secret,’ nobody recognised him. He was identified only as ‘Dr X.’ The audience was asked to identify him with some clues. One of the celebrity panelists Bill Cullen asked if he had invented some kind of machine that might be painful when used. The mysterious doctor replied, “Yes, sometimes, it’s most painful.” Revealing his identity as the father of electronic television, the final word on Philo came from the program anchor: “We’d all be out of work if it weren’t for you.”

When man landed on the moon, the entire planet was watching “one small step for mankind” on their television sets; Philo turned to his wife and said, “This has made it all worthwhile.”


The author is a technical training head for Coromandel International Ltd and has numerous books and published articles to his credit

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