Television History:
The Beginning of a New Medium

by: Beth Ann Wilt

The beginning of a new medium in any age is an exciting and intriguing issue for all the people of that particular time period. The introduction of television was not an exception. The birth of the electronic television age is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly. Due to the numerous contributors that helped to develop this new medium, it is even more difficult to acknowledge any one person for its invention. The time span between the origin of the electronic television until its full understanding of how it functioned extends from the age of Thomas Edison (1847-1931) to the mind of Idaho farm boy, Philo Farnesworth (1906-1971). In this paper, I will attempt to explain these issues as well as several others pertaining to the history of television.

In addition to the invention of television, the promotion and marketing of this new medium also presents a controversial discussion. Business giant, David Sarnoff, appears quite frequently when researching this issue. It is also interesting to learn how much or how little the government was involved in the emergence of television. Who began to set the universal technical standards in order for television to succeed? In addition, the content of early television was strictly monitored in comparison to today’s standards. Considering the fact that television was mostly developed by private investors, it is not difficult to foresee their involvement in these regulation processes. This paper will attempt to answer three major issues dealing with the history of television. Who invented electronic television? Who marketed and developed this medium in order for it to succeed? Who was involved in setting the universal technical standards for television?

My major primary sources consisted of papers and essays by David Sarnoff, proceedings from the National Television System Committee television standards and practices submission, and several newspaper articles from the 1930’s. I was also able to secure an email interview with Paul Schatzkin, author of The Farnesworth Chronicles. In addition, I also found an interview with Vladimir Zworykin and a transcript from a Public Broadcast System documentary. This transcript helped my research as I was able to see the points of view of several scholarly researchers and those who were actually part of television’s history. The essays and newspaper articles allowed me to look into the past as it was being developed. Shockingly, several of these primary sources were found from credible web site research pages. This was especially helpful as most of the web sites gave suggestions for further research. My secondary sources were also a major help in my research as I found plenty of television histories, oral histories, and biographies. Still, some of my findings were conflicting as I had to choose what I felt were the most credible sources to document. Therefore, several theories and other historical documentation may differ from the results I have presented.

The simple question of who invented the television is far from receiving a simple answer. For decades, this complex issue has been wildly debated among many researchers. There are many people who claim to have solely invented electronic television as well as those who claim to have contributed to its invention in some way. In an article from the New York Times, published August 2, 1927, British scientist, John L. Baird, predicted what he labeled a "sight machine." On March 28, 1928, it is documented that Baird was the first person to record a mechanical television production.(1) However, it is not proved that he had anything to do with the electronic television that exists today. Farnesworth Biographer, Paul Schatzkin, states that "Baird was a ‘prehistoric’ contributor [to modern electronic television.]"(2) As stated on The National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television website, "No single person invented television. One inventor built upon the work of previous inventors, and parallel systems emerged around the same time. This makes the issue of who invented television a complicated one."(3) Most of the debates concerning electronic television involve two of the greatest inventors of the era, Vladimir Zworykin (1889-1982) and Philo Farnesworth. I will discuss these two inventor’s association with electronic television as well as Thomas Edison’s role in the development thereof.

In 1884, Thomas Edison invented what he called the telephoneoscope. This device allowed pictures to be seen and heard from a different place other than where they were taking place. The image was seen through an electric camera-obscura and the sound came from a wire. Basically, Edison’s invention was the first to be able to transmit light as well as sound at the same time. This patented discovery, as well as many others, gave ground for future electronic inventions and creations. In an essay about Edison, David Sarnoff stated that "the modern structure of radio and television is built upon the foundations which Edison helped to erect."(4) Edison did not have any direct connection to the invention of television, but these earlier devices laid the ground floor for later work in the field.

Vladimir Zworykin came to the United States from Russia in 1919 after studying under Boris Rosing, a professor in charge of laboratory projects at the Imperial Institute of Technology. Zworykin and Rosing experimented with the cathode-ray tube, previously developed in Germany by Karl Braun. Soon after arriving in the states, Zworykin began to work for Westinghouse. After several failed attempts to perfect his electronic television idea, his investors began to get bored with his audacious attempts. Even Zworykin’s 1923 patent application for his electronic television concept was rejected due to his inability to prove competency in his discoveries and ideas.

There is one story in particular about Zworykin, who was employed by Westinghouse at the time, attempting to demonstrate his concept for executives of the company in hopes of obtaining more funding for his research. The demonstration was so dismal that, rather than providing him with further funding, Zworykin's superiors ordered him to find something ‘more useful’ to work on.(5)

Zworykin was practically forced to give up his television research. During 1928-1929, he was involved with three different projects for Westinghouse, working on perfecting a facsimile machine, a new photoelectric cell, and trying to record sound on motion picture film. It was during this time that David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) heard about Zworykin. Wanting to continue his monopoly of the communication industry and visionizing the future, Sarnoff hired Zworykin and invested the necessary funds in order for his research in television technology to continue. Zworykin told Sarnoff that he would need approximately $100,000 to develop his idea. It was later stated by Sarnoff that he invested almost 50 million dollars in Zworykin’s research. "In November 1929, at a convention of the Institute of Radio Engineers, the inventor Vladimir Zworykin introduced his iconoscope, an ‘electric eye’ for scanning pictures."(6) However, it wasn’t until early 1939 that he was granted a patent, #2,141,059, for his system of interlocking sight and sound. Within this lapse of ten years, many other inventions and advances in this field took place as scientists and inventors struggled to make a name for themselves and their discoveries. It was during this time that Philo Farnesworth, perhaps one of the greatest inventors of the era, as well as Zworykin’s rival, began to surface in the electronically advancing world.

In Rigby, Idaho, in 1920, at the ripe age of 13, Philo T. Farnesworth diagrammed his idea for television on Justin Tolman’s blackboard (Illustration 1). Tolman was Farnesworth’s high school science teacher. Though he didn’t quite understand Farnesworth’s idea, he urged him go ahead with it. Being secluded on an Idaho farm, Farnesworth didn’t have much more than his imagination and his genius to aid him with these veracious ideas floating around in his head. "I just visualize him as being more and more and more and more alone intellectually, reaching a point where it never even occurred to him that there might be other people who could think at the same level that he did."(7) Still, Farnesworth never gave up his idea, and at the age of 19, pitched his ‘vision’ to two California businessmen who agreed to fund his research. With constant competitiveness from Zworykin and RCA, Farnesworth dedicated much of his time to what he called his ‘other woman’ -- Television. Early in 1927, he applied for and received a patent, #1,773,980, for his electronic television concept. "It is claimed that on September 7, 1927, [Farnesworth] was able to transmit an ‘image’ from one of his early camera tubes. It was no more than a moving blob of light that was reproduced on a receiving tube, but it proved that his new system would work."(8) Many people consider this the birth of electronic television. At the height of his career, Farnesworth still had to face many legal battles over patent royalties with RCA. David Sarnoff wanted to control and monopolize the television industry and tried to claim that Zworykin’s patent application in 1923 should override Farnesworth’s even though Zworykin’s patent was not approved until 16 years after he applied for it. However, after much litigation, Farnesworth won the court battle and RCA was forced to pay him patent royalties. Unfortunately, World War II was just beginning at the time and television production was temporarily halted by the government. In the meantime, Farnesworth’s seven year patent ran out as he was not able to reap the rewards for his life’s work.

Although there were, and still are debates over who actually invented electronic television, the concept was born. Now, all it needed was some direction and insightful marketing ideas. In this corner of the business, there was no better marketing genius than David Sarnoff himself. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Sarnoff introduced television to the world.

And now we add radio sight to sound. It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in a trouble world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind.(9)

After investing over $50 million dollars for Zworykin’s research, Sarnoff still ended up having to pay royalties to Farnesworth. Even so, Sarnoff marched on, trying to implement television into every American household. Many people viewed Sarnoff as the pioneer of technological advancement. "David Sarnoff should be ranked with the great builders of America...his vast contributions to the world are not only great histories of a memorable era, they are magnificent monuments to his unconquerable will and uncompromising spirit."(10) Regrettably, Sarnoff’s immediate plans for television were put on hold until after World War II. However, he could never leave the opportunities that television could provide on permanent hiatus. Addressing the first annual conference of the Television Broadcasters Association on December 12, 1944, Sarnoff stated,

We enter now a new phase in the development of television. Whatever its possibilities or whatever its limitations, one thing you may be certain of: there is not only national but worldwide interest in the great promise of television as a postwar art and a postwar industry.(11)

It was obvious at this point that David Sarnoff and RCA were taking over the television industry. Within forty days of the end of the war, RCA re-introduced television to the world and sold its first batch of ten inch television sets for $375.00 a piece. Soon after this industrial revelation, television stations began forming and television programming was introduced to the communication industry.

Sarnoff believed that television would benefit everyone; the local merchants would benefit from advertising and the general public would be entertained and informed from the comfort of their very own living room. Of course, RCA was behind it all. As early as 1946, RCA was able to transmit color television, though the resolution was poor and the colors, blotchy. At the same time, the Colombia Broadcasting System (CBS) began to develop its own color system, which was mostly composed of mechanical means. The two companies took their systems to the Federal Communications Commission(FCC) to decide on the universal method to be used. In May 1950, the FCC ruled to use the CBS system because it offered better reception. However, neither CBS nor RCA marketed these color sets as it was not seen to be economically feasible. In late 1953, the FCC reversed its decision and approved the all electronic system of broadcasting color. "RCA marketed its first color set in 1954, and for five years thereafter, it was literally the only company in the field."(12) Sarnoff had established his monopoly. It was now the FCC’s turn to battle producers and advertisers concerning standards and censorship.

The Federal Communications Act of 1934 is what originally established the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was to consist of a seven member panel appointed by the President of the United States and approved by the Senate. Some of the FCC’s basic duties included assigning station frequencies and call letters, assigning and renewing broadcasting licenses, assigning coverage areas, and maintaining research in the communication field. However, they were not allowed to monitor content for the act of censorship. Still, this act laid the stepping stones for the creation of national standards in broadcasting. In July of 1940, the FCC along with the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA) set up the National Television System Committee (NTSC). Representatives from every major broadcasting, production, and research company were asked to join. Even though much of the public were against setting "rules" for television, those involved with the actual production, marketing, and distribution knew that this medium would ultimately fail if there were no universal standards. "In the development of a new field such as television, unnecessary standardization would discourage the advancement of the art, whereas intelligent standardization should accelerate progress and encourage competition."(13) Amid this controversy, the NTSC submitted their standards and practices on January 27, 1941. The two clauses that most effected television suggested a 441 line and 30 frames per second standard transmission method and a 6-Mhz bandwidth between channels in order to reduce interference. However, the transmission standard was later changed to 525 lines. Suddenly, commercial television was ready to roll. RCA began to convert to the standards and, with its part ownership of NBC, continued to monopolize the industry.

The role of television’s development was far from a simple one. As far as what is now considered electronic television, my research has proved that Philo Farnesworth had the largest role in its invention. It is not only documented that he transmitted the first electronic image, but his patent was approved twelve years prior to Zworykin’s. My research also shows that Farnesworth’s idea originally sprouted much earlier in his life, at age thirteen. Although Zworykin was researching and trying to implement the same concepts as Farnesworth, he did not do it before him. Therefore, it is concluded that Farnesworth should be given the most credit for the invention of electronic television. However, it is still inconclusive as to how many people laid the foreground for this invention.

There is no doubt as to who was the marketing genius behind television’s introduction to the public. As early as 1939, electronic television was ready to be implemented into the home. David Sarnoff’s prelusion of television at the 1939 New York World’s Fair spawned immediate interest. From this early date, it was proved apparent that RCA was going to be the forerunner in developing this medium. Although Sarnoff’s plans were pushed back due to World War II, he did not blink an eye in picking up right where he left off afterwards. If it weren’t for his efforts and determination, television might have taken much longer to be developed and accepted into society.

As far as the Federal Communications Commission and the National Television Systems Committee, they were both much needed in the communications industry. My research proves that the FCC was needed in order for this new medium to thrive and universal standards were needed since each broadcasting company was using different standards. If the NTSC was not formed, it is unlikely that the companies would have compromised on a solution to the this problem. These standards are still used today, thus showing their importance and significance on the implementation of electronic television into society.

Even though I only touched on a few issues, there are a myriad of topics to research in relation to television history. Perhaps one of the most interesting would be to find out how much or how little all of the other inventors of the era actually contributed to the invention of electronic television. In addition, other forms of media, such as newspapers and radio, were nodoubtedly affected by the popularity of television. It would be interesting to find out how these forms of media reacted this new form of communication.

Censorship, in relation to television, is also an important issue. Researching who had the most impact on this issue as well as who pushed for censorship and who was against is would be a great project. There are several other topics that would also make for good research involving that involve the innovators behind the success of electronic television. The lives of either Philo Farnesworth or David Sarnoff are both good examples of individual research projects. Alas, the world of television, as controversial and complicated as it seems, is all narrowed down and centered around that electronical box that sits in almost everyone’s living room.

Illustration I

1. McCleandon, Donald, Mechanical TV - "Photovision", (
2.Schatzkin, Paul, Farnesworth Biographer, Email Interview. Nov. 1997.
3.The National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television, (
4.Gutterman, Leon, ed., The Wisdom of Sarnoff and the World of RCA (The Wisdom Society: Beverly Hills, CA, 1967) 243.
5.Schatzkin, Paul, The Farnesworth Cronicles, (
6.Sarnoff, David, Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968) 85.
7.Dugan, David, qtd. by Rose Kaplin, PBS Television Documentary The American Experience: Who is Philo Farnesworth? 1997.
8.Abramson, Albert, The History of Television, 1880 to 1941 (McFarland & Company, Inc.: Jefferson, NC, 1987) 105.
9.Sarnoff, David, Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968) 101. Address at New York World’s Fair: Flushing Meadows, April 20, 1939.
10.Disney, Walt, The Wisdom of Sarnoff and the World of RCA (The Wisdom Society: Beverly Hills, CA, 1967) 227.
11.Sarnoff, David, Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968) 106.
12.Sarnoff, David, Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968)129.
13. Fink, Donald, ed., Television Standards and Practice (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1943) IX.


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