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January 16, 2006


Christopher Long


As a working historian and media chronicler for the last 40 years, with an educational background in electrical engineering, I would have to say that "the inventor of television" all depends on definitions.

Let's look at the definitions of two words by one of the most authoritative arbiters of the English language, the "Concise Oxford Dictionary":

First, the word "invent":

"v.t. create by thought, originate... concoct..."

However, most people would consider that invention involves more than just the conception of a plan, more than mere speculation on paper. For the thing to be truly INVENTED by a person, it has to be DEMONSTRATED by that person.

For example, Charles Cros narrowly beat Thomas Edison to the CONCEPTION of a phonograph; but Edison, in 1877, was the first to DEMONSTRATE it. Therefore Edison is generally considered to be the phonograph's inventor.

Radio? Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of "Hertzian" or "radio" waves, but Marconi applied it to a practical signalling system, so Marconi is generally considered to be the inventor of radio.

So let's look at the Oxford Dictionary's definition of the word "television":

"n. System for reproducing actual or recorded scene at a distance on a screen etc. by radio transmission, usu. with appropriate sounds; vision of distant objects obtained thus: televised programs etc..."

In terms of mere conception, there are many claimants to the invention of television systems which were eventually combined with other components to achieve television. Nipkow (1883) invented the scanning disc eventually employed by the earliest television systems. Moore (1917) invented the low-voltage modulated neon lamp used with that disc to receive the earliest television pictures. The alkali metal photocell with its high speed of response, suitable for television, was developed from concepts published by Elster and Geitel (1889). C F Jenkins (1923) transmitted moving pictures scanned from film, but these were usually simple silhouettes and geometric shapes, not three dimensional subjects by reflected light, not direct, no greyscale and certainly not "live".

So who was first to assemble a television system and demonstrate it to be capable of transmitting real-time three-dimensional objects, in movement, with a full range of grey scale tones, by reflected light? We MUST give credit to John Logie Baird and his first demonstration of the transmission of a dummy's head - as well as his own head and William Taynton's, in the first week of October 1925. Or, if you prefer the date of Baird's first public display, 26 January 1926, where forty members of Britain's Royal Institution and two journalists attended. Photographs of Baird's 30-line television image were taken in 1926. Although fuzzy and jagged, the image is recognisably that of a human face - and if one had known Baird's business manager, Hutchinson, one would probably have recognised him from that image.

The fact that later, electronic (cathode ray tube) systems of television by Campbell-Swinton (in conception only), Zworykin, Farnsworth et al eventually outmoded these earlier TV systems with their mechanical scanners does not detract from Baird's claim to invention. Baird, in October 1925, came first. To apply the same standards, present radio techniques owe little to Marconi's spark-and-coherer methods of the 1890s; modern railways work on an entirely different principle to Stephenson's steam-powered "Rocket" locomotive. But the perception of invention must lie with the earliest techniques that were made to work, and with the pioneers who used those techniques.

Farnsworth, for whom so much has been claimed in recent years, was undisputedly the first to get a wholly ELECTRONIC television system to work. This transmitted, according to Abramson's "History Of Television" (1987), only a "blob of light" on 7 September 1927. According to Farnsworth's own notes, his first "real" pictures were not produced by his camera tube until the second week of May, 1928. However Farnsworth's "image dissector" camera tube could not store photoelectric charge for the duration of each picture scan: it was insensitive, and it was not the direct antecedent of the mainstream of electronic television, as Zworykin's "iconoscope" camera and "kinescope" high vacuum receiver CRT were. According to Abramson, Zworykin's camera tube, though receiving an initial patent as early as 1923, was not made to work with film scanning until the end of 1930; it did not produce "live" pictures from a single-sided target plate until 9 November 1931; and a new method for producing a 'mosaic' of photosensitive elements on the camera signal plate provided really practical advances of Zworykin's electronic camera image quality in 1932.

Modern CCD cameras and LCD screens have only the vaguest relationship to the cathode ray tubes of Zworykin or Farnsworth. In the case of modern DLP micromirror TV projectors, the display device IS mechanical, with moving "nanomirror" arrays and a rotating colour wheel. Mechanical television also survives in receivers and cameras designed special purposes, or for public displays, such as the DynaScan, refer:


So pardon this historian - an Australian with no particular affiliation to any of these inventors' countries of origin - for sticking his neck out quite categorically and saying, ON THE BASIS OF THESE DEFINITIONS, it's Baird!

Regards to all,

Christopher Long, amateur radio operator VK3AML, Melbourne, Australia.


Albert Abramson: "The History Of Television, 1880 to 1941", McFarland & Co., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina; and London, England, 1987.

George and May Shiers: "Early Television, A Bibliographic Guide to 1940", Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1997.

Donald F McLean: "Restoring Baird's Image", Institution Of Electrical Engineers, London, 2000.

Bruce Norman: "Here's Looking At You, The Story Of British Television 1908 - 1939", BBC and Royal Television Society, London, 1984.

R W Burns: "Television: An International History Of The Formative Years", IEE History Of Technology Series, Vol 22, London, 1998.

A H Sommer: "Photoemissive Materials", John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1968.


Kálmán Tihanyi invented the electronic TV-system (charge storage) in 1924 and patented it in 1926. According to UNESCO Memory of the WORLD, the modern TV was invented by Tihanyi

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