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Zworykin v. Farnsworth Part I: The Strange Story of TV's Troubled Origin

Zworykin v. Farnsworth Part I: The Strange Story of TV's Troubled Origin

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Published by Frank Lovece
Video magazine (August 1985) By Frank Lovece. Correction appended.
Video magazine (August 1985) By Frank Lovece. Correction appended.

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Published by: Frank Lovece on Jun 07, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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02/21/2015

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wn
Famswmth
Part
I
ByFrank
Lovece
The
strange
story
of
TV's
trMed
origins
ingthe
Legend-kept
drowninghim
out.
The
Legend
has
begun
to
crumbleonlynow,through reappraisal
of
neglected
doc-
uments, freshtalks
with
colleagues
and
family members,and
two
important
dis-coveries: the manuscriptof.Zworykin's
un-
published
autobiography,and
a
series oflong-hiddenvideotaped
interviews
con-
ducted
by
videopioneer
Chuck
Azar
to-
ward theend of.Zworykin'slife.
Altogether
they
reveal
that
through
most
of,
Zwory-kin'stenure
at
RCA-until
hisoffice
was
one day unceremoniouslyshut
down-the
humble
scientist toed
the
conglomerate'sofficial
line. Yetthe"fatherof
television"
always
knew,
and
it
bothered
him,
that
for
the
millions
of
dollars RCApumped
into
TV,
there
wasalways
another
man.
Thisother
was
not
a
corporate
scientist
hke
Zworykinbut
a
frontier
maverickwho
didn't
realize
the 20thcentury
was noplace
for
lone
inventors.
Yet
on
a
budget
with farfewer
zeroesthan
Zworylnn's,
the maver-
ick
matched
his
esteemedcompetitor
stride
forstride.
RCAczarDavid
Sarnoff
tried
to
buy
outthat
maverick.
Failingthat,he
had
RCA
try
to
claim
priorrights
inthe
maverick's
key
patent.And
failing
that,Sarnoffand
RCA
kept
upyears
of
costly
legalbattles
until
finally,
for
perhapsthe
first
time
in
Sarnoffslife,
he
was
forcedto
surrender.Then,
using
the
same
ironfist
that
crushed
FM-radio
developer
Edwin
Armstrong,
he
rolledout
a
propagandama-
chine meant
to
insure
that
RCA'sLegend,and
notthe maverick,would live
on.
The ironyisthattherealstory
ismuchmore legendary
than
the Legend
itself.
It'sa
screenwriter'sfantasy,partReds,partFrank
Capra. Ratherthan
diminishZwory-
kin's
stature,
it
humanizes
him
andgives
cluestohis
inspiration.Just
as
important,
it
gives
creditto
a
quintessentiallyAmerican
inventorby the
name
of
Philo
T.
Farns-
worth.
It
becomes,
in fact,
lessa taleof
two
inventorsthan
thestory of
how
sci-
enceslid
from
the
19thcentury
into
the
20th.
EorlyVisions
Televisionwas
always
a
part
of
that
slide. Thoughthe notion
ofimagesin
crys-
tal
ballsand magic
mirrors
hadbeen
in
humankind'scollective
consciousness
for
centuries,
the
idea
of
"television"
is
a
l9th-century
conceit.
The
origin
of
the
word
itself
is
speculative. Pioneer
sci-homas
Edisonnever
existed.
Neither
did the
WrightBroth-
ers
or
Alexander
Graham
Bell.
They
gave
us
sweat and
in-
tellect,
of
course, butwhatwe
want
to
believe
in
are
the
legends.
Nevermind
that
Edison
had
regiments
of
assis-
tants,or thattheWright
Brothers
relied
on
yearsof other
people'sresearchas muchas
their
own. Bell?Hegothis
ideas
fromthetelegraph, not
heaven.
Tucked
somewhere
between
GeorgeWashington's
cherry tree
and
the
Ringling
Brothers'
unicorn liestheLegendof
Tele-
vision.
It
goes
like
this:
Whilethere
wasnosingie
inventor,
a
Russian-Americanscien-
tist
named
Vladimir
Zworyl<rnis
"thefather
of
television.
"
He
inventeda
TV-camera
tube
called
the
iconoscope
in
1923.
Ormaybe1925.
With hispicturetube,
thekinescope,
he
completedthe
first
practical
electronic
TV
system
n
1924.
Or
maybe1925.
Or
1928.(Legends
are
so
hard
topin
down.
)Zworykin
and
staff, under the
aegis
ofRCA
czar DavidSarnoff, almostsingle-
handedly
broughttelevisionout
of
the
two-
cans-and-a-stringstage.
RCA rolled
on
togtveAmerica
its firstTV
sets
andpro-
grams
startingat
the
1939
World's
Fair.
This isthe
LegendofTelevision.Likemost,
it's
essentiallyuntme.
Zworyl<tn,
who
died
in
1982,didpossess
a
brilliant
and
unorthodoxmind which
con-
jured
many
of
themostcritical elements
of
the modern
TV
set.
His
and
RCA's
contri-
butions
not
just
to
TV
but
toevery
facet
ofelectro-optics
are
incalculable.
Yet:
"the
father
of
television"?Zworykin
himself
kept
sayinghe
couldn't
pass
the
blood
test.But
a
larger
voice-the
voice
of
RCA
tout-
 
ence-fiction
publisherHugo
Gernsback
rs
said
to
haveAnglicized
it
from the
French
term
around
thiscentury's
first
decade;
a
Russian,Constantin
Perskyi,
previouslyused
it
in
a
paperhepresented
in
Parisin1900. As earlyas
1907
the
word
appeared
in
Scienffic
American.
In
anycase,
it
was
withthe
1837
emer-
gence
of the
telegraph
that
inventors
all
overtheworld startedto
pokearound
for
this
thing-with-no-name.
By the
1840s
they'd
alreadyfound
the
first
clues:
still-picture
transmission
overwires.
To
accomplish
thisthey
came
up
withthe
no-
tion
of
"scanning,
"
wherein
animage
is
sent
andreproducedone
lineata
time.
That's the
way
TV
sets
work
eventoday.Some30years
later
a
British
telegraph
operator
named
Joseph
May
discovered
thattheelement
seleniumrespondselec-
tncally
to
light-the
stronger
the
light
you
throw
on
it,
thestrongertheelectricalcur-
rent
you
get.
Thisgot
peoplethink-ing: light
falling
on
a
mosaic
of
selenium
cells could
beturnedinto
correspondingbits of
electricity.
(Thiselectricaloutput
is
called
the
"photoelectric
effect,
"
andthemosaics
"photoelectric
cells.
")At
there-
ceivingend,
as
the
idea
evolved,would
be
aglassscreen.
Television
stood
in this
theoretical
mistuntil
1884.
Thatyear
Paul
Nipkow,
a
Pom-
eranianengineerstudying
in
Berlin,
ob-tained
a
Germanpatent
for
a
disc
with
lots
of
holesin
a
spiral
pattern.Nipkow
figuredthis disc,
spinning
furiously,
could
"scan"
a
subjectpoint
by
point.The resultingpoints
of
light
couldbe
turnedinto electricalener-
gy
and sent
in
a
rapid stream
to
a
photoelectricmosaic.
At
thereceiving
end
would
spin
a
second,synchronizeddiscin
front
of which
rested
aglass
platewhere,
theoretically,
a
picture
wouldappear.
I
say
"theoretically"
because
there'sno
evi-dence
Nipkow
actually
built
one
of
these
contraptions.
Nonetheless,
somebody
along
theline
had
thegreat
idea
to
callthisinvention
"the
Nipkow
disc,
"
and
for
the
next
few
decades
hordes
of
inventors
would
use
thismechanicallyoperated
opti-
cal
disc
as
the
basis
for
so-called
"mechani-
cal" television
systems.
It
would
be
almost
40
YearsbeforeFarnsworthand
Zworykin
would
decide,
separately,tobreakfromthathorde.
Theycould
see
the
dead
enddown
mechanical
TV's
road.
They
alsocouldsee
that
theexpandingscience
of
physics
couldbringsomething
better:
electronic
TV.
It
maybe
easytoday
to
tellthe
differencebetween,
say,
amechanicalSuper-8
movie
camera
and anelectronicvideo
camera-butit
wasn'tat
all apparent
in the
daysof
hand-
crank
Victrolas.
It
wouldn't
have beenapparenteven
toFarnsworth
and
Zworykinwere
it
notfor
some
previous
serendipitousdiscoveries.
It
was
Britain'sSir
WilliamCrookes,for
instance,
who
discovered
that
cathode
rays-which
wouldbecome
the
highway
carryingvideosignals-could
exist
in
a
vacuum
tube.
It
was
Karl
FerdinandBraun
70
Video
Vladimir
Kosma
Zworykin
in
1929
(aboue)
and
1940 demonstrating
"
the
first"
electronic
TV
using
a
kinescope
picture
tube
and
iconoscope
(right).
whofound
a
way
of
magneticallycontrolling
electron
beams
inside Crookes'
cath-
ode-ray
tube(CRT).
And
it
was
Russian
physicist
Boris
Rosing
who
in
1907
pro-
posed
(and
laterpatented)
a
mechanical
TV
system
with
a
Braun
CRT.All this
seems
to
haveprompted
a
prescient
ScotsmannamedAlan
A.
Campbell-Swinton
to
sug-
gest-first
in a
1908
lettertothe
editor,
then
in a
1911
presentation-that
CRTs
could
be
used
both
as
a
transmitter
(camera
tube)
and
a
receiver
(picture
tube).Campbell-Swintonwas a
greatthinker,
but
he
didn'tfollow through.
He
never
con-
structedthe system
he
proposed.Howev-
er,if
you
lookat
today'svideo equipment
you'll
realize
that
it's
his system
we're
us-
ing.To
be
fair,
electronics
technology
wasn't
yet
up
to
Campbell-Swinton's
con-
cept;
Rosing's
own attempts
were
less
than
spectacular.
Funny
thing,
though.
They
inspired
Rosing's
prize
student,Vladimir
Kosma
Zworykin.
Grovitqtingto
Physics
That
Zworykin
became
more
interestedin
physicsthan
in thefamily
business
is
a
little
surprising.
His
fatherowned oneofthe
mostprosperoussteamshiplinesin
all
of
Czarist
Russia andyoungVladimir
thrived
onwatchinghim
negotiate.
It
was
straightout
of
Fanny
and
Alexander,thischildhood
of
sleighrides
and
plum
pud-
dings-the
very
stuff
conjuredby another
Russian's
Nutcracker
Suite.The
greatthree-story
house
in
Mourom,where
he
was
born
on
July
30,
1889,
was
so
huge
that
Vladimir,
hisparents,
and
those
of his
six
siblings
who
hadn't fled
thenest
lived,
with
nursemaidsandservants
running
around,
on the
second
floor only.Zwory-
kin's family
was amongthe
first
togetelec-
tricity
and
a
telephone.Blond and
blue-eyed Vladimirwas
a
smartprecociouskid.He hunted
and
ice-skated
like
his
peers-
but
hewas
also a
self-admitted
terror.
Heaccidently
burneddown
a
barn
once
with
some homemade
fireworks.That
and
other
episodesmay have
been
just
his
genes
crying
outfor
him
to
be
a
scientist.
In
his
unpublished
autobiogra-
phy,
dictated
and
transcribed
in the
mid-
1940s,
one
of
his
earliestmemories
in-volvesexploring
the
attic
and
finding
scien-
tific
papersbelonging
to
hislate uncle
lvan,
a
Moscowphysicist.Adding
nurture
to
na-
ture,
though,Zworykin'sfamily
always
sent
him
to
the best
schools.
There
he

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