Vladimir Kosma Zworykin

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Vladimir Kosma Zworykin

The Russian-American physicist and radio engineer Vladimir Kosma Zworykin (1889-1982) made important contributions to the development of television, as well as to the newer field of electronics.

Vladimir Zworykin was born in Mourom, Russia, on July 30, 1889. He is best known for his pioneering work in the development of television.

Early Education and Career

Zworykin received a degree in electrical engineering from the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology in 1912 and a doctorate in physics in 1926 from the University of Pittsburgh. Like many European intellectuals of the 20th century, Zworykin was driven to the United States by the recurrent religious persecution and political repression which rocked Europe and Russia. He came to America in 1920, 3 years after the Russian Revolution, and joined the research staff of Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh. In 1930 he went to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), where he was made director of the electronics research laboratory.

The Race for Television

Zworykin was one of the earliest pioneers in the development of television. Before he left the St. Petersburg laboratory of Boris Rosing in 1919, he had the germ of an idea for an improved television system. When he joined Westinghouse in 1920, he hoped to be able to continue his work but soon discovered that firm was interested only in radio research. He left Pittsburgh to join a small development company in Kansas but returned to Westinghouse in 1923, this time with the agreement that he could continue work on television. According to an interview conducted for the RCA Engineers Collection, July 4, 1975, Zworykin details early developments with primitive geometric pictures generated as early as 1923. In that year he applied for a patent on his "Iconoscope," a device which transmitted television images quickly and sharply. It was perhaps the single most important breakthrough in the history of television development. When Westinghouse transferred most of its radio research work to RCA in 1930, he moved over too and continued its development. A PBS documentary series, The American Experience titled "Who is Philo T. Farnsworth?" (researched by Alison Trinkl and David Dugan and based partly on the book Tube: The Invention of Television by David E. Fisher and Marshal John Fisher) details the race to create a working television. According to the documentary, at the time of Zworykin's transfer to RCA, he met with fellow television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth. Under the guise of a fellow-researcher, Zworykin spent three days in Farnsworth's lab, and was given almost total access to Farnsworth's technology. After his return to New York, Zworykin's work incorporated many of the innovations that he'd seen at Farnsworth's lab. Zworykin and Farnsworth battled in court for many years before patents were awarded to both men in the 1930's. But RCA had the marketing might and money to prevail. In 1929, David Sarnoff, Chairman of RCA asked Zworykin how much he thought it would cost to develop a workable system, and Zworykin estimated "$100,000." It ended up costing RCA $40,000,000 before they began turning a profit. Television broadcasts were available in limited areas, at limited times in Berlin, London, Russia and the US prior to World War II. Commercial television was authorized in the United States in 1940, but its growth was held up by World War II. Ironically, Zworykin was unimpressed by the television programming available, terming it in a 1981 interview as "awful."

After Television

During the war Zworykin, like many scientists who specialized in electronics, played an important role in developing new weapons for the military. He served on the Scientific Advisory Board to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Force, as well as on the Ordnance Advisory Committee on Guided Missiles. At the same time he personally directed important research work and served on three subcommittees of the National Defense Research Committee.

After the war Zworykin continued his electronics work and made important contributions to the development of the electron microscope. He was also instrumental in the development of the electric eye used in security systems and automatic door openers, a device to read print to the blind, and electronically controlled missiles and automobiles. In 1952 he was awarded the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers for "outstanding contributions to the concept and development of electronic components and systems."

In 1947 he became a vice president of RCA and technical consultant to the RCA Laboratories Division, positions he held until 1954. While most of his career was spent developing television and its electrical components, Zworykin spent his time after retirement from RCA in 1954 as Director of Medical Research at the Medical Electronics Center at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) until 1962.

Personal Information

Zworykin married Tatiana Vasilieff around 1915 and had two children. He emigrated with his family to the United States in 1919, becoming a US citizen in 1924. He was divorced from Vasilieff and married Katherine Polevitsky in 1951. He died on July 29, 1982, one day short of his 93rd birthday.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Zworykin. Some of his work on television is described in John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman's, The Sources of Invention (1958; 2d ed. 1969). The standard book on radio development is W. Rupert MacLaurin's, Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry (1949). The Zworykin interview noted above, a part of the RCA Engineers Collection is available on the World Wide Web (circa 1997) at http://www.ieee.org/history_center/oral_histories/abstracts/zworykin21_abstract.html and http://www.ieee.org/history_center/oral_histories/transcripts/zworykin21.html. Additional World Wide Web sites to visit (circa 1997) http://trfn.clpgh.org/nmb/nmbzwkn.htm, and http://www.invent.org/book/book-text/111.html. □

Vladimir Kosma Zworykin

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Vladimir Kosma Zworykin


Russian-American Physicist and Electrical Engineer

Recognized as the "father of television," Vladimir Zworykin created the iconoscope and the kinescope, two inventions that made that machine possible. Yet that was far from the only achievement credited to this prolific genius, who in his lifetime obtained more than 120 patents. Among his other inventions was the electron microscope, which greatly expanded scientists' knowledge by making it possible to see objects much smaller than those glimpsed by regular microscopes. As for his principal invention, Zworykin was asked in 1981 what he thought of American television programming: "Awful," was his reply.

The son of Kosma, who operated a fleet of river boats, and Elaine Zworykin was born on July 30, 1889, in Mourom, Russia. Zworykin studied electrical engineering under Boris Rosing, an early advocate of cathode ray tubes, at St. Petersburg Institute of Technology. Cathode ray tubes shot streams of charged particles, and Rosing—going against the prevailing wisdom among the few scientists then considering the possibility of television—maintained that this, and not the mechanical systems then being tested, was the most viable television technology.

After earning his degree at St. Petersburg in 1912, Zworykin went on to the Collège de France in Paris, where he studied x-ray technology under Paul Langevin (1872-1946), a renowned French physicist. He served as a radio officer in the Russian army signal corps in World War I, during which time he also married Tatiana Vasilieff. The couple later had two children, but in the face of the Communist takeover, they decided to leave Russia in 1918. By 1919 they were living in the United States.

Zworykin first took a job with Westinghouse, where in 1920 he began work on developing radio tubes and photoelectric cells, small devices whose electrical properties are modified by the action of light on them. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on photoelectric cells at the University of Pittsburgh, and in 1923 filed a patent for his iconoscope. In contrast to the mechanical systems then under development by figures such as Great Britain's John Logie Baird (1888-1946), Zworykin's iconoscope was electronic. It replicated the actions and even the structure of the human eye, and produced a far better picture than a mechanical system—without requiring nearly as much light.

In the following year, Zworykin filed a patent for the invention that, with the iconoscope, would make television possible: the kinescope, or picture tube. Zworykin's special cathode ray tube overcame problems first noted by Scottish physicist A. A. Campbell Swinton in 1908, and provided a practical means for bombarding a signal plate with electrons, thus producing an image.

Zworykin demonstrated his invention to executives at Westinghouse, and was told that he should spend his time on something "a little more useful." Thus the company missed one of the greatest business opportunities in history, and Zworykin took his talents to RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, in 1929. RCA had to invest plenty before it reaped any rewards, however. Initially Zworykin told RCA's David Sarnoff (1891-1971) that development of television would cost "about $100,000"; in fact, as Sarnoff later told the New York Times, "RCA spent $50 million before we ever got a penny back from TV."

In 1930 Zworykin and G. A. Morton had created an infrared image tube that made night vision technology possible, and the military adapted this as Sniperscope and Snooperscope during the war. Also during the war, Zworykin collaborated with John von Neumann (1903-1957) at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies on the development of one of the first computers.

With the end of World War II and the lifting of restrictions regarding the manufacture of receivers, television exploded. Soon Zworykin's invention, if not his name, was making its way into virtually every household of the industrialized world. Meanwhile, he turned his attention to a number of inventions, among them the electron microscope, the electric eye used in security systems and automatic door openers, electronic missile controls, and some of the earliest electronic technology to aid the blind in reading print.

Zworykin and his first wife divorced, and in 1951 he married Katherine Polevitsky. Among the many awards he received in his lifetime were the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (1952) and the National Medal of Science (1967). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1943, and also received the French Legion of Honor. Zworykin died one day before his 93rd birthday, on July 29, 1982.


Zworykin, Vladimir Kosma

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Zworykin, Vladimir Kosma (1889–1982) US physicist and inventor, b. Russia. A pioneer of television, in 1929 Zworykin joined the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), becoming its director of electronic development and (in 1947) a vice president. Zworykin and his colleagues developed the iconoscope, the forerunner of the modern television camera tube, and the kinescope, a cathode-ray tube for TV sets. In 1928, he patented a colour television system. He also invented the electron microscope and developed a secondary emission multiplier for a sensitive radiation detector. In 1967, Zworykin received the National Medal of Science for his inventions and contributions to medical research.