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8 Television Pioneers

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)
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History
When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster
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Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she hidden a small wooden board into the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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geography
The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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