The Birth of Television

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The Birth of Television


The invention of television has exerted a profound and wide-reaching effect on the nature and quality of modern everyday life. More vivid than radio, more intimate than film, television became one of the central and most significant technologies of the twentieth century. Television took a long time to reach maturity, as it required the technology to broadcast as well as receive images, along with the cooperation of government and commercial interests to coordinate the supply of programming. But once television broadcasting became a reality and television sets were for sale to the average home, it quickly became the primary source for entertainment and information, first in the United States and England, and eventually throughout the world.


Television—a term first used in 1900—lived in the imaginations of inventors and writers long before it became a technological reality. The desire to transmit images was piqued by the ability to carry sound on the telephone, invented in 1876. Advances in photography, cinematography, and facsimile transmission also stimulated interest in television. The earliest patented design for a "television" system came in 1884 from a German engineer named Paul Nipkow (1860-1940). Nipkow's system consisted of a disk with 24 holes through it in the shape of a spiral. Spinning the disk in a light source produced a pattern of images on a photosensitive cell, which would then produce a varying electrical current. Reception would be achieved by reassembling the dissected image using another rotating disk and a magneto-optical light modulator. Nipkow never actually constructed the system he proposed, but mechanical systems based on the Nipkow disk became the first reliable televisions. Mechanical television systems were, however, challenged nearly from the beginning by an alternative strategy using cathode-ray tubes. For several decades, mechanical and electronic television struggled alongside one another as inventors and engineers tried to make real the dream of transmitting images.

The chief proponents of mechanical television were John Logie Baird (1888-1946), a Scotsman, and an American, Charles Francis Jenkins (1867-1934). Baird began his television experiments in 1923. His invention was introduced to the public in 1925, during a publicity affair at London's Selfridge's department store. This early apparatus, based directly on the principle of the Nipkow disk, was extremely crude and could transmit only rough patterns of light and dark to represent images. By 1929, Baird had advanced his system of "low-definition" television significantly, and undertook broadcasting experiments with British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio transmitters. Jenkins also began his investigations into television using a Nipkow disk system in 1923. He was issued the first American television broadcasting license by the Federal Radio Commission in 1928, for experimental transmissions from a station in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The first commercial receivers for the Jenkins system went on sale in 1930, with a viewing screen of 2 × 1.5 inches (5.08 × 3.81 cm)! These early television signals had no more than 48 lines per screen; in comparison, televisions at the end of the twentieth century typically used 525 or 625 lines, giving much finer definition of images suitable for larger screens. Most images produced were black and white (or "monochrome"), although experiments using color filters began as early as 1929.

But lone inventors like Baird and Jenkins did not have television research to themselves for long. During the mid-1920s, large companies including General Electric (GE), American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), and Radio Corporation of American (RCA) joined in the efforts to produce a commercially viable mechanical television. Between 1928 and 1932 both the United States and England had some limited amount of television broadcasting (entertainment programs of various kinds as well as occasional news shows) available to the public; television broadcasting had begun in Germany as well. American and British efforts focused primarily on bringing television signals into homes; in Germany television was treated as an alternative to cinema and was usually viewed in large theaters.

While broadcasting began with mechanical television systems, a technological competitor was emerging that would leave mechanical television stillborn. The idea of using a cathode ray tube as the foundation for "distant electric vision," as it was called by A. A. Campbell Swinton (1863-1930) in his own proposal in 1908, was first raised by Russian engineer Boris Rosing in 1907. An assistant to Rosing, Vladimir Zworykin (1889-1982), became the driving force behind electronic television. Zworykin emigrated to the United States and joined the Westinghouse company in 1919. While at Westinghouse (and later at RCA), Zworykin designed the "iconoscope," a transmitting tube where an image could be projected onto a photosensitive array. These photosensitive elements would then be scanned by a beam of electrons, which in turn released charged elements to form a picture signal that could be received and displayed by a modified cathode-ray tube. In-house field tests of television using the iconoscope began at RCA in 1932.

Zworykin and his mighty corporate backers did have strong competition. Philo Farnsworth (1906-1971), an independent inventor, demonstrated publicly the first complete electronic television system in 1934, following more than eight years of development. His system was based upon an invention of his own called the image-dissector tube. In this electronic version of the Nipkow disk, a moving electronic image moved passed a stationary aperture through which passed electrons that in turn stimulated an electrode to collect and reassemble picture elements. While Farnsworth is largely given credit for the invention of electronic television, his system failed to achieve the commercial success of the system backed by RCA.

Of course, for television to fulfill the dreams of its creators required a system for broadcasting. In England and Germany television broadcasting was run by companies closely affiliated with the government. British broadcasting switched from Baird's mechanical system to an all-electronic system in 1936, but stopped broadcasting entirely in 1939 after the outbreak of World War II. For a time during the war, the German government made use of television for propaganda purposes, including television broadcasts of the 1936 Olympics from Berlin. In the United States, television was promoted by commercial interests—companies including RCA and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) that had been enormously successful in the radio industry. Although experimental broadcasts continued, the public was hesitant to invest in receivers for their homes out of fear that they would become rapidly obsolete as several companies competed to dominate the television market. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally endorsed a set of standards in 1941 that would insure compatibility of all receivers with all broadcasts, but the United States entered World War II just a few months later, effectively bringing about a hiatus in the development of television.

Beginning in 1946, the television industry started to grow again. Wartime research produced improved equipment, and the number of stations exploded so rapidly that in 1948 the FCC was forced to place a four-year freeze on the assignment of new stations while problems of interference could be worked out. Another area of contention was color broadcasting, where rival companies CBS and RCA championed two completely different and incompatible systems. While CBS's "field sequential system," which utilized colored disks rotating in the signal in the transmitter and receivers, was developed more quickly, RCA's "dot sequential" system, which sent three separate signals carrying different colors, ultimately triumphed following four years of FCC hearings beginning in 1949. Thanks to this controversy, color television got off to a slow start—it was not until the mid-1960s that sales finally eclipsed those of monochrome sets, and color broadcasting became routine.


In 1947 there were 16,000 television sets in American homes; in 1949 there were four million, and by the end of 1950, 11 million. This number continued to increase until eventually, virtually every home in the United States had at least one television. Initially, most homes used large rooftop antennas to receive signals broadcast through the air like radio, but alternative methods of delivering signals appeared early and have continued to grow in importance. The concept of "cable" television, where signals are brought to each home via coaxial cable from a central antenna, began in remote areas far from broadcasting centers in the 1940s; in the 1980s, it became a multi-billion dollar industry that competed successfully with broadcast television throughout the country. The distribution of television programs directly into homes from satellites became possible in 1979 and, like cable television, it continued to increase in popularity and influence.

Television programming was initially controlled by a small number of "networks" of stations broadcasting in major cities and affiliated with existing radio stations. Three of these networks—the National Broadcasting Company (NBC, the broadcasting arm of RCA), CBS, and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—dominated television broadcasting for more than 30 years. While they remained influential, by the 1980s the growth of cable television provided viewers with new alternatives to the broadcast networks. Forms of entertainment programming, including game shows, variety shows, serial dramas, and situation comedies, appeared very early in television history and continued in popularity. Television also became a vital source of news and information, initially following formats established on radio but soon taking great advantage of the visual medium by incorporating images of events like those formerly shown on cinema newsreels.

Television is truly a dream made real. It has influenced nearly every aspect of life, providing images profound and profane that people share and even experience simultaneously. While the technology of television continues to improve and spread to even the most remote places in the world, the impact of even the earliest television broadcasts was very powerful. Although the television may be superseded someday by newer technologies, those technologies will undoubtedly have been themselves shaped by television.


Further Reading

Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1880-1941. London: McFarland, 1987.

Burns, R. W. Television: An International History of the Formative Years. London: IEE Press, 1998.

Inglis, Andrew F. Behind the Tube: A History of Broadcast Technology and Business. Stoneham, MA: Butterworth, 1990.

Ritchie, Michael. Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1994.

Udelson, Joseph H. The Great Television Race: A History of the American Television Industry, 1925-1942. University of Alabama Press, 1982.

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The Birth of Television

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