Who invented television? A look back at the history of TV

Who invented television A look back at the history of TV

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Who invented television? Unfortunately for anyone looking for a quick answer, the first TV sets weren’t made by one single person — there were several inventors who were incredibly important to its creation and evolution.

Here’s a look back at some of the most important inventors and largest developments in the history of television.

We start with the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, who, over the past decades, has come to be appreciated as the father of modern-day television technology.

But there were people before him, too, using less-refined techniques that were really no less remarkable for their day.

You’ll also find out about how scientists and academics back in the 1930s were trying to come up with the perfect name for people who watched TV. They came up with several ideas — among them “televisioner” — but nobody thought of “viewer.”

Philo T Farnsworth operating his first portable television transmitter unit
Philo T Farnsworth operating his first portable television transmitter unit
Father of TV Philo Farnsworth is gone, almost forgotten (1977)

by James Buchanan – The Miami Herald (Florida) September 7, 1977

San Francisco — Fifty years ago today, Sept. 7, 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth entered television’s birth announcement in his journal: “The received line picture was evident this time.”

A few years later, San Francisco Examiner editor Thomas Hunan predicted the 202 Green St. site, at the base of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, would become “a monument commemorating his achievement.”

Today, Farnsworth is regarded by television buffs as somewhat of a cult hero. Yet, not even a plaque marks the almost-unchanged building where Farnsworth and a few associates played midwife at the birth of an invention that, both blessed and damned, has become an integral part of man’s existence.

Inventor Philo Farnsworth with his vintage television receiver

The young inventor — he’d turned 21 just before the successful test — lived a life that is the text-book example of the American success story.

There was the log cabin birth in a small Utah town. He was named after his pioneer Mormon grandfather, who came West with Brigham Young.

At the age of 11, his family left Indian Creek, Utah, via covered wagon, and traveled to Rigby, Idaho. The young boy was excited, “This place has electricity.”

Within weeks, he’d learned how electrical motors worked, how to repair generators. He scavenged old electrical parts and built electric motors to run his mother’s washing machine and some farm machinery.

Philo T Farnsworth - Arrangement of television image dissector

While still 12 years of age, he won $25 as first prize in a Science and Invention magazine contest. He built a thief-proof car lock. His son, Philo III, reports that a company is now manufacturing an almost identical lock.

In high school at the age of 15, he conceived of what he felt would be a practical idea for television.

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His son Philo, an inventor living in Bolinas, Calif., said the concept of scanning lines — the image on a modern TV screen is made up of just over 500 lines — came to his father as he sat atop an Idaho hill looking at the rows of growing crops stretching out before him.

Late one winter afternoon, the young inventor went to his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, and drew electrical diagrams on the blackboard outlining his plan for television.

Years later, Tolman’s ability to recall and recreate those drawings weighed heavily in a patent dispute Farnsworth waged successfully against one of the giant electronic corporations.

Philo Farnsworth working in his lab

By the time Farnsworth was 19, he’d acquired a wife, Pam, and one financial backer, fundraiser George Everson.

With collateral consisting of no more than the ideas in Farnsworth’s brain, Everson and the young inventor managed to gain financial backing from a group of San Francisco investors, most of them connected with the Crocker bank.

By September 1927, that first test came. A year later, in September 1928, Farnsworth and his backers demonstrated the crude device for the press. San Francisco newspapers bannered the headline “SF Man’s Invention to Revolutionize Television.”

The history of television - Line detail

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The story told of a “queer-looking little image in a bluish light.” But it went on to say the basic principle was sound and perfection a matter of engineering. Farnsworth died in 1971. Most of his later years were spent with large electronic firms and his own company, developing and perfecting a variety of electronic devices.

His wife, Pem, said he was involved in development of a nuclear-fusion process at the time of his death. Farnsworth held more than 150 U.S. and 100 foreign patents. His television patents included scanning, focusing, contrasting, controls and power.

Today, his wife, son Philo T. Farnsworth III, and some survivors of his old Green Street lab crew, will gather at Foothill College, Los Altos. There, at the Electronics Museum, his original equipment will be unveiled.

The old tubes will warm after Pam turns them on, and once again television’s first picture, a simple line etched on a plate of glass, will be re-broadcast.

Philo T Farnsworth with his TV

Philo Farnsworth: Tube replaces disc in television setup of young inventor (1928)

The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) October 29, 1928

News story - Philo Farnsworth (1928)
Television without scanning disc and motor has resulted from experiments made by Philo T. Farnsworth, 22-year-old San Francisco inventor. Their place is taken by a specially designed tube. Above in the Farnsworth transmitter, and at the lower left is the new transmitting tube.

San Francisco, Oct. 28 (AP) —  Transmission of 20 pictures a second, without moving mechanical elements, is accomplished by a new television process devised by Philo T. Farnsworth, 22 year old inventor of San Francisco.

The scanning discs at transmitter and receiver of other systems, which must be synchronized to revolve in unison, are done away with. Instead electron beams are produced by cross vibrations to form an image on a fluorescent screen at the receiver.

Philo Farnsworth - Inventor of television

The entire picture or image of any object that is to be transmitted is reproduced almost instantaneously with 8000 elements or “pin points of light” in each picture to give detail.

The number of elements can be increased indefinitely, but at the present stage of development, the sharpest image is obtained with that degree of detail. It is equivalent to a newspaper half-tone with a 100 line screen.

The system is built around a special “image dissector cell.” This is a vacuum tube containing a cathode coasted with photoelectric material, preferably potassium or caesium hydride. The picture is focused on this plate, which at every point gives off electrons in proportion to the light shining on it. These electrons form an electric counterpart of the image cast upon the plate.

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Vintage Philo Farnsworth - TV inventor

The electric image is produced it the plane of a tiny aperture which collects at one instant only the electrons having a single emitting point on the cathode. Therefore, when the electric image is stationary, a current is produced in the output of the tube, which varies in magnitude with the light incident on perhaps the center of the cathode plate.

This electric image may be move magnetically over the collecting aperture, so that the aperture receives in succession and in regular order the electrons from each point on the cathode plate.

Synchronizing involves generating two currents at the receiver identical to those at the transmitter used for scanning or breaking the image into pin points of light. The synchronization is automatic.

The first TV camera set up in Farnsworth's TV laboratory
The first TV camera set up in Farnsworth’s TV laboratory

The transmitting tube is about the size of an ordinary quart jar. The receiving tube containing the screen is no larger.

The inventor estimates that the receiving apparatus could easily be attached to an ordinary receiver and manufactured to retail at $100 or less.

For the last three years, Farnsworth has been perfecting his system in the Crocker Research laboratory. His efforts being financed by two San Francisco business men, R.N. Bishop and W.W. Crocker.

Philo Farnsworth in 1939
Philo T. Farnsworth, who conceived the principle of television when 14 years old came before the Temporary National Economic Committee and told them that his firm, Farnsworth Television, Inc., has taken out 46 patents, has twice as many pending, and that more than 20 patent suits have resulted in which his firm was cleared in each case. Farnsworth is Vice President in charge of research in the Philadelphia firm. He is shown here with George Everson, Secretary of the company on his right, and Richard C. Patterson, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Commerce. 1/19/39

Before Farnsworth: How television was invented & introduced in the ’20s & ’30s (1927)

The Literary Digest – May 28, 1927

The engineering profession, according to The Electrical World (New York), is the body of men who are to be congratulated on the achievement of television.

Making use of principles already widely known, they have simply developed and devised machinery to make these effective, and have sensibly limited their efforts to a small field.


An engineering achievement

Demonstration of television was an engineering achievement of the first magnitude — one of which deserved the wide-spread acclaim brought to it by the popular nature of its appeal. Various experimenters in this field have in the past shown laboratory apparatus which it was hoped would some time produce vision at a distance.

The telephone engineers, avoiding premature announcements, have made their initial appearance in this field with surprisingly complete apparatus. With it they have actually demonstrated television in operation over hundreds of miles of intervening space.

Not content with its demonstration by a single medium of transmission, they have shown television both by wire and by radio. They have also developed several forms of receiving apparatus suited to the varying requirements of individual employment, such as would be needed in an ordinary telephone conversation, and to perception of the distant object by a considerable audience.

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Antique early cathode ray television set (1929)

Inventors and prophets have envisioned it

It is noteworthy of television, as the telephone engineers have worked it out, that the solution follows closely the lines that inventors and prophets have visioned for at least a generation.

The recent striking demonstration was not the result of any radically new discovery, but rather an achievement made possible by the general growth of science and technical contributions of a high order which have vastly extended the range of control of essential factors.

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Such, for example, are the photoelectric cell, the distortion-less vacuum-tube amplifier and the transmitting networks of predetermined characteristics, without which the ideas of a few decades ago, however sound, could not have borne fruit.

What the telephone engineers have done is to study intensively each element of the problem and apply to its solution the best means now available through modern science and engineering. It is an achievement of coordinated research and development of a kind possible only in a great research institution possessing facilities for the adequate study of every element of the problem.

In the case of television, these elements embrace everything from the details of terminal equipment, which can be studied in the laboratory, to a knowledge and control of the transmission characteristics of lines and radio channels.

Limitations of physical means

Another aspect of this achievement of particular interest to engineers is the nice balance which has been struck between the goal sought — in this case, the kind of scene which it has been chosen to transmit — and the limitations set by the physical means available. There has been much popular talk and discussion of transmitting such extended and complicated scenes as prize-fights, stage performances, and the like.

Anything as extensive and ambitious as this would require the transmission of an enormous band of frequencies far beyond the present capacity of a single pair of telephone wires or any radio channel now available. To transmit clearly such a relatively small and simple object as the human face requires a much narrower band of frequencies and one reasonably within the possibilities of present knowledge.

The fact that the peculiar problems of the telephone company are likely to be involved primarily with the adequate transmission of views of the human face makes its immediate television problem a simpler one than that which confronts those who seek to provide a distant vision of a pageant.

The AT&T television system

At the moment, the television system which the American Telephone & Telegraph Company has worked out utilizes substantially the entire available range of a high-class long-distance telephone circuit. As the demonstration showed, the rendering of the human face in animation is adequate, whether viewed in an individual apparatus or more than life size on a screen.

The avidity with which members of the audience, and even the telephone company officials themselves, utilized the transmitted image as an adjunct to their telephone conversations with Washington indicated very forcibly the probability that television must in the future be considered seriously as a desirable addition to existing communication services.

That it is ever likely to form part of the regular subscriber’s telephone equipment is hardly probable, since the element of distant vision is not required in the great majority of conversations. That a limited number of special television terminals may be provided in each large center of population for use in connection with long-distance telephony seems, however, quite within the range of present engineering and commercial possibilities.

The new technology of 1930: Television unveiled

by Robert Joyce Tasker – Screen Mirror June 1930

Imagine a fire… hot, blistering, roaring and raging through a tenement district, impelled on a hurricane of its own making — the television broadcasting station cuts in on their program with this startling announcement.

“Searing thousands of impoverished tenement dwellers, a monster fire has broken out on the East Side. Television cameras are now being focused on the scene of the tragedy. Stand by for the television broadcast of the terrific East Side fire… ”

On your screen comes a whirl of smoke. People run like purposeless ants. The red tongue of flame licks up through the smoke. A crash… charred timbers snarl themselves in crazy figures… precipitate themselves earthward in a shower of stinging sparks and flames… shrieks spell some piteous creature’s end…

Secretary of Labor William N. Doak examining a television receiver 1931
Secretary of Labor William N. Doak and his secretary, W.W. King, examining a television receiver in their office in Washington, DC (1931)

Impossible? It was considered a joke… ephemeral… wild… impossible. But no wild fancy this. Crank scientists once boasted that instantaneous transmission of sight and sound were possible. We guffawed at them, you and I. Were their peculiar, elusive minds less occupied by mad dreams which become facts tomorrow, the scientists might now be laughing at you… and me. For television is here.

Civilization’s great leap forward

In England, television has become so far developed that during any hour of day or night, owners of television receiving sets throughout Europe or the British Isles can receive the transmissions from London or Brookman’s Park. Plays, events, personages, are seen and heard. John L. Baird, British inventor, godfather of television, sells television receiving sets for the equivalent of $125.00.

One step further… the great American electrical laboratories are busy with the perfection of television cameras for news service. The possibilities tapped are staggering. 

Nothing in all the world can be kept from the public… if… If the public wakens to the things which television can do for it, how the literal truth of things which happen can be brought over the television… and if the public demands of the government that the new medium of news transmission be kept unpolluted — then the greatest educational, informative, enlightening step of all time will have been made. Civilization will have made a great leap forward.

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The unvarnished truth

The great moving picture, All Quiet on the Western Front, stunned us… for it showed people whom even yet some of us were inclined to believe brutish… and showed them as humans, such as we are… struggling with things none of us can quite comprehend… fighting blindly… uselessly.

With the war hysteria now totally gone, we realize — cynically — how propaganda, and a meager, lying part of the truth, came to us through official channels. Now… while our minds are cool… let us demand that there shall be television broadcasting from every battlefield. The facts must not be concealed.

Imagine watching the battlefield… seeing your own son, crusted with mud and vermin… drawn and exhausted, fighting the unseen enemy, who lies in wait beyond the cold, gas-soured muck and slime… . and suddenly comes the alarming scream of a shell… an explosion… your own son lying mangled before you. That would end war forever.

But, beware! We have other great mediums which might give us unvarnished truth… truth of the sort we are trying to give you here… and those mediums have become perverted to what television may mean! Don’t let it be perverted! Let every American citizen feel that here is something which is intrinsically his… that he must keep it his.

If every man feels that, then it will be easier for petty politicians to keep their new possession inviolate, a little more difficult to sell television into the hands of falseness. What the talking picture did to the world theatrical, is nothing to what television is going to do. Whereas the talking pictures came slowly, television is certain to hit with a crash, over all America.

Popular Mechanics Aug 1930 First TV show

Still a need for motion picture theaters

The first violent effects, if television went onto the air with no limitations, would be that theatres would fall by the wayside. No matter what the plan of procedure turns out to be, there is going to be a painful reorganization. Business in America faces the possibility of a huge loss in buildings and equipment… losses which business is perfectly justified in evading, if possible. Fortunately, a perfectly logical plan was foreseen by businessmen for preserving much of the wreckage.

Over a year ago, Harold B. Frank, President of the Fox West Coast Theatres, wrote, “It is really not to be expected, after all, that the American family will be content to sit at home by the fireside and be entirely satisfied with the entertainment that may be sent through the air by means of television.

Without arguing the point further, let me say merely that this fact is recognized by even so an important organization as the Radio Corporation of America, which is conducting experiments with television. Only recently, the corporation has become interested in a theatrical enterprise involving many millions. It is only fair to deduce that those who are closest to television apparently feel that the motion picture theatre is here to stay.”

To explain those factors of which Harold B. Franklin wrote at more length elsewhere in his book, “Sound Motion Pictures,” the present plan is to have but twelve projection rooms in all America. Each projection room, with many machines, each projecting a different program, will control a circular area, the twelve stations being scattered over the entire continent. The theatre will ask for whatever picture it wishes to show, and will be plugged in on that circuit.

It is as simple as that. The only movies available to the home fans will be “second run” subjects, or unimportant pictures, a condition which prevails now.

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Popular Mechanics Aug 1930 First television show

Invasion of the talking pictures

To attack the effect of television from another phase of theatrical life, let me show what is coming to the legitimate stage. Everyone knows of the unhappy state in which the legitimate stage has been since the invasion of the talking pictures.

The first result was, that with painfully rare exceptions, stage plays were designed in hope that the movies would pick them up. Consequently, the patrons of legitimate houses were treated to the sorry spectacle of movie themes behind footlights. The two mediums call for treatment as different as the opera and the revue. The attempt to squeeze a little profit from the plays by using movie themes produced such junk that patronage declined still further.

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At the present time, the traditions of the theatre rest entirely in the keeping of amateur players and little playhouses. Even these institutions are suffering from the sour odor clinging around the professional stage. The amateur houses, from which has emanated much of our best movement in the theatrical world, will never recover full strength until their sickened Siamese twin, the legitimate stage, is cured — or amputated.

Television is the knife that will effect the amputation. When the demand begins, as it will shortly, for players in flesh and blood — the only type available for television-by-air to the home — the legitimate stage will move over, bag and baggage, producer and designer, player and musician, to the stronghold of television.

The Screen Mirror realizes that this exposition of television strikes a lone, clear note — for no one seems to have caught the mysterious significance of monster fortunes maneuvering in the dark background. We step forward boldly for we are dealing with facts. Television, the greatest force that will come into your life… is here — and to stay!

early television set TV

TV Looks Back at 3-Inch Screen of 1927 (1956)

Industry Begins 30th year Saturday — Older than Eddie Fisher — Herbert Hoover first star

by Edward Mitchell – The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) Ap il 3, 1956

Next Saturday is an important anniversary for millions of television viewers. It begins the 30th year of TV as a public venture and the type of medium by which we know it today.

It was April 7, 1927 that the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. brought forth the results of years of laboratory experiments. Those experiments incorporated developments and inventions dating back to 1884.

Who do you think the stars of TV were on that historic day in 1927?

One was a man later to become President Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce.

The other was a vaudeville comedian identified by the impromptu TV critics of the day only as “A. Dolan.”

Vintage TV studio in 1928

Eddie Fisher? Ha! He wasn’t even born yet!

The first public demonstration of TV was held in the Bell Telephone Laboratories at 55 Bethune St., New York, where reporters and scientists had assembled.

Mr. Hoover was in Washington. Standing before an array of cumbersome, complicated scanning disks, photoelectric cells and hot lights he made a speech. The people in New York crowded around a three-inch screen. They saw him. They heard him.

Robert Montgemery had not yet gone to Washington. So, although the mechanical experiment was a success, Mr. Hoover was a flop.

Wrote one critic: “At times the face of the Secretary could not be clearly distinguished. He looked down as he read his speech and held the microphone up so that it covered most of the lower part of his countenance. There was too much illumination also in the background of the screen. When he moved his face, his features became clearly distinguishable. Near the close of the talk he turned his head to one side and in profile became clear and full of detail.”

The transmission of Mr. Hoovers image and voice was by wire from Washington to New York. But a few minutes later, the antics of “A. Dolan” were televised to the laboratory with- out benefit of wires from Whippany, N.J.

Dolan, with side whiskers and a broken pipe, did a monologue in brogue. Then he disappeared from the screen, only to return a minute later with a blackface act.

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Big Thing in Times

The New York Times of the following morning made quite a thing of the experiment. The story was carried two-columns wide at the top of the front page.

But after acclaiming the TV test in big type The Times goofed — prophet-wise.

A black subhead ever the story read “Commercial Use in Doubt.”

In all fairness, it must be pointed out that The Times’ subhead held true for nearly 14 years. It was 1941 before TV was developed to the point where commercial programs began to be licensed.

But non-commercial, regularly scheduled shows were being carried by General Electric’s WGY in Schenectady as early as 1928.

First Spectacular

TVs first “spectacular” came Sept. 11, 1928. WGY offered the first TV drama in history — a 40-minute one-act play called “The Queen’s Messenger.” An invited audience saw it on a screen the size of a postcard.

Nov. 18, 1929 brought the introduction of the cathode ray tube, which eliminated the whirling, noisy disks from receivers. The new tubes were up to five inches in diameter.

Most receivers in those days were owned by the companies experimenting with TV trans-mission or by advanced electronics amateurs and students.

The basic idea of the scanning disk which the cathode tube replaced is the invention that dates back to 1884. The inventor was Paul Nipkow, a German.

It’s this fellow Nipkow that the Russians have since tried to discredit. The Reds began arguing several years ago that Nipkow merely improved on a Russian invention. This was part of the Russian campaign to prove that everything worth anything had been invented by Russians.

But it’s a pointless argument.

Several historians of the electronics industry say Nipkow was a Russian who had moved to Germany.

By 1931 scientists and college professors were into an academic wrangle over just what we TV fans should be known as in the years to come. The radio editor of the Times suggested that 20 years hence we would be called ‘observers.’ Some other names suggested were “televisioner,” “teleseer,” and “viseur.”

One professor insisted that we would be known as just plain “lookers.” Nobody suggested the name we finally became known by — “viewers.”

Better Guess

But the prophets were not always so wrong.

In 1931, Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., The Times radio editor, wrote a book called “The Outlook for Television.” He noted then that “it will be many a year before the Harvard-Yale game is played with no spectators in attendances because they are all at home looking in. As long as the game is played there will always be the football crowd that prefers to be on the scene rather than as the screen. And so it will be with other sports events.”

Dr. Ernst F. W. Alexanderson, a scientist who helped nurse TV through its infancy. predicted that fans would come to be known as “radio spectators.”

Dr. Alexanderson came a bit closer to hitting the nail on the head when he said in a news- paper interview of 1930: “Television will be a great asset to politicians… The day is likely to come when candidates for President of the United States will campaign by television. The winner may be elected because of a winning smile that enters the homes of millions.”

All gadgets, very little picture made Jack red-eyed. Early TV fan (1928) sits before tiny screen (behind peephole in upper center of middle cabinet.) Sound came separately over radio.

TV history: Milestones in tlevision

April 7, 1927 — First public demonstration of television.

Sept. 11, 1928 — First TV drama offered.

June 27, 1929 — Color television first demonstrated.

Nov. 18, 1928 — Cathode ray tube, introduced.

April 26, 1931 — Station W2XCR goes on air in New York.

June 3, 1931 — First telecast of horse race. (English Derby. Epsom Downs)

Feb. 23, 1939 — First telecast of prizefight (Boon vs. Danahar, London.)

May 17, 1939 — Baseball game televised first time (Princeton vs. Columbia.)

1945 — First coaxial cable completed, image orthicon pick-up tube developed.

November, 1947 — Boston linked to New York by microwave stations.

ALSO SEE: 50 vintage television sets from the 1950s: Wonders of the world in black & white

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