Television: Who Invented What – and When?

Who Invented Television?


To have the right idea is one thing.

To have the right idea and make it work is everything.


In The Beginning…

Almost 100 years after electronic video first landed on the planet, the pre-historical record remains fuzzy at best. The debate often comes down to a simple question: Can any single individual deserve to be remembered as the sole inventor of television? Can we create for television the kind of mythology of individual, creative genius that history has bestowed on Morse, Edison, Bell, or the Wright Brothers?

The question may be simple, but clearly the answer is not. Before Uncle Milty, before Walter Cronkite, before Lucy and Desi and Ethel and Fred, literally hundreds of scientists and engineers contributed to the development of the appliance that now dominates “our living room dreams.” How can we single out any single individual and say, “it all started here”?

For decades, the historical record was devoid of references to Philo Farnsworth. After nearly a century since his invention changed the world, it is still entirely possible to open an encyclopedia or click onto a website and read that electronic television began when “Vladimir Zworykin invented the Iconoscope for RCA in 1923 …” – a single sentence that contains at least three historical errors. The most conspicuous error – the 1923 date – falsely pins Zworykin’s name chronologically before Farnsworth’s 1927 patent filing, rendering Farnsworth to the status of “another contributor” in the field.

But this is the actual fact: Zworykin may have had the right idea in 1923, but his 1923 patent application was ruled invalid in 1935, and there is no evidence of his having made anything work before he visited Farnsworth’s San Francisco laboratory in 1930.

Corporate public relations since the 1950s wants us to believe that television was “too complex” to be invented by a single individual. But there was one inventor. Video as we now know it first took root in the mind of Philo T. Farnsworth when he was fourteen years old, and he was the first to successfully demonstrate the principle, in his lab in San Francisco on September 7, 1927.

Before that date, television was the province of Newtonian electro-mechanical engineers who employed spinning disks and mirrors in their crude attempts to scan, transmit, and reassemble a moving image. The inventions of Jenkins, Ives, Alexanderson, Baird, and others are all similar in their reliance on the spiral-perforated, spinning disk first proposed in the 1880s by the German Paul Nipkow. Those guys had some success making it work, but they did not have the right idea. Their contraptions were engineering marvels, but something entirely new was needed before television was really going to work.

Farnsworth was born in 1906 – the year after Albert Einstein set the scientific world on its ear.  It was in Einstein’s papers that Farnsworth found the something entirely new that television would require.

In 1927, Farnsworth transmitted an “electrical image” without the use of any mechanics whatsoever. In one of the first triumphs of relativistic science, Farnsworth replaced the spinning disks and mirrors with the electron itself, an object so small and light that it could be deflected back and forth within a vacuum tube tens of thousands of times per second. Farnsworth was the first to form, focus and manipulate an electron beam. That accomplishment represents a breakthrough of epic proportions, a truly quantum leap in what mankind can do with subatomic particles.

September 7, 1927 is the pivotal date: Farnsworth’s invention rendered obsolete everything that came before, and made possible everything that came after.

What About Zworykin?

There was no iconscope in 1923
There was no iconscope in 1923

In 1923, Vladimir Zworykin – recently emigrated from Russia, and employed at the time by the Westinghouse Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA – applied for a patent for a television camera tube.  Zworykin’s approach was based on ideas that he first encountered in the classroom of Boris Rosing, his former teacher in Russia. Both Rosing and Zworykin and others like A. A. Campbell Swinton in Britain had circled the idea of using cathode-ray tubes for television, but none had produced any actual results.  They had the right idea, but couldn’t do anything with it.

In 1927, Farnsworth applied for a patent based on the idea he had sketched for his high school science teacher five years prior.  Later that year he constructed and successfully tested the instruments based on that sketch and patent.  Farnsworth had the right idea and he made it work.  The event  is thoroughly documented in Farnsworth’s journals with the simple notation that “the received line picture was evident this time.”  Later that evening one backer sent a telegram to another: “The damn thing works!” 

Farnsworth’s patent (#1,773,980) was granted in 1930. In Claim 15, critical wording describes the formation of an ‘electrical image’ – the photoelectric equivalent of the optical image which is then magnetically deflected over an aperture at the opposite end of the camera tube he called the “Image Dissector.”

At the time that Farnsworth’s patent was issued, Zworykin’s 1923 application was still pending approval.   That application might have been entirely forgotten – were it not for a patent issued in 1938 (#2,141,059)  bearing the 1923 application date. This patent was granted an extraordinary fifteen years after the application date, and then only after extensive revisions had been made to the original application.

The 1938 patent was issued over the objection of the patent office only after the case was adjudicated by a court of appeals! That the patent was issued at all hinged on a technicality, but it served its higher corporate purpose: That patent is the cornerstone of David Sarnoff and RCA’s determination to set the historical record and decades later, this dubious 1923 date persists.

Zworykin may have had the right idea in 1923, but a critical examination of the record reveals that he simply could not make it work.

There is scant evidence that Zworykin ever built or tested a system like the one disclosed in his 1923 application. No lab notes or direct eyewitness testimony survives. There are only Zworykin’s own verbal accounts and a single document cited in The History of Television: 1884 – 1941 by Albert Abramson. Found in an archive some fifty years after the alleged event, this document describes a device

…using a modified Braun type cathode ray tube for transmitter and receiver …the receiving tube …gave quite satisfactory results …[but] the transmitting part of the scheme caused more difficulties ….

It’s hard to fathom how the receiver could be “quite satisfactory” if the transmitter was not equally satisfactory. But this is the document that compels Abramson to conclude – in his footnotes! – that “Zworykin did build and operate the first camera tubes in the world sometime between the middle of 1924 and late 1925.”

Zworykin may indeed have built some tubes. He may have applied current to them. It should take more than a statement that “the transmitter caused more difficulties” to convince students of this history that he successfully “operated” such a device prior to September 7, 1927, but  this is the feeble foundation on which the claims of Zworykin and RCA stand. More believable is the legend that whatever Zworykin attempted prior to 1930 was so dismal that his superiors at Westinghouse ordered him to “find something more useful” to work on.

Patent Litigation

The real story was revealed in a decision rendered by the U.S. Patent Office in 1935.

This is the litigation in which Zworykin challenged Claim 15 in Farnsworth’s patent #1,773,980, which describes the “electrical image.”  It’s worth reading this brief passage in its entirety:

An apparatus for television which comprises a means for forming an electrical image, and means for scanning each elementary area of the electrical image, and means for producing a train of electrical energy in accordance with the intensity of the elementary area of the electrical image being scanned.

That wording announces the arrival of electronic video on the planet.

There is no way to make, send, or receive a television signal without doing what that paragraph says. You can’t create an electronic television signal without first creating an “electrical image.”

The whole of RCA’s research effort – at an expense that David Sarnoff joked with Zworykin years later cost RCA more than $50 million – was an effort to pre-empt or  circumvent Claim 15. RCA’s attorneys went to great lengths to assert that the 1923 application would have created such an electrical image, and that Zworykin was therefore entitled to “make the count” embodied in the Claim.

That’s when RCA should have produced some… what’s it called? Oh yeah… evidence. But when it was time for RCA to prove that Zworykin had constructed and operated his system in 1923 – or 1924 or 1925 – there was no evidence submitted. No tubes were displayed, no laboratory journals entered into the record. There were only confusing and contradictory verbal accounts from Zworykin and two of his colleagues.

After considering all the testimony – and lack thereof – the patent examiners ruled in Interference #64,027 that “Zworykin has no right to make the count because it is not apparent that the device would operate to produce a scanned electrical image.”

The patent examiners were unequivocal in their decision: ‘Priority of invention is awarded to… Philo T. Farnsworth’ .

RCA appealed the case – and lost all their appeals. This pattern went on, over this and other patents, until RCA capitulated in 1939 and accepted a license from Farnsworth for the use of his patents – the first such license in the history of a company that was determined to “collect patent royalties, not pay them.”

Yet, here we are nearly seventy years later, still debating the merits of a patent that was awarded by a court of appeals in 1938 that validated a patent applied for in 1923 that was ruled inoperative in 1934.

Prevailing Contradictions

What we have is an application for a patent in 1923, an unsuccessful demonstration in “1924 or 25” with no conclusive documentation, and a patent interference ruling in 1934 that says the device was inoperative. Nevertheless, a patent was obtained in 1938 which compels otherwise scholarly observers to conclude that Zworykin was first.

A more discerning examination of the record reveals that Zworykin had the right idea (which he got from Boris Rosing) but just could not make it work – until he visited Farnsworth’s laboratory in 1930. As soon as he saw what Farnsworth had achieved, he got busy, duplicating Farnsworth’s equipment at the Westinghouse lab in Pittsburgh before moving on to RCA in Camden. He then built on Farnsworth’s work, as well as the work of other contributors to produce the Iconoscope.

Zworykin’s corporate benefactor, David Sarnoff, believed the Iconoscope gave him the leverage he needed to bring all the legal might of RCA to bear on Farnsworth. Sarnoff ultimately failed in that effort, and RCA was left with no choice but to accept a patent license from Farnsworth. Still we read time and again that Zworykin made modern television possible when he “invented the Iconoscope for RCA in 1923.” The facts are that Zworykin was not working for RCA in 1923, the Iconoscope did not exist at that time, and it is questionable whether Zworykin truly invented it at all.

Zworykin got some momentum going for RCA with the Iconoscope, but it was not until the Image Orthicon tube was introduced that the industry had the tool it really needed to bring the world into our living rooms.

The Image Orthicon – originally thought to be an RCA development –was actually descended from Farnsworth’s patent #2,087,683 which was the first to disclose a “low velocity” method of electron scanning. This lends further credence to the notion that everything that came after September 7, 1927 was an improvement on the concept proven that day – including Farnsworth’s own subsequent inventions.

That said, there is no question that much credit for refining all aspects of television technology goes to RCA engineers. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of individuals who contributed to the development of electronic video before television broadcasting reached the general public in the 1950s, and thousands more who have contributed to its advancement in the decades since. But refinement is not invention, and few inventions are a breakthrough of the magnitude manifest in Claim 15.

Who Cares?

Why is any of this important?  What difference does it make whether electronic television was first developed by a Russian émigré or a Mormon farm boy? And should it still matter almost a hundred years after the fact?

It matters because the suppression of the true story deprives us of some important knowledge of the human character. It tempts us to believe that progress is the product of institutions, not individuals. It tempts us to place our faith in those institutions, rather than on the humans within.

Invention is one of the most unique and compelling aspects of the human experience. From the moment the first ape picked up a bone and swung it like a club, the history of civilization has followed the path of invention.

Szent-Gyorgi put it best when he said, “Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.” Therein lies the operative definition of genius.

In Zworykin, we find a capable engineer, one who could see what others were doing and improve upon it. But in Farnsworth, we encounter the rarest breed of all, the gifted visionary who could see the obvious – and think up something entirely different. Obscuring his story and denying his contribution deprives us our understanding of this critically important facet of the human character.

The ancient dream of a unified planet came true with the moonwalk in 1969, as hundreds of millions of people around the world tuned in to witness the event. At the other extreme there are the routine daily programs that cater to “the lowest common denominators” of our society. But even these daily panderings to common culture are somehow elevated when reconsidered with the knowledge that the medium itself is a consequence of individual genius rather than corporate engineering.

The belief that video – the most pervasive medium of the past millennium and perhaps the next – was “too complex to be invented by a single individual” deprives us of the knowledge of the noble individual whose unique intellect made it all possible. There are only a few such souls in each century, men like Tesla, Armstrong, and Einstein whose lives are an enduring expression of Szent-Gyorgi’s axiom.

When he saw how the mad scientists of the 19th century tried to send pictures through the air with spinning disks and mirrors, it was Philo Farnsworth who figured out how to replace all the moving parts with the electron itself.  He was the first to have the right idea and make it work.

Television is our blessing and our curse.  Whatever we may be watching, it’s useful to recall the genius that is reawakened every time we turn on a TeeVee.