Early Pioneers

Who Invented Television?

The issue of ‘who invented television?’ will probably never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Each country believes they have their own televison pioneer(s). People in the US believe it was Jenkins, or Farnsworth, or Zworykin with support from Hungarian Tihanyi’s patents. The Japanese believe it was Takayanagi. In Russia, Boris Rosing. In France, Belin and Barthelemy. Eastern Europe, von Mihaly. Germany, Karolus. In the UK we have the choice of Campbell-Swinton for concept and Baird for practical demonstration and harbinger of the television age.

A few recent authors (Burns and Abramson) have taken a less provincial and more global view and correctly cited almost parallel developments in thinking and experiment around the world. Television had been thought out theoretically for some time and only slow-speed image facsimile communications were practical. Developments in electronics at the start of the 20th century led the way to practicality and by the early 1920s, the availability of fast, sensitive photo-cells and valve/tube amplifiers meant the parts were coming together. At that time, scanning the picture – a necessary step to making television practical – could not yet be done electronically. There was however an opto-mechanical approach available.

Paul Nipkow had invented a method of mechanical scanning for television in 1884. This was basically a disc with a single spiral of lenses or apertures on it. Each lens corresponded to a line of the television picture. One rotation would give one television frame. Not only was it simple to build (for a small number of lines), it could be used for both camera-scanning and display scanning. The Nipkow disc was used by several of these TV pioneers as the basis for their Television system.

A A Campbell Swinton

The concept of television scanned, synchronised and displayed by electronic means belongs back in 1908 to Scotsman, Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton. His was the ‘Distant Electric Vision’ as suggested in his letter to Nature (18 June 1908) and subsequent lecture (1911) illustrated with diagrams. This was to be the closest match to the eventual electronic systems in development in the 1920s and a practical reality in the 1930s. However, his concept of television (and it was no more than that) does not apply to today’s television system – merely to the valve-analogue implementation, which was crucially the next viable step in the television’s development.

John Logie Baird

JLBBy the mid 1920s there were several experimenters around the world all busy experimenting with their own flavour of mechanically-scanned television. First with a demonstration of ‘true’ television (by reflected light rather than back-lit silhouettes) was a Scotsman, John Logie Baird. Like his contemporaries, his equipment contained no new major developments that could be attributed to him directly. Baird took Nipkow’s scanning disc idea and the latest in electronics and developed this into the first demonstration of ‘true’ television in London, January 1926.
His system was crude by modern standards comprising only 30 lines per picture. The low resolution drove him to ‘tune’ the scanning direction and aspect ratio to be a vertically-scanned letter-box. This would allow the best match for head-and-shoulders views.

The years from 1927-1929 were Baird’s most publicly innovative. He experimented with all aspects of this new form of communications. These experiments made him a legend in his own lifetime. His mechanical approach allowed him to try out ideas that would not be possible in the electronic systems for many years to come. In fact, colour television, stereoscopic 3D television and television by infra-red light were all demonstrated by Baird before 1930. His transmission of the image of a face across the Atlantic in 1928 was considered epoch-breaking. As it was never repeated or developed further, along with his other demonstrations, it looks like Baird was merely staking claims with a string of firsts to secure his position with a view to continue securing financial backing for his company.

He successfully lobbied for broadcast time on the BBC. The BBC started broadcasting television on the Baird 30-line TV system experimentally from 1929. The first simultaneous sound and vision play was broadcast in 1930. In July 1930, the first British television play was transmitted – ‘The Man with the Flower in his Mouth’. The first play broadcast on television was ‘The Queen’s Messenger’ from W2XB in Schenectady New York broadcast in September 1928 and technically impressive using three separate cameras. What plays such as these showed is that the low definition nature of television at that time placed serious limitations on creating visual entertainment, when compared with radio and the mind’s eye.

The BBC adopted Baird’s 30-line system in 1932 – despite higher resolution systems being available. By 1932, the 30-line system was mature and exceptionally low-cost in engineering terms – the BBC could use their existing audio radio transmitters for the low-bandwidth video. But it wasn’t just the cost of the service, there were no suitable wide-band transmitters readily available for developing a service and there was no infrastructure that could be rolled out to the public in such a short while. Transmissions on the BBC continued until 11 September 1935 as developments in fully electronic television led to the demise of the 30-line service. It was replaced with the world’s first regular high-resolution (405 lines per picture) television service by the BBC in 1936.

Where’s the evidence of Baird’s Achievements?

Precious little tangible evidence of Baird’s early achievements exists today. However, Baird did leave direct proof of one of his early experiments. This takes the form of recordings of his 30-line television signal on wax discs. Not only are they a very early record of Baird’s work (recorded less than two years after his first demonstration of television) but these discs are the earliest recordings of television in the world.