NIEMANN: Who invented television: an American, a Russian-born immigrant or a Scot?

Posted: Aug. 22, 2011 9:11 am Updated: Nov. 29, 2014 8:15 am


"This is a beautiful instrument. I wish I had invented it myself."

– Vladimir Zworykin


Many people believe that television was invented by General Electric or RCA, which stands for Radio Corporation of America, but can't remember which big company.

Actually, television was invented by an independent inventor working alone. There were three inventors trying to develop television at the same time:

º Philo Farnsworth, a 15-year old farmboy from Idaho who rode his horse to school each day.

º Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian immigrant born in 1889 who worked for RCA.

º John Baird, a Scottish inventor born in 1888.

Farnsworth, whose grandfather settled with Brigham Young, was born in a log cabin in 1906. His 95-year-old widow, Elma, SAID Farnsworth decided at age 6 that he was going to be an inventor when he grew up.

Farnsworth conceived of what television should look like while plowing one of his family's potato fields (although I doubt this is where the term "couch potato" comes from), and he drew illustrations on the chalkboard for his high school chemistry teacher to see.

In his early 20s, he turned down job offers from both RCA and GE, choosing to go it alone. Both of these companies had spent millions of dollars trying to develop television. RCA also had waged a seven-year legal battle with Farnsworth over his patent rights.

A major part of Farnsworth's battle with RCA came from Zworykin, who had developed an electronic method of scanning an image for RCA in 1925. After Zworykin was finally issued his patent 13 years later, he couldn't produce any evidence to prove that he had constructed and operated his system before Farnsworth did, and RCA lost the case.

Across the ocean, there was another inventor obsessed with inventing the first working television. Baird sent what he called "pictures by wireless" in 1923, and then sent and received the first wireless television signal two years later. In 1928, he became the first person to broadcast live images across the Atlantic, and he started broadcasting with the BBC regularly in 1929. But the process with which he did all this -- known as "mechanical scanning" -- soon became obsolete.

Despite the competition with Baird and the financial backing that RCA provided to Zworykin, it was Farnsworth who became the father of television. So did Farnsworth live happily ever after?

Unfortunately, no. After beating Zworykin and RCA in court, Farnsworth was paid a handsome royalty for the right to license his television -- the first time RCA paid a royalty to anyone. Even though Farnsworth developed modern television, RCA brought it to market first and began regular broadcasts in 1939 through NBC, which it owned.

By 1941, Farnsworth was ready to follow RCA onto the market, but the United States government soon banned commercial television during World War II. By the time the war ended, Farnsworth's patent had run out and so did his luck. While he profited from the licenses that he sold, those licenses ran out when his patent expired.

More than a decade after his death in 1971, Farnsworth finally received some of the credit that he deserved. The U.S. Postal Service commemorated him with a stamp in 1983, and he was given an honorary television Emmy Award in 2001. Time magazine recognized him as one of their "100 Most Influential Persons of the 20th Century." By 1951, there were 10 million TV sets in the U.S., and it is estimated that more people now own a TV set than a telephone.




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