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By Iain Baird on

Influential figures in the development of television

Television is such an intimate part of most of our lives that any discussion of its origins automatically incites a host of personal emotional responses uncommon to other inventions.

Television acts as an intimate, instantaneous extension of the human senses of sight and hearing across space. It has been similarly extending the human sense of memory, initially in combination with film, and then to an ever-increasing extent since the advent of video recording. The audiovisual implosion of space, and time-shift, are the very essence of television.

With these sensory powers governed by complex science, is it any wonder that studies of television’s invention and development are so often fraught with nationalism, partisanship, innuendo, contradiction, inaccuracy, and myth? Be that as it may, Britain has every reason to be extremely proud of its accomplishments in television’s early development, as not only did Britain give the world the first true television images on 26 January 26 1926, but a mere ten years later, it became the first country in the world to operate a regular high-definition public television service, opening on 2 November 1936.

Television has a significant pre-history. The discovery of the light-sensitive properties of selenium and some means of scanning the image, such as the Nipkow disc, was coupled with the development of the radio valve by Ambrose Fleming and Lee De Forest, which would enable the infinitesimal current from selenium to be amplified sufficiently to create a usable video signal. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. At the time, none of this was at all obvious, and only a handful of scientists were even working on the problem of television. It took a Scot in England, John Logie Baird, to bring these pieces together and make it work.

To profit from his invention, Baird was faced with the daunting prospect of having to deal with the BBC radio monopoly. John Reith’s BBC was skeptical of a competing medium, particularly one still in its fledgling stages. While worldwide publicity for Baird’s inventions provided start-up capital, it also had the effect of attracting better-funded firms into the television business, and soon rivals emerged or scaled up their work in the fields of both electro-mechanical and all-electronic television.

Fortunately for Baird, another Scot, Alan Campbell-Swinton—who had extremely prescient ideas about all-electronic television—had abandoned his work. In America, however, Vladimir Zworykin—a Russian emigré who had studied under Boris Rosing—and Philo Farnsworth were struggling with all-electronic systems of television. Zworykin had even been told ‘to work on something more useful’ by his superiors. Such was the attitude to television in the 1920s. Zworykin’s work in particular caught the attention of David Sarnoff, President of radio-giant the Radio Corporation of America, who placed the substantial resources of his company at Zworykin’s disposal. By 1933, this work inspired British development of the Emitron 405-line television camera at the RCA-affiliated company, EMI, with the appointment of a special project team under Isaac Shoenberg. By 1936, the ease-of-use of EMI’s Emitron cameras in the BBC’s studios—compared to various drawbacks of the Baird Company’s three systems—meant that the EMI system was officially selected by the Television Committee as the British television standard in February, 1937, defining the television medium that would (after the intervening war) spread across all of Britain. The EMI technology was not taken out of service until 1985 when the 405-line signals finally shut down.

Today the issue of “who invented television” remains a complicated one. When John Logie Baird demonstrated the first primitive recognisable TV images in 1926, other promising television technologies were yet to be made practical. Big industry concerns were spurred to begin costly research programmes towards developing advanced television systems. It can be argued that television is a composite invention—a combination of many earlier inventions. Ultimately the answer to the question “who invented television” greatly depends on how one chooses to define invention and television.

It is the beginnings of invented things which appeal to me.  For it is at their beginnings that we may detect their true natures, and feel the impact of man’s imagination which created them.

—Lance Sieveking


The main figures in the invention of television

Paul Nipkow (German), inventor of the Nipkow scanning disc, 1884

Jean Weiller (French), inventor of the mirror drum scanner, 1889

Karl Braun (German), inventor of the cathode ray tube, 1897

Boris Rosing (Russian), proposed and built television apparatus which used a cathode ray tube receiver, 1907. Vladimir Zworykin was one of his students

Alan A. Campbell-Swinton (Scottish), in 1908, the first person to propose a completely electronic television system (using cathode ray tubes as receiver and camera)

Dénes von Mihály (Hungarian), a pioneer of mechanical television, 1924

Charles Francis Jenkins (American), a pioneer of mechanical television—contemporary of Baird, 1924

John Logie Baird (Scottish), beginning his main body of experiments in 1923, he was the first person to demonstrate true television images in January 1926.  He also demonstrated colour television and stereoscopic television in 1928

Kálmán Tihanyi (Hungarian), in 1926 applied for a patent on the Radioskop, an all-electronic television camera idea.  In 1934, RCA was forced to purchase Tihanyi’s patents

Philo T. Farnsworth (American), inventor of an electronic television system based around his Image Dissector camera, 1928.  He collaborated with Baird Television Limited from 1934-36.  Unlike many other television inventors, Farnsworth refused to sell his patents to RCA

Vladimir K. Zworykin (Russian-American), applied for a patent for an electronic television system in 1923, with development done largely in secret initially for Westinghouse and later for RCA.  He published a paper on his electronic camera, the Iconoscope in 1933

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