Who Needs History…

…when it keeps getting in the way of a “good story”? 

I just found this item in a sidebar to a Wall Street Journal Online story about how Netflix plans to maintain its business after the demise of DVDs and all video delivery converts to some form of streaming.  The sidebar attempts to summarize the history of video, and includes this item:

1923: Television

Rival inventors Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth begin work on the electronic television. Eventually the courts decide a patent battle in favor of Mr. Farnsworth, but RCA finds commercial success with Mr. Zworykin’s work.

The first problem with that seemingly innocuous little item is the date.  I’ve written elsewhere about Zworykin’s bogus claims to have disclosed a workable camera tube in 1923; that patent application was ruled “inoperable” in 1934, but a patent was finally issued anyway in 1938, so here we go again with that “1923” date that RCA has managed to carve into the history despite its dubious origins.

But the real issue is the last claus, that “RCA finds commercial success with Mr. Zworykin’s work.”  Buzzzz.  Thank you for playing.  RCA found “commercial success” despite its reliance on Zworykin’s work; the company found commercial success with television after it licensed Philo Farnsworth’s patents. 

But you don’t get that in any of the accounts of TV’s pre-history that come out of RCA, which sadly explains why you don’t get it from The Farnsworth Invention, either.

Repeat after me: Farnsworth won the litigation, RCA was forced to take a license for the first time in its history, and the reason we don’t know this — the reason we keep reading “Zworykin 1923 — is because Farnsworth’s company faltered in the 1940s — NOT because “priority of invention” was awarded to “Vladimir Zworykin.”

But, you know, that’s only history, which can be so confusing in the face of corporate PR.

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Paul Schatzkin

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