Birth of a Name 

8 November 2018



From Practical Television for June 1952

TV! Everyone nowadays recognises this most modern of the many generally accepted technical abbreviations which we all permit ourselves in our written and spoken English. There is no better shortening of “television.” It is an abbreviation which, in many respects, has come to stay.

But now comes the interesting question of how, when, where and by whom the expression “television” itself first came to be used? It is, perhaps, not really a very important question, but, curiously, it is one which has never yet been settled fully and authoritatively. Take up your family dictionary. Better still, examine any standard Victorian dictionary. You will fail completely to find therein the now homely and everyday-employed term, “television.” This is rather strange, if only for the reason that the Victorians and their immediate successors, the Edwardians, were fond enough of the “teles,” as witness the long list of “tele”-prefixed words which give such massive and learned compilations both authority and comprehensiveness.

“Telescope,” “telegraph,” “telephone” and, perhaps, “telepathy” are all long-used and eminently obvious and respectable “tele”-words. But what, for instance, do you make of telephonographic, teleseme and telekinesis? Or of telephote, telethermographic, teleplastic?— all of which somewhat mysterious looking, high-flown expressions are to be found in any competent dictionary which is fifty years old or more.

Latin and Greek

“Tele,” we are told, is a Greek word meaning “distance,” “far,” “away,” and so on. “Video” is a Latin verb for “I see.” Clearly, therefore, television is fairly self-explanatory, despite that mixing of Latin and Greek words which is so repugnant to classical scholars. But, strangely enough, the early television experimenters seem to have had no idea of how to designate or describe the aims of their various systems. They seem to have been quite satisfied by the use of expressions such as “Seeing by Electricity,” “Electric Vision,” and so forth. Ultimately, as their experiments developed, they gave us the expressions “electrical telescope,” “distancevision,” “teletroscope” (with its consequent “telestroscopy”), “electro-magnetic vision,” “electrical vision,” and, finally, the rather more elegant “telescopy,” which latter term was a favourite with the British Patent Office, it being used officially therein as late as 1908.

An Inaccurate Term

Why the first experimenters failed to agree on a simpler term for their experiments is rather a moot point. We are inclined to think that the word “television” should have been obvious to them. Yet, on reflection, it will be seen that this word, used universally as it is at present, is not, in fact, a perfectly accurate one. An astronomer when he regards a distant planet or even the moon through his instrument is not utilising the science of television as we understand it. Yet he is obviously seeing at a distance. The term “television” has become a permanent one in nearly all languages, yet it does not perfectly describe the essentially electrical character of the technique which is employed. One has, of course, yet to hear a professional astronomer describing himself as a pure televisionist, but if such an argument were to develop it would, strictly speaking, be difficult to disregard the claim.

Hugo Gernsbach, a very popular American magazine editor, writer and publisher, once put in a strong claim to be the first to have made use of the word “television.” “This word,” he wrote in 1928, “was first coined by myself in an article entitled ‘Television and Telephot,’ which first appeared in the December, 1909, issue of my Modern Electrics.”

There is no doubt that H. Gernsbach believed his statement to be correct, but as a matter of fact subsequent investigation has shown that such was not the case. A Frenchman* named Perskyi used the word some eight years before Gernsbach.

Perskyi was a literary man. At the beginning of the century he was engaged in making up subject-lists for a publication of the International Congress of Electricity which was held in France during the summer of 1900. Among his published lists of electrical apparatus, projects, inventions, instruments and devices, Perskyi has the word télévision which he uses in precisely its modern connotation. The issue of the publication containing Perskyi’s télévision (“Annexes Congres International d’Electricite”) is dated “August 18-25th, 1900.”

So far as we know at present this constitutes the world’s first use of our modern word. TV, therefore, in its origins, turns out to be a French-devised and applied word, not a British or even an American one. Which is rather a pity because, for the most part, modern television has been, almost exclusively, the product of British and American brains and technical enterprise combined.

* Editor’s note: Constantin Dmitrievich Perskyi (Константин Дмитриевич Перский) was Russian.

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