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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December 22, 2008 - 4:30am
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