Who invented television? 

14 December 2023 tbs.pm/80208

John Logie Baird superimposed on a Nipkow disc


Cover of TVMirror

From TVMirror for week commencing 28 November 1953

WHEN the story of the development of television is written, it is almost impossible to be sure of doing justice to the many men who have contributed to its growth.

It is certain that no one person can lay claim to have “invented” television. The first speculations as to the possibility of seeing distant events at the time of their occurrence go back a century and maybe much further, but the achievement of the results we all know so well today is the outcome of the work of countless scientists and engineers in many countries.

Derby on TV in 1932!

One of the names which, in many people’s minds, is associated with the development of television, is that of John Logie Baird. This remarkable single-minded man devoted the greater part of his working life to television. He pursued his objective relentlessly, doggedly and with success.

Probably few people now remember that Baird made possible the first — and up to date the only — television broadcast of the Derby, in 1932. The results were extremely crude, but something startling had been achieved which could not be overlooked. Baird was a very great pioneer — one of his biographers has described him as “the father of all television” — but this much-discussed man can scarcely be described as the “inventor” of television. Indeed, the system of television transmission to which he pinned his faith is no longer in use anywhere in the world.

The fact is that in these days most major technical developments are brought about by teams of experts working in the laboratories and test rooms of large industrial concerns or of government establishments.

“Scanning” the scene

But to go back into the history of television, it was in 1839 that a French scientist, Edmond Becquerel, first discovered a crude means whereby variations in the strength of light could be translated into a varying electrical current.

In 1873 an English electrical engineer, Willoughby Smith, discovered the fact that selenium possessed the property that its resistance to electrical current varied with the strength of light falling on it. This led to the development of the “selenium cell” which found application in many directions as a means whereby electrical phenomena could be produced by the action of a beam of light.

The next step appears to have been the idea of “scanning” the scene to be transmitted. The basic concept was to form an image of the scene on a flat surface, by means of lenses, just as is done in a camera, and then to “explore” this image in a series of lines, in much the same way as one reads a page of print, line by line.

The idea was to transmit to the viewing end a varying current which would represent, point by point and line by line, the darkness and brightness of the scene. At the receiving end some similar scanning arrangement would be set up and this, working in exact synchronism with the scanning device at the sending end, could be influenced by the current received and recreate, point by point and line by line, the light and shade of the distant scene.


Three men and a woman look at a porthole TV screen

In that year a Graham Wilcox film “The Third Eye” featured a Baird Televisor. The inventor is demonstrating the set to film star Dorothy Seacombe


Early Cathode-ray tubes

Most of these ideas, which were being propounded between 1875 and 1885, did not lead to any practical result. Shelford Bidwell, however, demonstrated some practical results to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1881, and in 1884 Nipkow devised a simple method of scanning, using a rotating disc. This, if not of immediate application, was later used by J. L. Baird.

There was little practical advance from 1885 to the turn of the century, but in 1897 the first cathode-ray tubes were produced, and these were destined later to form a vital part of the television system.

In 1907 a Russian, Boris Rosing, first put forward the idea of using a cathode-ray tube as the “display” device at the receiving end. In 1908 Campbell Swinton, realising the impracticability of any system which relied upon moving or rotating mechanical parts, propounded ideas for an all-electronic system in which a cathode-ray tube was to be used as the basic element both at the sending and the receiving end.

He developed this idea still further in 1911, but recognised that it was no more than an idea which would have to wait upon further technical development before it could be put to the test. When we remember that at that time the electronic valve was still in its developmental stage and the electronic amplifier unknown, it is hardly surprising that Campbell Swinton could only faintly discern the means by which his idea could be brought to fruition. However, the fact is that every television system in operation today is fundamentally that which Campbell Swinton propounded before the First World War.

Baird and the BBC

It was this war which led to a speeding up in the development of the valve and of methods of radio transmission, developments which were to lead, a few years after the end of the war, to the start of general radio broadcasting.

Further advances in television were taking place behind the scenes, mainly in Great Britain and the USA, but it was not until 1929 that Baird’s experiments had reached a point where the BBC felt it was justifiable to put at his disposal one of the London transmitters for half an hour a day, five days a week, for the transmission of pictures.

In the following year the first television receivers were made available to the public. The pictures produced were extremely crude by modem standards, having a “definition” of only 30 lines and a very pronounced flicker. None the less, they continued for several years.

It had become obvious, at a very early stage in these experimental transmissions, that for a public service a very much higher standard of definition was essential. At the same time the conviction was growing in certain technical circles that any system which involved moving mechanical parts had very serious disadvantages and that an all-electronic system must be devised.

Foremost in the field in this country was the firm of Electric & Musical Industries, whose team included such distinguished engineers as A. D. Blumlein, C. O. Browne and J. D. McGee, whilst in the USA parallel development was in progress in the laboratories of the Radio Corporation of America.

As a result there appeared in both countries electronic cameras known respectively as the Emitron and the Iconoscope, and these led to the evolution of all-electronic high-definition systems of television as we know them.


Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh

A year that will long be remembered. The Coronation brought TV its greatest triumph – then came its own Royal Occasion when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Lime Grove studios. Here they are talking to a cameraman


Britain was first

In 1934 a committee was appointed by the Postmaster-General to advise him as to how a public service of high-definition television might be established in Great Britain and, as a result of this committee’s recommendations, there was inaugurated in London on November 2nd, 1936, the first public service of high-definition television in the world. Initially, two different systems were used on alternate weeks. One was the Baird system on 240 lines and the other the Marconi-E.M.I. system on 405 lines. In February 1937, on the recommendation of the Television Committee, the Marconi-E.M.I. system was adopted for the permanent service, and it is on the basis of the standards set by that system that British developments have proceeded ever since.


You Say

3 responses to this article

Harald Stelsen 15 December 2023 at 3:52 am

What an extremely poor article because of its omission of the man primarily responsible for the invention and development of electronic (NOT mechanical as invented by Baird) television which became the accepted norm.

Philo Taylor Farnsworth (August 19, 1906 – March 11, 1971) born in Beaver, UT, made many crucial contributions to the early development of all-electronic television and is best known for his 1927 invention of the first fully functional all-electronic image pickup device (video camera tube), the image dissector, as well as the FIRST fully functional and complete all-electronic television system.

One story is that his experience on working on a farm in plowing the fields (the back and forth along strips of the field motion) provided him the inspiration to develop the electron beam back and forth scanning technique in the camera and on the cathode ray tube screen to create and re-create the image being televised.

Russ J Graham 15 December 2023 at 5:21 pm

It’s a very UK-focused article, which was the norm of the time – note how Zworykin is missing too – and is from the period when Sarnoff/RCA were actively trying to bury Farnsworth’s contributions to the medium. Indeed, at this point Sarnoff had largely succeeded – he’d got himself declared as “the father of television” and everybody else was written out of the story, in the US at least. It would take his death before journalists “discovered” Farnsworth’s stolen patents. And even now, in the West, we still don’t acknowledge Kenjiro Takayanagi’s contributions at all. The whole subject is often much more about nationalism and much less about history than you or I would like, alas!

Andy Howlett 27 December 2023 at 7:29 pm

Farnsworth’s system was a non-starter. Unlike the Iconoscope and the Emiscope it had no charge storage as the electronic ‘image’ was pulled directly off the photo-cathode and was not ‘fixed’ in geometric terms. This led to very poor sensitivity (huge amounts of light required) and distortion of the image. It was evaluated both in the US and the UK and considered useless for live pictures.

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