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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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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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