"I know that God exists. I know that I have
never invented anything. I have been a medium by
which these things were given to the culture as
fast as the culture could earn them. I give all
the credit to God."
--Philo T. Farnsworth
So... who really invented television?
As compelling as the story of Philo T. Farnsworth may
be, 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 Morse, Edison, Bell, or the Wright Brothers?
The question may be simple, but clearly the answer is
not. Before Uncle Milty, before Walter Cronkite, before
Lucy and Desi and Ethel and Fred, 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 single
individual and say, "it all started here"?
The historical record is sadly devoid of 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 ..."-a sentence that manages to
express no less than three historical inaccuracies.
The most conspicuous error-the "1923" date-conspicuously
fixes Zworykin's name chronologically before Farnsworth's
1927 patent filing, and often renders Farnsworth to
the status of "another contributor" in the
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 in Interference #64,027, which
states quite clearly "priority of invention awarded
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."
But close examination of the stories beneath the written
record reveals a far more compelling story: In fact,
there was one inventor of electronic television. Video
as we now know it first took root in the mind of Philo
T. Farnsworth when he was fourteen years old, and he
was the first to successfully demonstrate the principle,
in his lab in San Francisco on September 7, 1927. If
you need to fix a date on which television was invented,
that's the date.
Before that date, television was the province of Newtonian
electro-mechanical engineers who employed spinning disks
and mirrors in their crude attempts to scan, transmit,
and reassemble a moving image. The inventions of Jenkins,
Ives, Alexanderson, Baird, and others are all similar
in their reliance on the spiral-perforated, spinning
disk first proposed in the 1880s by the German Paul
Nipkow. These contraptions were engineering marvels
in their own quaint way, but they were not the sort
of breakthrough that Farnsworth introduced, nor is anything
left of their technology in the system of television
that is in use around the world today.
On September 7, 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrated
for the first time that it was possible to transmit
an "electrical image" without the use of any
mechanical contrivances whatsoever. In one of the first
triumphs of Relativistic science, Farnsworth replaced
the spinning disks and mirrors with the electron itself,
an object so small and light that it could be deflected
back and forth within a vacuum tube tens of thousands
of times per second. Farnsworth was the first to form
and manipulate an electron beam, and that accomplishment
represents a quantum leap in human knowledge that is
still in use today.
After September 7, 1927, every new contribution to the
art-including Zworykin's-was an improvement on Farnsworth's
simple, elegant, and profound invention.
What is so often overlooked cannot be overstated: In
1923, Vladimir Zworykin-recently emigrated from Russia,
and employed at the time by the Westinghouse Corporation
in Pittsburgh, PA-applied for a patent for an approach
to television that he first encountered in the classroom
of Boris Rosing, his former teacher in Russia. In 1927,
Farnsworth also applied for a patent. Later that year,
Farnsworth produced the first successful transmission
of a television image by wholly electronic means-an
event that is thoroughly documented in Farnsworth's
journals-while Zworykin's application was still pending.
Farnsworth's patent, #1,773,980-with the critical Claim
15 regarding the "electrical image"-was issued
in August 1930-and Zworykin's application was still
The 1923 Zworykin application would be forgotten-except
that a patent for the Iconoscope was finally issued
in 1938 bearing a 1923 application date. This patent
(#2,141,059) was issued an extraordinary fifteen years
after the application date, and then only after extensive
revisions had been made to the original application.
Furthermore, the eventual patent granted pursuant to
the 1923 application was issued over the objection of
the patent office, and even then not until the case
was adjudicated by a court of appeals. That the Iconoscope
patent was issued at all hinged on a technicality, and
it served no practical purpose other than substantiating
the dates that RCA would eventually use in its public
RCA's obtaining the patent in 1938 has served as the
cornerstone of its efforts to influence the historical
record, since the patent effectively fixes 1923 as the
date that Zworykin first disclosed electronic television.
Decades later, historians and scholars are still including
this dubious 1923 date in their chronologies.
What's wrong with the Zworykin patent? What's wrong
with it is that the original application-the system
that Zworykin disclosed in 1923-simply could not work.
The idea was on the right track, but the application
fell far short of disclosing a device which would pave
the way to electronic video and ultimately put a television
in every living room or a computer monitor on every
There is scant evidence that Zworykin ever built and
tested a system like the one disclosed in his 1923 application.
One story does exist about Zworykin's attempt to demonstrate
his concept for executives of Westinghouse, where he
was employed at the time, in hopes of obtaining more
funding for his research. The demonstration was so dismal
that instead of providing him with further funding,
Zworykin's superiors ordered him to find something "more
useful" to work on.
The usual retelling of this story is cast in such a
way that we are supposed to believe that the Westinghouse
executives who witnessed and dismissed this demonstration
were too shortsighted to appreciate its promise. It
seems more plausible to conclude that what they saw
showed little promise because it simply didn't work.
Some historians suggest that witnesses observed some
sort of blurry smudge. Zworykin would claim years later
that the image of a cross was transmitted. But during
the critical 1934 interference proceedings there was
no evidence submitted to support even these modest contentions.
It's hard to imagine anyone in 1923 or 1924 seeing even
an incoherent transmitted image on the bottom of a bottle
and telling its creator to find something "more
useful" to work on. But that's what we're supposed
The most recent accounts of Zworykin's debatable patent
history are often traced to The History of Television:
1884 - 1941 by Albert Abramson. A careful examination
of Abramson's book only serves to further illustrate
the flimsiness of this account.
The actual evidence that such a demonstration ever took
place is sketchy at best, considering its potential
historical significance. There are no lab notes, no
direct eyewitness testimony. There are only Zworykin's
own accounts, and a single document on page 80 of Abramson's
book that he claims to have found buried in some archives
fifty years after the purported event. This document
describes a device "using a modified Braun type
cathode ray tube for transmitter and receiver ...the
receiving tube ...gave quite satisfactory results ...[but]
the transmitting part of the scheme caused more difficulties
That's it; that's all it says about the transmitter,
that it "caused more difficulties." It's hard
to imagine how the receiver could be "quite satisfactory"
if the transmitter was not equally satisfactory, but
this is the document that compels Abramson to conclude-in
his footnotes-that "Zworykin did build and operate
the first camera tubes in the world sometime between
the middle of 1924 and late 1925." This is the
feeble foundation on which historians build RCA's claim
that Zworykin should be regarded as the " inventor
Zworykin may indeed have built some tubes. And he may
have applied current to them. But it should take more
than a statement that "the transmitter caused more
difficulties" to convince students of this history
that he successfully "operated" such a device
prior to September 7, 1927, or that Zworykin even deserves
to be considered a "co-inventor" as a result
of this experiment.
Historians should focus more carefully on the decision
of the U.S. Patent Office in its historic 1935 ruling
in Patent Interference Number 64,027. This is the litigation
in which Zworykin challenged Claim 15 in Farnsworth's
patent #1,773,980, which describes the "electrical
image." An electrical image is the electrical counterpart
to an optical image. When an optical image is focused
on a photoelectric surface, the light-sensitive chemicals
emit an array of electrons-the "electrical image"-which
can then be scanned to form a fluctuating current. That
is the very essence of how an electronic television
signal is created, and so it is understandable that
Zworykin and RCA would attempt to appropriate the language
in this claim. There is simply no getting around it-you
can't create an electronic television signal without
first creating an "electrical image."
The whole of RCA's research effort-at an expense that
David Sarnoff joked with Zworykin years later cost RCA
more than $50 million-was intended to circumvent Farnsworth's
patents, in particular Claim 15. When the electrical
image in Claim 15 proved essential, Sarnoff, Zworykin,
and RCA's attorneys went to great lengths in the 1934
interference to prove that the 1923 application would
have created such an electrical image, and that Zworykin
was therefore entitled to "make the count"
embodied in Claim 15.
But when it was time for RCA to produce material evidence
that Zworykin had constructed and operated his system
in 1923, there was no evidence submitted. No tubes were
displayed, no laboratory journals entered into the record.
There were only confusing and contradictory verbal accounts
from two Zworykin colleagues.
After considering all the testimony, the patents examiners
ruled in Interference #64,027 that "Zworykin has
no right to make the count because it is not apparent
that the device would operate to produce a scanned electrical
image unless it has discrete globules capable of producing
discrete space charges and the Zworykin application
as filed does not disclose such a device."
The patent examiners were unequivocal in their decision
to award the indispensable Claim 15 to Farnsworth. The
case was appealed and RCA lost all the appeals. This
pattern went on, over this and other patents, until
RCA capitulated in 1939 and accepted a license from
Farnsworth for the use of his patents-the first such
license in the history of a company that was determined
to "collect patent royalties, not pay them."
Yet, here we are nearly seventy years later, still debating
the merits of a patent that was awarded by a court of
appeals in 1938 that validated a patent applied for
in 1923 that was ruled inoperative in 1934.
The contradictions are clear: What we have is an application
for a patent in 1923, an unsuccessful demonstration
in "1924 or 25" with no conclusive documentation,
and a patent interference ruling in 1934 that says the
device was inoperative. Nevertheless, a patent was obtained
in 1938 which compels otherwise scholarly reporters
to conclude that Zworykin and Farnsworth must be considered
A more discerning examination of the record reveals
that Zworykin believed in electronic television but
was still struggling for a viable solution until he
visited Farnsworth's lab in 1930. As soon as he saw
what Farnsworth had achieved, he got busy, duplicating
Farnsworth's equipment at the Westinghouse lab in Pittsburgh
before moving on to RCA in Camden. He then built on
Farnsworth's work, as well as the work of other contributors
to produce the Iconoscope.
Zworykin's corporate benefactor, David Sarnoff, believed
the Iconoscope gave him the leverage he needed to bring
all the legal might of RCA to bear on claiming Farnsworth's
achievement as RCA's own. Sarnoff ultimately failed
in that effort, and RCA was left with no choice but
to accept a patent license from Farnsworth. Still we
read time and again that Zworykin made modern television
possible when he "invented the Iconoscope for RCA
in 1923." The facts are that Zworykin was not working
for RCA in 1923, the Iconoscope did not exist at that
time, and it is questionable whether Zworykin truly
invented it at all.
Zworykin got some momentum going with the Iconoscope,
but it was not until the Image Orthicon tube was introduced
that the industry had the tool it really needed to bring
the world into our living rooms. But the Image Orthicon-originally
thought to be an RCA development-was in fact descended
from Farnsworth's patent #2,087,683 which was the first
to disclose a "low velocity" method of electron
scanning. This lends further credence to the notion
that everything that came after September 7, 1927 was
an improvement on the concept proven that day-including
Farnsworth's own subsequent inventions.
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
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 or a Mormon farm boy? And should
it still matter seventy years after the fact?
It matters because the suppression 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, not individuals. It tempts
us to place our faith in those institutions, rather
than on ourselves.
Invention is one of the most unique and compelling aspects
of the human experience. From the moment the first ape
picked up a bone and swung it like a club, the history
of civilization has followed the path of invention.
Szent-Gyorgi put it best when he said, "Discovery
is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking
what nobody else has thought." Therein lies the
operative definition of genius. In Zworykin, we find
a capable engineer, one who could see what others were
doing and improve upon it. But in Farnsworth, we encounter
the rarest breed of all, the true visionary who could
see the obvious-and think up something entirely different.
Obscuring his story and denying his contribution deprives
us our understanding of this critically important facet
of the human character.
Television is our blessing and our curse. The ancient
dream of a unified planet came true with the moonwalk
in 1969, as hundreds of millions of people around the
world tuned in to witness the event through the medium
of Philo T. Farnsworth's haypotato-field inspiration.
At the other extreme there are the routine daily programs
that cater to "the lowest common denominators"
of our society. But even these daily panderings to common
culture are somehow elevated when reconsidered with
the knowledge that the medium itself is a consequence
of individual genius rather than corporate engineering.
The belief that television-the most pervasive mass communications
system of the past millennium, and perhaps the next-was
"too complex to be invented by a single individual"
deprives us of the knowledge of the noble individual
whose unique intellect made it all possible. There are
only a few such souls in each century, men like Tesla,
Armstrong, and Einstein whose lives are an enduring
expression of Szent-Gyorgi's axiom.
Philo T. Farnsworth was as noble a spirit as has ever
graced this planet. From his earliest declaration of
his hope that he, too, had been "born an inventor"
it is clear that this earthly soul was an instrument
of providence. When he saw how the mad scientists of
the 19th century tried to send pictures through the
air with spinning disks and mirrors, he alone replaced
all the moving parts with the invisible electron. Recalling
that contribution makes even the most ordinary moments
of television programming an expression of divine inspiration.
This story is
brought to you as a public service by:
© 1977, 2001Paul Schatzkin; All
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