HAPPY BIRTHDAY to ELECTRONIC TELEVISION! 85 TODAY
Friday, September 7th, 2012 is the 85th anniversary of the invention of electronic television. In 1927, 21 year old Philo T. Farnsworth and his 18 year old bride, Pem, demonstrated their invention to two Crocker Bank investors in the second floor lab of a rented garage at 202 Green Street in San Francisco.
85 years ago today, Farnsworth’s image dissector camera tube transmitted its first image, a simple straight line. The source of the image was a glass slide, backlit by an arc lamp. An extremely bright source was required because of the low light sensitivity of the design. By 1928, Farnsworth had developed the system sufficiently to hold a demonstration for the press. His backers had demanded to know when they would see dollars from the invention, so the first image shown was, appropriately, a dollar sign.
In 1929, the design was further improved by elimination of a motor-generator, so the television system now had no mechanical parts. That year, Farnsworth transmitted the first live human images using his television system, including a three and a half-inch image of his wife Elma (“Pem”), with her eyes closed because of the blinding light required.
Many inventors had built electromechanical television systems prior to Farnsworth’s seminal contribution, but Farnsworth designed and built the world’s first working all-electronic television system, employing electronic scanning in both the pickup and display devices. He first demonstrated his system to the press on September 3, 1928, and to the public at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on August 25, 1934.
In 1930, Vladimir Zworykin, who had been developing his own all-electronic television system at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh since 1923, but which he had never been able to make work or satisfactorily demonstrate to his superiors, was recruited by RCA to lead its television development department. Before leaving his old employer, Zworykin visited Farnsworth’s laboratory and was sufficiently impressed with the performance of the Image Dissector that he reportedly had his team at Westinghouse make several copies of the device for experimentation. Zworykin later abandoned research on the Image Dissector, which at the time required extremely bright illumination of its subjects to be effective, and turned his attention to what would become the Iconoscope.
In 1931, David Sarnoff of RCA offered to buy Farnsworth’s patents for $100,000, with the stipulation that he become an employee of RCA, but Farnsworth refused. In June of that year, Farnsworth joined the Philco company and moved to Philadelphia along with his wife and two children. RCA would later file an interference suit against Farnsworth, claiming Zworykin’s 1923 patent had priority over Farnsworth’s design, despite the fact they could present no evidence that Zworykin had actually produced a functioning transmitter tube before 1931.
Farnsworth had lost two interference claims to Zworykin in 1928, but this time he prevailed and the U.S. Patent Office rendered a decision in 1934 awarding priority of the invention of the image dissector to Farnsworth. RCA lost a subsequent appeal, but litigation over a variety of issues continued for several years with Sarnoff finally agreeing to pay Farnsworth royalties. Zworykin received a patent in 1928 for a color transmission version of his 1923 patent application, he also divided his original application in 1931, receiving a patent in 1935, while a second one was eventually issued in 1938 by the Court of Appeals on a non-Farnsworth related interference case, and over the objection of the Patent Office.
The photo below shows Philo and Pem at the demonstration of a 1935 version of his television camera.