8 Television Pioneers

The development of television resembles the development of the airplane in that many engineers were working on the project around the same time, separately, and the finished product owes credit to quite a few pioneers. There are still arguments over who invented television. If one person must be named, Philo T. Farnsworth gets the credit in most cases, since he patented the all-electronic television system. However, many other breakthroughs came before Farnsworth.

1. Paul Nipkow

220nipkow.jpgGerman inventor Paul Nipkow patented the first mechanical television system in -get this- 1884. He detailed the idea of scanning images and transmitting them piece by piece. Nipkow created was came to be known as the Nipkow disc, which rotated between the image to be scanned and a selenium element. The electrical conductivity of selenium varies according to the amount of light that hits it, so the difference in light value between areas of the image (what we would call pixels today) could be measured and recorded. There is no evidence that Nipkow ever built a prototype of the entire system, and his patent lapsed after 15 years.

2. Boris Rosing

155Boris Rosing.JPGRussian scientist Boris Rosing filed for a German patent in 1907 on a television system that used a cathode ray tube (CRT) as a receiver. He updated his patent in 1911. His system used a mechanical Nipkow disc as a scanner. Rosing's research in television came to an abrupt halt in 1931 when Joseph Stalin had him arrested and exiled to Archangel, where he died in 1933.

Continue reading for the steps toward television as we know it.

3. A. A. Campbell-Swinton

440Campbell Swinton.jpg

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton was a Scottish electrical engineer who was the first to publicly describe transmission of scanned images by using a cathode ray tube on both the sending and receiving end. Others had proposed television by cathode ray tube, but only on the receiving end. Campbell-Swinton's first published account of such a system was in a 1908 letter to the publication Nature. He later lectured on the question of television, stating that the future of the medium was surely to be all-electronic, as opposed to mechanical methods.

4. Charles Francis Jenkins


Charles Francis Jenkins was the earliest American television pioneer. He described his research on television beginning in 1894 in the magazine Electrical Engineer. He publicly demonstrated the transmission of moving images (silhouettes) using a mechanical television system in 1923. In 1925, he demonstrated long distance transmission by sending moving pictures from Anacosta, Virginia to Washington, D.C. By 1928, he was broadcasting a regular schedule of moving pictures from his radio station W3XK in Washington, although the images were primitive. Jenkins built and sold "Radiovision" receivers for his potential audience.

5. John Logie Baird

200bairdface.jpgScottish inventor John Logie Baird developed a mechanical system of television transmission using rotating discs which he tested in 1925 and demonstrated in 1926. This was the first live moving grayscale pictures transmitted. Baird also broadcast the first image of a live human face in 1925, which belonged to William Edward Taynton who worked in the same building and was willing to participate in the experiment. Baird also presided over the first color television transmission, the first transatlantic transmission, and the first stereoscopic broadcast, all in 1928. Baird's system initially had 30 lines of resolution, but with further tinkering went to 240 lines by 1939. By then, electronic television had superseded Baird's system.

6. Kenjiro Takayanagi


Japanese high school teacher Kenjiro Takayanagi built a television system using Nipkow's scanning disc as a transmitter and a cathode ray tube as a receiver in 1926. Essentially, he invented the electronic TV set. Takayanagi took his expertise to NHK, the Japanese broadcasting corporation and later to JVC, where he became vice-president. (image credit: Flickr user Sphl)

7. Vladimir Zworykin


Russian electrical engineer Vladimir Zworykin was a student of Boris Rosing. After the Russian revolution, he emigrated to the US, where he worked at Westinghouse. He patented the system of an electronic transmitter coupled with an electronic cathode ray tube receiver in 1923. However, he didn't demonstrate a working prototype until 1929. When he did, RCA hired him on the spot. Zworykin jumped at the chance, since Westinghouse was never interested in his wild ideas.

8. Philo T. Farnsworth


Philo T. Farnsworth was a Utah prodigy who worked out the problems of transmitting television pictures when he was a teenager. In 1927, at the age of 21, he arranged for a demonstration of an electronic transmitter (which he called the Image Dissector) and an electronic receiver (CRT) for a group of potential investors. The image sent was only a line in the middle of a square, but when it moved, you could see it on the receiver. Farnsworth applied for a patent in 1930, and found that Vladimir Zworykin had also filed for a patent on the all-electronic system in 1923. A legal battle followed. In the end, Farnsworth convinced the patent officials that not only had Zworykin failed to build his system before 1931, but also that Farnsworth had conceived the idea many years earlier (as witnessed by one of his high school teachers). Farnsworth got the patent for the all-electronic system when the case was finally decided in 1935.

The TV we know today is the product of many inventors. In addition to the eight listed here, image broadcasting owes a lot to Rene Bartholemy, Karl Ferdinand Braun, Herbert Ives, Kálmán Tihanyi and others who furthered the science and technology of television with their innovations. Now you know who to blame for soap operas, laugh tracks, and late-night infomercials. On the flip side, without these television pioneers, we would never have seen a man walk on the moon, the Vietnam War would have lasted years longer, and most of us would never have a chance to see how the rest of the world lives.

Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron

Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.


Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.


After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.


Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.


The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.


Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.


The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."


Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.


Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.


Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.


Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.


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