The man behind the box

Zworykin, Pioneer of Television
November 10, 1995

As a boy of 12, I was present at a demonstration of television in London by John Logie Baird and for a long time I thought he was the inventor of this wonderful new device. Actually there were many pioneers but there was no single inventor of television. The Russian born Vladimir Kosma Zworykin was one of these pioneers and Albert Abramson has written an authoritative book about his life.

Zworykin's life was entwined with the career of another Russian - David Sarnoff - who played the major management role in the development of television. When Zworykin escaped to America in 1919 from the chaos of the revolutionary days in Russia the great American companies of Westinghouse and General Electric were struggling for supremacy. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) emerged and David Sarnoff, formerly of American Marconi, was named commercial manager and then general manager.

Sarnoff's support for Zworykin had an absolute quality. Through the critical years of the great depression, Sarnoff's faith never wavered. In the complexities of international competition he was a master strategist and in the spring of 1933 he decided it was time for Zworykin to release his secrets. He did so in June 1933 at a large convention of engineers in Chicago and his lecture on "The Iconoscope: a new version of the Electric Eye" and the accompanying demonstration signified the beginning of the age of electronic television. A month later Sarnoff sent Zworykin to England. Of greater significance than his lecture in London was his visit to the EMI laboratories at Hayes where Isaac Shoenberg controlled a brilliant team of electronic engineers. By virtue of the mergers that had taken place two years earlier, Sarnoff was already on the board of directors of EMI and there had been an agreement with RCA by which EMI received the licence bulletins and patent applications from RCA. Together with leaked information from Zworykin's laboratory, the EMI team had been able to make an experimental tube along the lines of the iconoscope.

James D. McGee was then with the EMI research group and in later years he frequently claimed that this tube had been developed without any access to Zworykin's work. Abramson produces the evidence that this was not the case and that there is absolute proof that EMI had knowledge of the Zworykin iconoscope. In any case with Zworykin's visit to EMI in the summer of 1933 Sarnoff made a decisive move by giving EMI access to the advanced state of RCA's camera tube. This was the critical act in the relationship between RCA and EMI which gave them almost complete domination of the television industry. In 1935 Sarnoff negotiated the sale of RCA's EMI stock to investors in England for more than $10 million. Neither Baird Television nor anyone else in England could continue to claim that RCA had any technical or financial interest in English television. The "Emitron" that so successfully initiated the prewar BBC television service used the fundamental principles of Zworykin's iconoscope.

In 1911 the president of the Rontgen Society of London, Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton, delivered his presidential address on the subject of "distant electric vision". He described in some detail a system of television using forms of cathode ray tubes at both the transmitter and receiver. At that time his concept was revolutionary and there was to be an immense gulf between the theory and its practical implementation. Twenty-five years after Campbell Swinton's address the first rudimentary public television service began in England and America. It was a quarter century of industrial struggle for supremacy in this new development involving an immense number of patents. Abramson threads his way through the maze with scholastic courage to the extent that 207 pages of text are followed by another 100 pages of notes and references. Many of his notes are of great interest and could often be transferred to the text with advantage, especially where the successive list of patents begins to obscure the major theme.

In writing about Zworykin, Abramson has inevitably covered the history of television in which pioneers were engulfed in the international struggles for commercial success. Zworykin himself was a fortunate pioneer. Born and educated in tsarist Russia he survived the war and the revolution. Through luck and clever manipulation he escaped to America, and his meeting with Sarnoff was perhaps his greatest piece of good fortune. After the second world war he was subject to years of investigation by the FBI, and even Sarnoff could not save him from those perils.

Sir Bernard Lovell is at the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories.

Zworykin, Pioneer of Television

Author - Albert Abramson
ISBN - 0 252 02104 5
Publisher - University of Illinois Press
Price - $36.95
Pages - 312

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