Who invented television?
Before examining the studios – a very brief history of who actually invented television….
Most people in the UK assume that television was invented by eccentric Scot, John Logie Baird. The idea that he alone came up with this extraordinary invention and that without his tabletop experiments with ladies’ hat boxes, lenses made from bicycle lamps and even on one messy occasion – a real human eye, we would all still be gathered around the wireless of an evening is not, sadly, entirely the case. However, credit where it is due, he was the first to make a mechanical system of scanning recognisable moving images work over a short distance – and soon afterwards, very long distances using radio.
Experiments attempting to scan images using slots in spinning discs were being made as early as 1884 by a German called Paul Nipkow but to be fair to Baird, he couldn’t make it work. Others around the world tried using similar systems – indeed the word ‘television’ was first used by a Franco-Russian inventor in 1900. In 1909 Rignoux and Fournier successfully transmitted an 8×8 pixel image – but frankly, that’s not exactly a high definition picture.
In 1911 Vladimir Zworykin (he will crop up again later) and Boris Rosing developed a mechanical drum system using mirrors but it could only transmit static images as the apparatus had a great deal of lag. However, they were by then using an early form of cathode ray tube (CRT) to display the image which was a significant advance.
By the mid 1920s there were at least nine teams trying to make it all work. In the Soviet Union Léon Theremin developed a system with 16 lines in 1925, 64 lines in 1926 and 100 lines in 1927. (He was also the inventor of the extraordinary eponymous musical instrument heard on the soundtrack of 1950s sci-fi films. He later perhaps more usefully developed the system of interlacing television lines.) In Japan, Kenjiro Takayanagi demonstrated a 40 line system in December 1925. In Hungary, Kálmán Tihanyi developed an early prototype electronic camera tube as early as 1926. The United States had the companies RCA, General Electric and Bell – with Zworykin now working for Westinghouse – plus two individuals operating independently, named Charles Francis Jenkins and Philo T Farnsworth (more on him later) – whilst in the UK was our very own J L Baird.
In his excellent book One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson explains that Jenkins was possibly the first person to realise the full potential of television – or ‘radiovisor’ as he called it. Others assumed it would simply have a scientific or security application but he predicted that people would sit at home watching dramas, entertainment shows and travel documentaries all in the comfort of their own front room. Although he formed a company worth more than $10m, he failed to make his invention work successfully. His 48-line system only managed to create silhouettes of images in 1923 and never achieved the multiple shades of grey necessary for a workable picture.
In October 1925 Baird was probably the first to get a recognisable grey-scale image to be displayed on a monitor screen. It was a face – actually a very disturbing ventriloquist puppet named ‘Stooky Bill.’ The lights used to illuminate it were so strong that the heat singed its hair and cracked its ‘skin’ making it all the more grotesque. I would include a photo but I don’t want you to have nightmares. Instead, here’s a picture of a human being, as seen on Baird’s screen:
The first photograph of a television picture – this was Baird’s business partner Oliver Hutchinson in 1926. It may not look much to us but Baird was the first to create a live moving recognisable image with tonal variation and with no significant lag. It would almost have seemed like magic in its day.
He continued to develop his 30 line system to its practical limits – limited by the size of the spinning disc required to create an image big enough to be seen at any sensible distance. Even so, the largest screen he managed to achieve was only three inches by two and a half (about the size of a smartphone). Nevertheless, the world’s press was duly astonished when on 8th September 1927 he transmitted live moving pictures from Leeds to London and then from London to Glasgow. In 1928 he even transmitted the first transatlantic live TV signal between London and New York. In November, along with Bernard Natan, Baird established France’s first television company.
The BBC experimented with Baird’s system, (see this website’s section on Broadcasting House) whilst Baird himself moved on to other developments. He knew that the mechanical system could never be adopted widely and concentrated on a technique involving a film camera with a rapid development process and flying spot telecine machine to create a 240-line electronic signal within a minute or so. Not quite live then – but almost. Still, his invention of the telecine machine was genuinely ground-breaking and in various modified forms would be used worldwide for decades, enabling films to be shown on television.
Meanwhile, in America, let’s wind back just a few years. In 1921, the 15 year old Philo T Farnsworth (isn’t that just the best name ever?) was ploughing his father’s field when he had a blinding flash of scientific realisation. Not just a farmer’s son, he was academically brilliant and had been reading Einstein’s theory on electrons and their photo-electric effect. Looking at the ‘scanned’ field he had ploughed, he realised that a television picture could be made up using electronic lines in a similar fashion. He showed a drawing with some detailed notes to his chemistry teacher, who was so impressed that he kept them – but of course nothing was done at the time to develop this theory. Nevertheless, these drawings were later to prove extremely valuable.
Once he was 20, he formed a partnership with a couple of young businessmen he met by chance, who invested all the money they had into his invention. He filed his first patents in January 1927. The equipment all had to be built from scratch but by September his team were able to transmit their first ‘image.’ It was only 1 line, so hardly impressive to any uninformed observer, but it proved the system would work. By 1929 he was producing the first live images of people using an electronically scanned system. Soon afterwards he was producing images of 150 lines, far superior to anything anyone else was achieving. Unfortunately, his ‘image dissector’ camera was very insensitive to light so the system needed more work before it could be commercially adopted.
Much of Farnsworth’s work was patented – he had 165 of them – but of course, many people learnt of his achievements and tried to copy them. What he lacked was the huge financial backing required to make it all work commercially on a large scale. However, as can be seen below, he did try.
Meanwhile, to cut a very complicated story short, Russian immigrant to the USA Vladimir Zworykin was similarly gifted – he had presented his idea for a purely electronic TV system to the head of Westinghouse in 1923. It was rejected. By 1931 he was working with RCA to develop his plans into an electronically scanned TV system, just like Farnsworth’s. He utilised some of the early research carried out by the Hungarian inventor Tihanyi to produce the first version of his Iconoscope camera. Unfortunately, most of the patents were held by Farnsworth and Zworykin was still struggling to make it all work properly, despite colossal investment from RCA. Farnsworth, meanwhile, was attempting to increase the sensitivity of his Image Dissector camera and make his system commercially viable.
The story goes that Zworykin visited Farnsworth, who assumed that RCA wished to pay him a lot of money to license his technology. He demonstrated everything to Zworykin and explained how it all worked. Following the visit, RCA are said to have made huge advances in their development. Unfortunately however, the offer to buy Farnsworth’s patents was not made at the time but later they did put forward a sum of $100,000 for everything, which Farnsworth refused as being derisory. He was effectively broke and sold his company to Philco.
Sadly, the battle between RCA and Farnsworth went on for years – they maintained that a 15 year old could not possibly have come up with the ideas that had eluded some of America’s greatest brains – but fortunately his chemistry teacher had kept those drawings and of course he still held the patents. A court ruled that Farnsworth was ‘the undisputed inventor of television.’ RCA eventually agreed to pay Farnsworth royalties over a ten year period and from 1939 they began to officially incorporate his technology into their products.
Philo T Farnsworth with his Image Dissector camera
In Britain, EMI was formed in March 1931 from a merger between HMV and Columbia. Although both were music publishers and record manufacturers they also had teams developing consumer electronics. Isaac Shoenberg (another Russian émigré but this one living in the UK) had been with Columbia and now, as the new head of EMI’s research department, assembled a team of 114 engineers and scientists to develop a working television system.
Many of them came from some of the best scientific establishments in the country and included Alan Blumlein – previously head of research at HMV (he would go on to file a new patent about every 6 weeks during his working life with EMI.) He defined the 405 line TV waveforms that the BBC would use, amongst many other achievements. Gerhard Lubszynski came from Germany, where he had been persecuted by the Nazis. James McGee and William F Tedham concentrated on creating a camera. In 1932 they applied for a British patent for the Emitron tube which they had developed into a fully working camera by 1934.
Also in 1934, EMI formed a partnership with Marconi, who specialised in manufacturing transmitters but who also had an arrangement with RCA in America to share patents. The team thus now had full access to all the work done there. There are two schools of thought about how useful this was to the EMI team. One has it that they took the RCA Iconoscope camera design and tweaked it to create the Emitron. However, they had already filed patents for the Emitron two years earlier so it seems more likely that access to the RCA Iconoscope may have merely helped them modify their design and further improve it, rather than simply copying it. In any event, accounts state that the Emitron was the superior camera.
In 1934 the German company Telefunken also struck a deal with RCA and Zworykin and using his technology they began to develop a TV system of their own.
In 1935 the combined Marconi-EMI team, headed by Shoenberg, announced they were concentrating on developing a 405-line interlaced system using Emitron cameras ready for the BBC’s regular broadcasts from Alexandra Palace. These began in November 1936.
Early in 1937, the Marconi-EMI team improved the Emitron camera considerably in its resolution and shading. In November that same year, thanks to a brilliant development by Gerhard Lubszynski, the Super Emitron was introduced, which was many times times more sensitive than the original Emitron. This breakthrough transformed the way programmes could be made in the studio and on outside broadcasts. Lighting levels were not much more than those used today and it was possible to simply take cameras into a West End theatre and transmit the play using the theatre’s stage lighting – once again, much as happens today with live cinema relays. The Super Emitron was in use from 1937 to the early 1950s (there was of course no television in the UK between 1939 and 1946.) After the war, EMI and Marconi continued to lead the world in TV camera design for many years.
The early 1937 version of the Emitron. The original version did not have the protrusion at the front for the longer, higher resolution tube. The more sensitive Super Emitron that came later in the same year had a squarer, wider casing. Note the two lenses – one created the television image, the other matching one created an upside down image in the viewfinder. Cameramen quickly adapted to everything being back to front – and it is said found it surprisingly difficult to adapt when later viewfinders provided an image the right way round.
Interestingly, the early cameras built in 1934 had no viewfinder. This was not considered necessary as under lab conditions it never had been. When cameramen first started using them they asked where the viewfinder was and had to improvise with a bent-wire framing device until EMI came up with the 2-lens system seen above. Fortunately, this was ready before the first broadcasts in 1936.
photo thanks to National Media Museum/SSPL guardian.co.uk
So who invented television? Well, all of the above but Baird produced the first recognisable television pictures and the telecine machine, Tihanyi invented the charge storage camera tube, Farnsworth invented the principle of electronic television, Zworykin invented it too but had to use techniques developed by Farnsworth to make it work, Theremin invented interlacing and Shoenberg and his brilliant team at Marconi-EMI developed a working system with a camera that enabled programme makers to produce the kind of shows we still watch today.
If I had to pick one of them – I’d say the EMI team were the most influential. They started from scratch in 1931 and by 1937 they had created the most technically advanced television system of any available at that time. Without them it’s hard to imagine how the BBC could have established a television service that became the envy of the world – a reputation that it still just about holds onto today.