Some time ago, I wrote about Philo Farnsworth, a man who played a big role in the development of the television set. That’s when I thought it would be a good idea to complement this article with a history of the creation of television. Now, it’s time to do exactly that.
Who Invented Television?
It’s not possible to give just one name to answer this question. The invention of television was a long process, the development of different ideas and the creation of new technology that led to the result we now know.
First, There Was Mechanical Television
Before anything else, to create television, it was needed to know how to transmit images. The idea of sending images across great distances was first explored by visionaries and innovators in the 19th century. Most notably, Samuel F.B. Morse created the telegraph in the 1830s, which paved the path for following advancements and allowed for electronic communication.
Then in the late 1800s, by creating the “electric telescope” in 1884, German researcher Paul Nipkow made a significant contribution. Although in a mechanical form, this technology used spinning disks to transfer pictures over cables. The work of Nipkow was a critical milestone in the development of television.
A Scottish inventor named John Logie Baird made another significant advancement. In 1925, he showed off the first public display of broadcast shadow pictures in motion. Baird’s technology made use of the Nipkow disk to transmit moving pictures, although at a poor quality. He accomplished an important first for television when he showed how to transmit a moving face.
Then Came the Electronic Television
With the development of electronic technology, television underwent a real revolution. Engineer Vladimir Zworykin, who was born in Russia, submitted a patent application in 1923 for his “Iconoscope,” a prototype of an early electronic television system that transmitted pictures using cathode ray tubes. The groundwork for entirely electronic television was developed by Zworykin.
In the meantime, a young American inventor called Philo Farnsworth was pioneering electronic television in the country. Farnsworth created a vacuum tube-based system that could divide pictures into lines, transmit those lines, and then reassemble them into coherent images as a result of being inspired by his high school chemistry class. At the age of just 21, Farnsworth successfully finished the first fully electronic TV system prototype in 1927. As the beginning of electronic television technology, this was a turning point in television history.
Legal disputes, notably with Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which asserted primacy over Farnsworth’s ideas, made his work difficult. Although the U.S. Patent Office decided in Farnsworth’s favor in 1934, he continued to battle patent issues and only got modest recompense for his groundbreaking work.
This led us to David Sarnoff who was a manager of RCA and another significant player during the electronic television period. Because Sarnoff saw the enormous potential of television, he engaged Vladimir Zworykin to advance and improve television technology for the business. The future of television would be significantly shaped by RCA under Sarnoff’s direction—who later became the president of the NBC network.
During the early stages of television development, image resolution was a crucial element to improve on. The resolutions of mechanical television systems, like Baird’s, generally ranged from 30 to 120 lines. Although these early systems were groundbreaking, they had trouble producing pictures of a high caliber. However, electronic television systems started to provide images with a higher level of quality.
In comparison to mechanical systems, RCA’s electronic television transmissions in the UK by the middle of the 1930s had a resolution of 240 lines. The ability of electronic television to provide crisper and more detailed images helped it become widely used.
Television Got Colors
John Logie Baird was among the first to experiment with color television and demonstrated a rudimentary color television system in the 1920s. However, the adoption of the NTSC (National Television System Committee) color television standard in the U.S. was certainly the most important turning point in the history of color television.
The NTSC system was created to provide color broadcasts while ensuring compatibility with current black-and-white television sets. A group of engineers, including RCA engineer R.C. Johnson, who was instrumental in creating the NTSC color television system, created the NTSC standard.
The beginnings of the mainstream use of color television came in 1954 with the debut of the first NTSC color television transmissions in the United States. As technology developed, new color television standards, such PAL (Phase Alternating Line) and SECAM (Séquentiel Couleur à Mémoire), were introduced in various locations.
Fun fact: It was the TV show Bonanza that pushed Americans to buy en masse new color TV sets. Before that, nobody was really interested in doing so, black-and-white didn’t seem ready to die. Once the popular Western found success, almost every other show on network television switched to color and a new era started.