Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Invention of Television

Pem Farnsworth's recent passing at her home in Utah provides a good opportunity to discuss one of the most important (or at least influential) inventions of our age: the Television. Pem was the wife of its inventor, Philo. Philo Farnsworth, incidentally, always claimed Pem was television's co-inventor.

If you are unfamiliar with Philo Farnsworth's story, you should acquaint yourself with it. It is a fascinating tale of a lone inventor coming up with a brilliant idea, pursuing it to its fruition, then watching, helplessly, as corporate America took full credit, leaving Farnsworth nearly destitute and unknown until after his death in 1971.

At the age of 15, Farnsworth had conceived his fundamental idea and sketched it out for his High School physics teacher. By the age of 20, he had applied for two patents covering the invention. At 22, he had a working camera and television set. It is Farnsworth's ideas that form the basis of all modern televisions.

Of course, many others were also pursuing television. In a society already very accustomed to both radio and movies, it was not a great leap to think of combining the two mediums by transmitting moving pictures along with sound. RCA, under the direction of David Sarnoff and technician Vladimir Zworykin, applied for their own patents and spread their own message about television. By the end of the 2nd World War, most Americans came to know RCA, Sarnoff, and Zworykin as the fathers of television. As Wired puts it, Sarnoff "and his lawyers did to Farnsworth what they'd done to those who had developed key radio inventions but had refused to cooperate with RCA: They launched a legal assault aimed at overturning the patents on appeal, tying up the inventor emotionally and financially for years. The challenges continued for much of the '30s. They slowed the development of television, delayed its introduction to the public, squandered Farnsworth's already thin resources, drove him to drink, and contributed to his development of a bleeding ulcer." Farnsworth battled RCA in court and was eventually vindicated by the USPTO as the sole inventor of television, but "time ran out. Farnsworth's key patents expired in 1947, just a few months before TV sales took off from 6,000 sets in use nationwide to tens of millions by the mid-1950s. RCA captured nearly 80 percent of the market, while Farnsworth was forced to sell the assets of his company."

The patent system couldn't help Farnsworth much then, and it wouldn't help him much now. A patent system will always end up benefitting moneyed interests more than it benefits individuals. Corporate control of the process has never been stronger, yet we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. If it hadn't been for RCA's lawyering with bogus patents, Farnsworth may have been able to get his invention into consumers hands and reaped the benefits of his labor. Instead, he had to waste years pleading with the government in court against RCA's patent litigation. The patent system was ineffectual in protecting Farnsworth, even though he held valid patents.

Some would argue that the solution to problems like this is to make the patent system even stronger, and make it even easier for patent holders to assert their rights. Yet any such strengthening gives disproportionate muscle to the RCAs of the world, who have more money to throw behind their "patent rights" than any lone inventor ever will. The only way to level the playing field is to reduce the strength of patents, so that individuals like Farnsworth have a right to create equal to that of big corporations. As long as we continue to give patent holders big enough rocks, they will continue to use them to smash the windows of the innocent.

footnote: Farnsworth continued inventing during his later years, focusing on nuclear fusion. The Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor was the first device to clearly demonstrate any fusion reactions at all, and is still in use today. But because of his prior experience with the patent system, Farnsworth refused to use patents to protect his discoveries, most of which became public domain. However, it is widely feared that some of these discoveries went to the grave with Farnsworth in 1971.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jackson,

Philo Farnsworth must be rolling over in his grave reading your blog.

You have a judgement problem and I really start questioning your real motives.

While I understand that some people oppose patents for philosophical reasons (some just prefer anarchy over any order) and I respect their feeling (sometimes patents DO suck...), but any garage inventor will tell you that weak patents are BAD for small innovators without resources, weak patents are only good for huge multi-nationals.
That's what those huge high-tech companies want for so-called "patent reform" - weaker patents for everybody, so they still can enforce their patents by throwing more money, but any garage inventor would be completely screwed.
Is this what you want, Jackson ?

If you are one of us, small guys, then you be must advocating either strong and affordable patents for everybody or no patents at all, This would be fair at least....

But maybe you are getting some kickbacks from the "big boys" ? :)

Small garage inventor

9:50 AM  
Blogger Jackson Lenford said...

Small garage inventor:

I wish I was getting some kickbacks from somebody, but, unfortunately, I don't earn a single dime from this blog. If I didn't feel strongly that inventors were getting a raw deal with our patent system, I wouldn't waste my breath talking about it.

But I really do believe that the more we strengthen patent "rights," the more we trample on the right to create, and I think I've given ample evidence that the current patent system rewards the wrong behaviors, punishes the truly innovative, and stifles not only industry, but small time inventors.

Farnsworth's story is incredibly sad, and it is saddest of all because we continue to prop up the system that did this to him. Farnsworth's story isn't a fluke. He's not the only one who got a raw deal from the patent system. A lot of us are getting the same end of the stick today, as we speak.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait a sec -- I don't follow.

Lenford writes an article about how big corporate America abused a lone inventor through the patent system, and then anonymous claims that he's trying to screw the little guy?

7:10 PM  
Anonymous ted said...

I vote for no patents at all.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A minor point - getting away from patents as such and more to the great American tradition of claiming inventions after the fact. I think we could say that the SCOTISH inventor JOHN LOGIE BAIRD may well have invented television at least 5 years before either inventors mentioned. His system was a mechanical system which was superceded by the later US electronic system.

To those of us in the mysterious (to Americans) 'rest of the world' we are alwys confounded and amused by this nation trait. Oh well.....

5:48 PM  
Blogger Jackson Lenford said...

I'm well aware of the contributions of Baird, and also of those of Rosing (which predate Baird by a number of years) and of many others (Braun, Nipkow, et. al.). As an American, I find it odd that the British and Scottish champion Baird when Rosing clearly beat him to the punch, and even though Rosing's system was superior in many ways.

But I digress. There is a very good reason to differentiate Farnsworth's contributions from those that came before -- of all the television systems devised before or since Farnsworth's, only one is deployed worldwide today, and that is Farnsworth's. All the other systems relied on mechanical components. Farnsworth's did not.

That may seem like a small distinction at first, but the use of spinning disks and other moving devices made those systems largely unworkable from a production, reliability, and quality standpoint. When we speak of television, we are talking about that thing sitting in your living room, not some device with flipcards, spinning wheels, or celuloid tape (as in motion pictures that were a very well-known technology of the day). You might consider this hair-splitting, but since Baird's, Rosen's, Nipkow's etc devices don't look at all like our modern television systems, most people don't consider them to be its inventor. They made great contributions, and certainly deserve credit for their discoveries, but I think it is fair to give Farnsworth the credit, regardless of which nation he was born in.

But this does raise an incredibly important point -- invention is almost always a collaborative process. It's a bit of a shame that only one person gets to take credit for discoveries that were clearly made with the help of others, even if those other discoveries never led to the most common form of the invention. Patent monopolies are thus necessarily unfair. Is the incentive offered by these monopolies worth that injustice?

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Electronic tv and mechanical television are nothing alike, Philo Farnsworth a student of Einsteins theories and fervent reader of Science and Invention Published by Gernsback. This guy was the real deal along the lines of Edison and Einstein, to boot he was a mormon and if you know the know the workaholic rugged individualism of these cats you can glimpse his vision. He had a great idea, he worked on the idea and developed it and David Sarnoff of RCA and his band of chronies spent years of lies and deceit ruining guys like Farnsworth and we Owe it to Farnsworth to never take a dime from them and stick it to them in every possible way we can. By inventing, by making people strong and rewarding individualism. By not working for WalMart or Sears or any other corporate monster. Be more independent. Make your food. Reduce your dependence on the outside world and live in your own.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again I come across a web site, that seems to pass over John Logie Baird's right to be called the inventor of television!
I understand that a great many people, from many countries, contributed research and patents that led to the birth of the invention, but if we were to dismiss ALL claims of anyone to be deemed "inventor" because they did not not produce it in total isolation, we would be left with very thin history books!
Quite simply John Logie Baird demonstrated the first working device to transmit a picture from point to point, THE VERY DEFINITION OF TELEVISION!
To dismiss this fact because of the quality of the picture or the fact that the device was mechanical rather than electronic is pure sophistry, like saying the Wright Brothers didnt invent powered flight because the jet engine is more prevalent these days.
Yes hundreds contributed and deserve recognition, but the man who made it all work deserves better than the sentence he usually gets before the (usually American), writer skips over him and all others to devote chapters to the patent fight that took place decades after the fact, between Farnsworth (a brilliant man) and RCA, as if the court case decided the right to be hailed as inventor.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wah wah wah, yet another brit complaining that we don't give enough credit to Baird. Look, if we want to give credit to people that made television systems that didn't work very well and never caught on, we ought to just say that Rosing invented television. But that would be silly, because his spinning discs were silly.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Theta said...

Sorry, but you're out of order. I'll make it very simple.....

Baird demonstrated the first TELEVISION picture in 1926.

Farnsworth.......didn't!

Blah blah blah 'Electronic' blah blah 'No moving parts' blah blah 'ploughed fields' - all ways to circumvent the problem that Americans didn't invent TV.

Incidentally, Farnsworth used a mechanical receiver in 1927. Not many people know that (or want to hear that!)

If we go by the logic of the Farnsworth supporters here, what's in our houses today bear no relation to Farnsworths CRT efforts. Who is the new inventor today??????

Oh, 'whisper - A. A. Swinton' - ploughed fields indeed!!

J. Logie Baird demonstrated the first EVER television picture. Case closed.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous 123man said...

Hey, not all Brits think Baird and Swinton invented television! I'm from London and I think Farnsworth gets the credit, despite what my British gradeschool textbooks claim (they are full of lots of other nationalist gibberish, anyway).

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Theta said...

You are of course entitled to your opinion but with respect your nationality has no bearing on the truth of my previous post.

John Logie Baird was the first person to publicly demonstrate the viewing of live moving pictures from a distance, i.e. he demonstrated television in 1926.

This fact is undisputed in scientific and engineering literature. It has nothing to do with nationalism or the banging of drums. It is a historic fact that this demonstration happened.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Chris Long said...

RE: "WHO INVENTED TELEVISION".

As a working historian and media chronicler for the last 40 years, with an educational background in electrical engineering, I would have to say that "the inventor of television" all depends on definitions.

Let's look at the definitions of two words by one of the most authoritative arbiters of the English language, the "Concise Oxford Dictionary":

First, the word "invent":

"v.t. create by thought, originate... concoct..."

However, most people would consider that invention involves more than just the conception of a plan, more than mere speculation on paper. For the thing to be truly INVENTED by a person, it has to be DEMONSTRATED by that person.

For example, Charles Cros narrowly beat Thomas Edison to the CONCEPTION of a phonograph; but Edison, in 1877, was the first to DEMONSTRATE it. Therefore Edison is generally considered to be the phonograph's inventor.

Radio? Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of "Hertzian" or "radio" waves, but Marconi applied it to a practical signalling system, so Marconi is generally considered to be the inventor of radio.

So let's look at the Oxford Dictionary's definition of the word "television":

"n. System for reproducing actual or recorded scene at a distance on a screen etc. by radio transmission, usu. with appropriate sounds; vision of distant objects obtained thus: televised programs etc..."

In terms of mere conception, there are many claimants to the invention of television systems which were eventually combined with other components to achieve television. Nipkow (1883) invented the scanning disc eventually employed by the earliest television systems. Moore (1917) invented the low-voltage modulated neon lamp used with that disc to receive the earliest television pictures. The alkali metal photocell with its high speed of response, suitable for television, was developed from concepts published by Elster and Geitel (1889). C F Jenkins (1923) transmitted moving pictures scanned from film, but these were usually simple silhouettes and geometric shapes, not three dimensional subjects by reflected light, not direct, no greyscale and certainly not "live".

So who was first to assemble a television system and demonstrate it to be capable of transmitting real-time three-dimensional objects, in movement, with a full range of grey scale tones, by reflected light? We MUST give credit to John Logie Baird and his first demonstration of the transmission of a dummy's head - as well as his own head and William Taynton's, in the first week of October 1925. Or, if you prefer the date of Baird's first public display, 26 January 1926, where forty members of Britain's Royal Institution and two journalists attended. Photographs of Baird's 30-line television image were taken in 1926. Although fuzzy and jagged, the image is recognisably that of a human face - and if one had known Baird's business manager, Hutchinson, one would probably have recognised him from that image.

The fact that later, electronic (cathode ray tube) systems of television by Campbell-Swinton (in conception only), Zworykin, Farnsworth et al eventually outmoded these earlier TV systems with their mechanical scanners does not detract from Baird's claim to invention. Baird, in October 1925, came first. To apply the same standards, present radio techniques owe little to Marconi's spark-and-coherer methods of the 1890s; modern railways work on an entirely different principle to Stephenson's steam-powered "Rocket" locomotive. But the perception of invention must lie with the earliest techniques that were made to work, and with the pioneers who used those techniques.

Farnsworth, for whom so much has been claimed in recent years, was undisputedly the first to get a wholly ELECTRONIC television system to work. This transmitted, according to Abramson's "History Of Television" (1987), only a "blob of light" on 7 September 1927. According to Farnsworth's own notes, his first "real" pictures were not produced by his camera tube until the second week of May, 1928. However Farnsworth's "image dissector" camera tube could not store photoelectric charge for the duration of each picture scan: it was insensitive, and it was not the direct antecedent of the mainstream of electronic television, as Zworykin's "iconoscope" camera and "kinescope" high vacuum receiver CRT were. According to Abramson, Zworykin's camera tube, though receiving an initial patent as early as 1923, was not made to work with film scanning until the end of 1930; it did not produce "live" pictures from a single-sided target plate until 9 November 1931; and a new method for producing a 'mosaic' of photosensitive elements on the camera signal plate provided really practical advances of Zworykin's electronic camera image quality in 1932.

Modern CCD cameras and LCD screens have only the vaguest relationship to the cathode ray tubes of Zworykin or Farnsworth. In the case of modern DLP micromirror TV projectors, the display device IS mechanical, with moving "nanomirror" arrays and a rotating colour wheel. Mechanical television also survives in receivers and cameras designed special purposes, or for public displays, such as the DynaScan, refer:

http://www.dynascanusa.com/

So pardon this historian - an Australian with no particular affiliation to any of these inventors' countries of origin - for sticking his neck out quite categorically and saying, ON THE BASIS OF THESE DEFINITIONS, it's Baird!

Regards to all,

Christopher Long, amateur radio operator VK3AML, Melbourne, Australia.

REFERENCES:

Albert Abramson: "The History Of Television, 1880 to 1941", McFarland & Co., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina; and London, England, 1987.

George and May Shiers: "Early Television, A Bibliographic Guide to 1940", Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1997.

Donald F McLean: "Restoring Baird's Image", Institution Of Electrical Engineers, London, 2000.

Bruce Norman: "Here's Looking At You, The Story Of British Television 1908 - 1939", BBC and Royal Television Society, London, 1984.

R W Burns: "Television: An International History Of The Formative Years", IEE History Of Technology Series, Vol 22, London, 1998.

A H Sommer: "Photoemissive Materials", John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1968.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Chris Long said...

RE: "WHO INVENTED TELEVISION".

As a working historian and media chronicler for the last 40 years, with an educational background in electrical engineering, I would have to say that "the inventor of television" all depends on definitions.

Let's look at the definitions of two words by one of the most authoritative arbiters of the English language, the "Concise Oxford Dictionary":

First, the word "invent":

"v.t. create by thought, originate... concoct..."

However, most people would consider that invention involves more than just the conception of a plan, more than mere speculation on paper. For the thing to be truly INVENTED by a person, it has to be DEMONSTRATED by that person.

For example, Charles Cros narrowly beat Thomas Edison to the CONCEPTION of a phonograph; but Edison, in 1877, was the first to DEMONSTRATE it. Therefore Edison is generally considered to be the phonograph's inventor.

Radio? Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of "Hertzian" or "radio" waves, but Marconi applied it to a practical signalling system, so Marconi is generally considered to be the inventor of radio.

So let's look at the Oxford Dictionary's definition of the word "television":

"n. System for reproducing actual or recorded scene at a distance on a screen etc. by radio transmission, usu. with appropriate sounds; vision of distant objects obtained thus: televised programs etc..."

In terms of mere conception, there are many claimants to the invention of television systems which were eventually combined with other components to achieve television. Nipkow (1883) invented the scanning disc eventually employed by the earliest television systems. Moore (1917) invented the low-voltage modulated neon lamp used with that disc to receive the earliest television pictures. The alkali metal photocell with its high speed of response, suitable for television, was developed from concepts published by Elster and Geitel (1889). C F Jenkins (1923) transmitted moving pictures scanned from film, but these were usually simple silhouettes and geometric shapes, not three dimensional subjects by reflected light, not direct, no greyscale and certainly not "live".

So who was first to assemble a television system and demonstrate it to be capable of transmitting real-time three-dimensional objects, in movement, with a full range of grey scale tones, by reflected light? We MUST give credit to John Logie Baird and his first demonstration of the transmission of a dummy's head - as well as his own head and William Taynton's, in the first week of October 1925. Or, if you prefer the date of Baird's first public display, 26 January 1926, where forty members of Britain's Royal Institution and two journalists attended. Photographs of Baird's 30-line television image were taken in 1926. Although fuzzy and jagged, the image is recognisably that of a human face - and if one had known Baird's business manager, Hutchinson, one would probably have recognised him from that image.

The fact that later, electronic (cathode ray tube) systems of television by Campbell-Swinton (in conception only), Zworykin, Farnsworth et al eventually outmoded these earlier TV systems with their mechanical scanners does not detract from Baird's claim to invention. Baird, in October 1925, came first. To apply the same standards, present radio techniques owe little to Marconi's spark-and-coherer methods of the 1890s; modern railways work on an entirely different principle to Stephenson's steam-powered "Rocket" locomotive. But the perception of invention must lie with the earliest techniques that were made to work, and with the pioneers who used those techniques.

Farnsworth, for whom so much has been claimed in recent years, was undisputedly the first to get a wholly ELECTRONIC television system to work. This transmitted, according to Abramson's "History Of Television" (1987), only a "blob of light" on 7 September 1927. According to Farnsworth's own notes, his first "real" pictures were not produced by his camera tube until the second week of May, 1928. However Farnsworth's "image dissector" camera tube could not store photoelectric charge for the duration of each picture scan: it was insensitive, and it was not the direct antecedent of the mainstream of electronic television, as Zworykin's "iconoscope" camera and "kinescope" high vacuum receiver CRT were. According to Abramson, Zworykin's camera tube, though receiving an initial patent as early as 1923, was not made to work with film scanning until the end of 1930; it did not produce "live" pictures from a single-sided target plate until 9 November 1931; and a new method for producing a 'mosaic' of photosensitive elements on the camera signal plate provided really practical advances of Zworykin's electronic camera image quality in 1932.

Modern CCD cameras and LCD screens have only the vaguest relationship to the cathode ray tubes of Zworykin or Farnsworth. In the case of modern DLP micromirror TV projectors, the display device IS mechanical, with moving "nanomirror" arrays and a rotating colour wheel. Mechanical television also survives in receivers and cameras designed special purposes, or for public displays, such as the DynaScan, refer:

http://www.dynascanusa.com/

So pardon this historian - an Australian with no particular affiliation to any of these inventors' countries of origin - for sticking his neck out quite categorically and saying, ON THE BASIS OF THESE DEFINITIONS, it's Baird!

Regards to all,

Christopher Long, amateur radio operator VK3AML, Melbourne, Australia.

REFERENCES:

Albert Abramson: "The History Of Television, 1880 to 1941", McFarland & Co., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina; and London, England, 1987.

George and May Shiers: "Early Television, A Bibliographic Guide to 1940", Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1997.

Donald F McLean: "Restoring Baird's Image", Institution Of Electrical Engineers, London, 2000.

Bruce Norman: "Here's Looking At You, The Story Of British Television 1908 - 1939", BBC and Royal Television Society, London, 1984.

R W Burns: "Television: An International History Of The Formative Years", IEE History Of Technology Series, Vol 22, London, 1998.

A H Sommer: "Photoemissive Materials", John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1968.

4:58 AM  

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