Zworykin, Vladimir

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Vladimir Zworykin

Excerpt of an interview with Vladimir Zworykin

    Conducted by Mark Heyer and Al Pinsky, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, July 4, 1975

    Available online at

Electrical engineer Vladimir Zworykin is one of the most important figures in the creation and development of television technology. During his twenty-five years as the director of television research at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), he helped make the television industry a reality in the United States.

"Of course the picture was very primitive," Zworykin recalled of the first demonstration of his electronic television system in the 1920s. "We were able to transmit some geometric figures and move them before the photographic camera and receive them on the Kinescope."

Zworykin was born in Russia in 1889. He first became interested in television as a student at the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology in Russia during the 1910s. Zworykin served as an assistant to Professor Boris Rosing, a respected physicist (a scientist who studies the behavior of energy and matter). At this time, scientists around the world were just beginning to develop systems for transmitting live, moving pictures across a distance. Like most other researchers working on the problem in these early years, Rosing and Zworykin developed a mechanical television transmitter. Mechanical TV systems used spinning metal disks with holes in them to continuously measure the amount of light reflected off a moving image. The holes sent electrical signals, which varied in strength depending on the amount of light hitting them, across a wire to a similar device at the other end. The second device reversed the process and turned the electrical signals back into light, creating a crude representation of the moving image at the other end of the wire.

Rosing was one of the first researchers to develop an electronic device (one that had no moving parts, and instead worked entirely by using the properties of electricity) called a cathode ray tube to receive and display television signals. A cathode is a filament inside a sealed glass tube, sort of like those found in lightbulbs. When the filament is heated, it forms a vacuum, or an empty space that does not contain any matter. A cathode ray is a stream of electrons that pours off the cathode into the vacuum. Rosing and Zworykin used electrical circuits to focus these electrons into a beam and shoot them toward a flat screen at one end of the tube. The inside of the screen was coated in phosphor, a substance that emits light, or glows, when struck by a beam of radiation.

After studying X-ray technology with physicist Paul Langevin in Paris, Zworykin moved to the United States in 1919. He took a job as a researcher with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Over the next several years, he helped develop radio technology and worked on ways to improve the light sensitivity and electrical output of photoelectric cells. Zworykin also worked toward a doctoral degree in electrical engineexring at the University of Pittsburgh during this time, receiving his Ph.D. in 1926.

Inventing the Iconoscope and Kinescope

Around 1923, Zworykin created an all-electronic television camera tube he called the Iconoscope. The Iconoscope worked by reflecting the light from a moving image onto a special plate. This plate was coated with tiny dots, or pixels, of a chemical that was sensitive to light. When the light swept across the pixels, they would become electrically charged. The charge varied in strength depending on the amount of light that hit each pixel. In this way, Zworykin's Iconoscope television camera converted a visual image into an electrical signal without the need for the spinning wheels used in mechanical television systems.

Zworykin demonstrated an early version of the Iconoscope for his bosses at Westinghouse. They were not impressed with the small, hazy image the camera supposedly created, however, and suggested that he find a more practical topic for his research. But Zworykin continued pursuing his interest in television, even if he had to conduct experiments in the laboratory at night or on weekends.

In 1928 Zworykin invented an improved version of the cathode ray television picture tube he called the Kinescope. He successfully used this device to receive and display the TV signals from his Iconoscope camera. One of the people who heard about Zworykin's television research was David Sarnoff (1891–1971; see Chapter 1), an ambitious businessman who had recently become the acting president of RCA. RCA was the leading producer of radios in the United States, and Sarnoff was determined to make it a leader in the television industry as well.

Going to work for RCA

In 1929 Sarnoff hired Zworykin as the head of television research at RCA. The following year, the U.S. government awarded a patent (a form of legal protection for an invention) to American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (1906–1971) for an all-electronic television system. A short time later, Sarnoff sent Zworykin to visit Farnsworth's laboratory and check out his inventions. Farnsworth gladly gave the prominent engineer a tour and let Zworykin examine a model of his television camera, called the Image Dissector.

Who Really Invented Television?

Historians still debate about who should receive the credit for inventing electronic television technology. Although many scientists and researchers made important contributions, the controversy usually comes down to RCA engineer Vladimir Zworykin and independent inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. Zworykin first applied for a patent on his Iconoscope television camera tube in 1923. But the U.S. Patent Office did not grant the patent to Zworykin, because the inspectors decided there was not enough proof that this early camera system ever worked.

In 1930, the agency awarded a patent to Farnsworth for a similar television camera tube called the Image Dissector. Farnsworth had originally come up with the idea in 1920, when he was fourteen years old, and showed detailed drawings of the device to his high school science teacher. He had also conducted a well-documented successful test of his system on September 7, 1927.

Shortly after Farnsworth received his patent, Zworykin visited the young inventor's laboratory and examined his invention. The following year, RCA decided to challenge Farnsworth's patent in court. Although the court finally ruled in favor of Farnsworth and forced RCA to pay one million dollars for the right to use his technology, RCA president David Sarnoff continued to give his engineers full credit for inventing television. Author Paul Schatzkin outlined the ongoing controversy in The Farnsworth Chronicles:

The historical record with regard to "who invented television" remains fuzzy at best, deliberately distorted at worst. The debate often comes down to a simple question: Does 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 [telegraph inventor Samuel] Morse, [electric light inventor Thomas] Edison, [telephone inventor Alexander Graham] Bell, or [airplane inventors] the Wright brothers?

The question may be simple, but clearly the answer is not. Before Uncle Milty [early TV variety show host Milton Berle], before [TV journalist and news anchor] Walter Cronkite, before Lucy and Desi and Ethel and Fred [of the 1950s TV comedy I Love Lucy], 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 individual and say, "It all started here?"

The historical record is sadly devoid of [lacking] references to Farnsworth. Though the oversight has begun to improve in recent years, it is still entirely possible to open an encyclopedia and read that electronic television began when "Vladimir Zworykin invented the Iconoscope for RCA in 1923"…. Some historians have gone so far as to suggest that Farnsworth and Zworykin should be regarded as "co-inventors." But that conclusion ignores Zworykin's 1930 visit to Farnsworth's lab, where many witnesses heard Zworykin say "I wish that I might have invented it." Moreover, it ignores the conclusion of the patent office, in its 1935 decision …, which states quite clearly "priority of invention awarded to Farnsworth." These misinterpretations of the historical record are precisely what more than sixty years of corporate public relations wants us to believe—that television "was too complex to be invented by a single individual"….

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, though that is precisely what the proponents of the "co-inventor" theory of the origins of television would like us to accept.

Why is any of this important? Who really cares who invented television? What difference does it make whether electronic television was first developed by a Russian émigré [immigrant] or a Mormon farm boy? And should it still matter seventy years after the fact?

It matters because the suppression [hiding] 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 [large organizations like companies, universities, and the government], not individuals. It tempts us to place our faith in those institutions, rather than in ourselves.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to buy Farnsworth's invention, Sarnoff decided to challenge Farnsworth's patents in court. RCA filed a lawsuit claiming that Zworykin had invented his electronic television system first. They asked the court to throw out Farnsworth's TV patents and award the rights to the invention to Zworykin instead. The patent battles between Farnsworth and RCA continued throughout the 1930s. After hearing testimony from Farnsworth's high school science teacher—to whom Farnsworth, at age fourteen, had shown his original drawing of an electronic television system—the U.S. Patent Office concluded that Farnsworth had indeed invented electronic television before Zworykin. For the first time in its history, RCA was forced to pay a fee (called a royalty) for the right to use technology created by an independent inventor.

Despite the fact that RCA lost the patent battle, Zworykin continued making important contributions to the development of television. In the late 1930s he introduced an improved type of television camera called the Image Orthicon. Since this camera was more sensitive than the Iconoscope, television performers were no longer required to work under extremely bright, hot lights. Zworykin retired from active research at RCA in 1954, but he remained with the company as a technical consultant. By the time of his retirement, around 30 million television sets in use across the United States included parts that he had helped develop. Zworykin also began pursuing a new area of interest—medical electronics—at Rockefeller University in New Jersey at this time.

In 1975, Zworykin agreed to be interviewed for the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Oral History Project. In his talk with interviewers Mark Heyer and Al Pinsky, which is excerpted below, Zworykin discusses his career at Westinghouse and RCA. He recalls his creation of the Iconoscope television camera and the Kinescope television receiver. Zworykin also talks about studying under Boris Rosing and Paul Langevin, which helped give him an early interest in television research. He remembers meeting with David Sarnoff of RCA in 1929, and the first public demonstrations of TV broadcasting a decade later. Finally, Zworykin acknowledges his disappointment with the quality of television programming, and expresses concern about the image of the United States that TV projects to the rest of the world.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt of the interview with Vladimir Zworykin:

  • Some of Zworykin's phrasing may seem a bit unusual to modern readers, for a number of reasons. Since he was born in Russia, English was not his first language. In addition, this document is a transcript from an interview, and many people are not able to express their thoughts clearly in that kind of situation. Some of Zworykin's statements include technical terms that may not be familiar to people who are not trained in electrical engineering. Finally, Zworykin was eighty-five years old at the time he gave this interview, and many of the events he mentions took place five decades earlier.
  • When Zworykin first began experimenting with television systems, many people questioned the value of his research. Even his bosses at Westinghouse did not see much point in pursuing television technology. In response to critics who doubted whether television would ever serve a useful purpose, Zworykin once predicted that television cameras someday would be used to allow people on Earth to see the surface of the Moon. The engineer saw his prediction come true in 1969, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon. The historic event was broadcast live on television, and it was watched by 130 million people in the United States and 600 million more around the world.

Excerpt of the IEEE Vladimir Zworykin interview

Mark Heyer: In the first television work, what were the first problems that you worked on when you came to [RCA laboratories in] Camden [New Jersey]? You started working on television? Were you working on developing a picture tube?

Vladimir Zworykin: Yes. The first fall [1929], it was to find out why the mechanical television seemed like the Nipkow disk, where they were unable to [transmit signals wirelessly through the air] by radio [wave] or by wire. Then we found out an old mechanical pick-up was not sufficient because they were transmitting the light only when the probe, whatever it is, the aperture for instance, was transmitting the light from the point of the image during the time that the system coincided with this point. Since we have to transmit the whole picture thirty times at least per second [to make the human eye perceive it as continuous movement], and divide the picture many hundred thousand times [into points of light or pixels to display on the screen], the light becomes in the millionth of the seconds. Therefore, the signal was very weak and we were unable to transmit a satisfactory picture, even under the kliegs, the most powerful light at that time. So, I found out that solution can be done if the time of receiving this pulse [of electricity] is for one-thirtieth of a second instead of one-millionth second and therefore theoretically gain a million times more [strength in the signal] without changing sensitivity in the receiving curve. Just the time element [of the equation] changed. For that we constructed at Westinghouse a mosaic where the image was focused with regular optics like in a movie and the picture information in this mosaic was all in one-thirtieth of a second. It means a theoretical gain by the number of picture elements, of several hundred thousand times. Of course, we never got a complete hundred percent efficiency but you do get tremendous amplification and sensitivity. Starting from the first tube constructed when we were at Westinghouse, we were able to start to transmit the picture under normal light, under conditions without artificial light.

Heyer: So that was …?

Zworykin: Then I called this tube the Iconoscope.

Heyer: How was the Kinescope different from the Iconoscope?

Zworykin: The Kinescope of course has its origin in the Braun tube. Braun about ten years before us constructed a cathode-ray tube for the recording of very fast events by using the electron beam and applying to the deflection of the electron beam magnetic or electrostatic fields. Well, we used a cathode-ray tube and a fluorescent screen with the corresponding amplitude of the cathode-ray tube intensity in the light, and deflected the beam magnetically or electrostatically by the signals we received from an Iconoscope through the proper amplifier. This type of combination of the Iconoscope and receiving tube, we called Kinescope from two Greek words. Kine is movement, and scope is target. The first demonstration was in the fall or beginning of the winter of 1923 at Westinghouse Research Laboratory.

Heyer: The first demonstration of a complete [television] system?

Zworykin: Yes, of the laboratory prototype. Of course the picture was very primitive. We were able to transmit some geometrical figures and move them before the photographic camera and receive them on the Kinescope….

Al Pinsky: You might go back a little bit to where you went to school and tell us about Professor [Boris] Rosing.

Zworykin: I came to Westinghouse from Russia in 1918. Before that I was in France working with Paul Langevin, who is a very well-known theoretical physicist, a Nobel Prize winner in theoretical physics. Before that I graduated from the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg [Russia]. When I was there I came under the influence of Professor Boris Rosing, who I consider one of the earlier pioneers of realizing the difficulty with mechanical television and starting to use electronic television. Of course, his system and the system I was helping him with during my spare time from earning my degree was hybrid. The transmitter was similar to Nipkow's, by a series of rotating mirrors. But for receiving [TV signals] he used a cathode-ray tube. Since for receiving it is essential to get the light only at the moment when the system coincides with this point of the picture, the picture was very unsatisfactory.

Heyer: Sounds like the holograms that I've seen.

Zworykin: Well, it's always [like that] when you start with something.

Heyer: So you were actually working on it as early as the early 1920s?

Zworykin: First I worked with the WD11 tube [an amplifier for radio broadcasting that was his first project at RCA]. From there I went to the transmission of the picture by facsimile. From there I went to the development of the more sensitive photocell. I have quite a number of patents there. From there I went to the sound movie and from sound then to television. That was sometime in 1925. When I came to this country, I didn't find [anyone] very receptive [to the idea of television for a while]….

Heyer: Now tell us about your talk with David Sarnoff.

Zworykin: That was in 1929 in connection with this transfer of television [research from Westinghouse to RCA]. I got an invitation to come to New York and talk to Sarnoff and I told him what we can do (of course what we did) and how much we accomplished. This [what follows] has been mentioned in his speech many times. He asked me how much it would cost to make [television] practical. Well, how can you tell? I figured it out and I had three men already working with me…. I thought I needed about two more men and two rooms and without knowing much about the financial end, I estimated $100,000. So Sarnoff always says, "See how he cheated me!" because RCA cost $40,000,000 before they got a dollar out of television [chuckling].

Heyer: But when the dollars started coming up they really gained. That was in 1929, right?

Zworykin: Well, in 1930 we first started broadcasting … from the City Hall in Camden, and then when we came here in 1941 from [the] Empire State Building [in New York City].

Heyer: I understand David Sarnoff opened the World's Fair in 1939 with a television broadcast.

Zworykin: That was not exactly a broadcast. That was short-wave television. Short-distance television.

Pinsky: Were you there?

Zworykin: Yes. That was in San Francisco and then later on we had a demonstration here in New York.

Heyer: What was the reaction of people that saw these demonstrations?

Zworykin: Well, in the first measure usually someone made a speech and showed equipment.

Heyer: Had people heard about television? Did they have an idea what it was? Was it a big surprise?

Zworykin: Not much. It was very little known of at that time.

Heyer: It was novel at that time.

Zworykin: But then as the Second World War started, all the [electronic research] efforts were very concentrated on military applications, including television….

Heyer: Okay, so in our chronology here we've gotten up to about the end of the war and the beginning of commercial broadcasting…. So what were you working on at RCA after the war?

Zworykin: Mostly, for quite a long time, on television, but in general producing electronic devices for [other purposes]. We developed many things….

Pinsky: I think you were the first person to predict that man would see the moon via television.

Zworykin: I didn't know it for certain. I spoke of that in self-defense because the great concern about television was what to put on it and why put in so much work on it. I had to defend myself by saying, "You can see the opposite side of the moon if someone sends a rocket there with a television camera. You will maybe have to wait for fifty years." But I didn't know that [it would happen in the 1960s].

Heyer: All the astronauts mentioned how it changed their view of the trip.

Zworykin: Yes, when they came back here and saw themselves on television walking on the moon. One time the picture was very clear. You see yourself, you know, at that particular important moment.

Heyer: Have you seen a lot of the pictures [of the earth] the satellites have been sending back [from orbit in the earth's atmosphere]?

Zworykin: Yes. That was the most interesting contribution from broadcasting, to my mind.

Heyer: Did you want to talk a little bit about the future?

Zworykin: Yes. I am not presently satisfied with the programs. Of course, I think everybody is doing what they think they have to do. Our programs are commercial, and therefore the income from broadcasting depends upon the number of people viewing. By taking surveys of this, right or wrong, they conclude that lower-quality programs appeal to more people. Therefore, they put in a lot of broadcasted violence and murder. They sometimes teach youngsters to do them in actuality. They can repeat them exactly. Rating systems are not good for the population, the younger generation in general. It also makes us look bad abroad. They see the ugly face of America. I think it partially produces our current unpopularity abroad. Only twenty to thirty years ago we were heroes in Soviet Russia, for example…. Westinghouse and Edison were heroes from an engineering point of view, also. That was not true just for Russia, but also for Europe when I was a student. That was the general impression—America was very admired from the outside.

Then all the actors in Hollywood were using the Rolls Royce. Therefore, Europe's impression of America was that everyone was a multimillionaire. Everybody used Rolls Royces. About ten years ago I was in a Moscow taxi, and the driver found out that I was American who could speak Russian. He said I must be breeding cattle. I asked him why and he said he got that from films. Now you see the vision of America. Of course that is only part of it. Television [programs] from satellites go everywhere; pictures from satellites can hit Africa in seconds. If we continue to transmit these kinds of programs it will not improve our image.

Heyer: Do you think that having this satellite transmission and more communication will bring pressure [to change]?

Zworykin: Certainly they are already talking about installing low-power transmission, which was good for receiving on television receivers. We can receive broadcasts from and send them to any part of the world. I feel very guilty for [sending such bad programming] even indirectly, having a part in it.

Heyer: Do you think the same kind of programming we are doing now will be sent then?

Zworykin: That's what I tried to stop. We need to start thinking about this aspect.

Pinsky: Also on video disk.

Zworykin: That's another thing that will send our image abroad. In a couple of years the market will have cheap disks very similar to the sound disks. That will be different from the broadcasts because it doesn't depend on being sent by some group who has big [television transmission] equipment. It will be done by anybody who wants to record like they record music now. So, you can collect a library of whatever you want. We can make programs of our books that way, which will be easier to read than regular books. But at the same time, it can be used for bad things. You can use it for pornographic pictures and violent pictures and selling them around the world.

Heyer: So we'll have the same old problems with new technology.

Zworykin: It is not controllable.

Heyer: The classic dilemma—free enterprise and all the problems, or censorship.

Zworykin: All technology can be used for bad or good [purposes]. It's up to you how to use it.

What happened next …

Zworykin received many prestigious awards for his inventions over the years, particularly his contributions to the development of television. In 1952, for instance, he received the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. He received the National Medal of Science in 1967, and a decade later he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Zworykin died in 1982.

Did you know …

  • Many people have referred to Vladimir Zworykin as the "Father of Television." But Zworykin always refused to accept sole credit for inventing the technology. Instead, he insisted that television grew out of the work of hundreds of researchers and inventors.
  • Zworykin received more than 120 U.S. patents over the course of his career. He contributed to the development of many important technologies besides television, including infrared night-vision goggles, the electron microscope, electric-eye cameras used in security systems, and electronic controls for vehicles and weapons systems.
  • Like Philo T. Farnsworth, a prominent inventor of early television systems, Zworykin disliked television programming and would not allow his children to watch TV.

Consider the following …

  • In his interview, Vladimir Zworykin says that "all technology can be used for bad or good. It's up to you how to use it." Do you think the impact of television has been primarily positive or negative? Choose a side and debate with other members of the class.
  • Think about some of your favorite television shows. What image do you think these programs project about the United States to viewers in other countries?
  • The U.S. Patent Office awarded inventor Philo T. Farnsworth the first patent for an all-electronic television system. Yet Vladimir Zworykin, as the director of television research at RCA, oversaw the development of television broadcasting into a powerful medium of mass communication and the development of TV sets that were used in millions of American homes. Which man do you feel is most deserving of the title "Father of Television"?

For More Information


Abramson, Albert. Zworykin: Pioneer of Television. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Fisher, David E., and Marshall J. Fisher. Tube: The Invention of Television. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002.


Benjamin, Louise. "Vladimir Zworykin." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on July 27, 2006).

Schatzkin, Paul. "Who Invented What—and When?" The Farnsworth Chronicles. (accessed July 27, 2006).

"Vladimir Zworykin" and "Iconoscope Camera Tube." IEEE Virtual Museum. (accessed July 27, 2006).

"Vladimir Zworykin Interview (July 4, 1975)" IEEE Virtual Museum. (accessed on July 27, 2006).

Nipkow disk: A system of spinning metal disks, invented by German scientist Paul G. Nipkow in 1884, that scanned the light reflected by a moving image, turned it into an electrical signals, and transmitted it across a wire.

Pick-up: Scanning system.

Probe: Metal point that makes contact with an electrical circuit.

Aperture: The opening in a lens that allows light to enter.

Kliegs: Bright lamps used in early motion pictures.

Sensitivity in the receiving curve: The device's sensitivity to light.

Mosaic: The tiny particles in a camera tube that convert light into electrical signals.

Optics: Camera lenses.

Amplification: Increase in strength.

Braun tube: An early cathode-ray tube invented by the German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun in 1897.

Cathode-ray tube: A vacuum tube that shoots a beam of electrons toward a light-sensitive screen.

Electron beam: A stream of tiny, negatively charged particles.

Deflection: Bouncing or bending in a new direction.

Electrostatic: Static electricity.

Amplitude: Strength.

Intensity: Brightness or force.

Amplifier: A device for increasing the strength of a signal.

Prototype: Model.

Geometrical figures: Basic shapes.

Boris Rosing: (1869–1933) Russian scientist and inventor.

Paul Langevin: (1872–1946) French physicist.

Theoretical physicist: A scientist who comes up with possible explanations for complex problems involving matter and energy.

Nobel Prize: Prestigious annual awards presented to individuals and organizations that make notable contributions in the areas of physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, literature, and world peace.

Hybrid: A combination of two or more different things.

Holograms: Three-dimensional pictures made of light.

Facsimile: An exact reproduction sent electronically over a wire or wirelessly using radio waves.

Photocell: An electrical device that is changed through interaction with light.

Sound movie: Theatrical films that included sound (as opposed to silent movies).

David Sarnoff: (1891–1971) Longtime president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

Practical: Work well enough for widespread use.

Novel: New and unusual.

Chronology: Timeline.

Commercial: For the purpose of making money.

Actuality: Real life.

Abroad: Overseas; in foreign countries.

Rolls Royce: A very expensive brand of luxury automobile.

Video disk: Digital video disk (DVD).

Sound disks: Compact disks (CDs).

Pornographic: Offensive sexual material.

Free enterprise: A system in which privately owned businesses are allowed to compete to earn money without interference from the government.

Censorship: A policy in which the government or other authorities review the content of creative works and remove anything that might be considered offensive.