The Battle for Television: Farnsworth vs RCA

The Television Inventor

Television, also known as telly or TV, is a system for converting visual images into electrical signals and transmitting them over wires. It is a hugely popular device, and many of us cannot imagine life without it.

John Logie Baird was a Scottish inventor who developed the first mechanical television in 1920s. He also invented a hybrid electro-mechanical field-sequential color television system in 1935.

Philo Farnsworth

Farnsworth was the first to create an all-electronic television system. His “image dissector” camera tube (third image) transformed images into an electronic stream of charged particles. This stream could then be scanned back and forth on screen to display the image (fourth image).

Farnsworth sketched his design for a device that would transport pictures using electricity in high school. He later described it to his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, who encouraged him to pursue science.

After graduating from high school, Farnsworth briefly enrolled at Brigham Young University before dropping out due to financial difficulties. In 1926, he found work in Salt Lake City conducting a charity fund-raising campaign. This brought him into contact with George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, two California philanthropists who funded his television research. They provided him with an initial $6,000, and Farnsworth moved to San Francisco to set up a laboratory. In 1928, he demonstrated his first all-electronic television prototype. RCA’s Vladimir Zworykin was impressed, but he believed the image dissector still needed to be improved.

The Birth of Television

As early as the 19th century people were experimenting with ways to change images into electric impulses that could be sent over wires. They also wanted to turn those impulses back into images for viewing.

English inventor Joseph May first stumbled upon the right combination of materials to create a photoelectric cell that would convert light into electricity in 1872. His invention led to a process called cathode ray television.

The technology used in modern cathode ray tubes consists of two electrodes that are coated with phosphor. When a picture is played on the screen, electrons fired from these electrodes paint the image, one line at a time.

In the 1920s Scottish inventor John Logie Baird developed a mechanical television that used a spinning disc with holes arranged in a spiral pattern. He received the patent for his work. In 1928 a station called WRGB began broadcasting the world’s first mechanical television. It remained commercial-free until 1941, when the first American advertisement aired on NBC.

Farnsworth’s Invention

In high school, Farnsworth had drafted a design for an electronic television system that used a cathode ray tube to convert electrons into pictures. He believed that by controlling the speed and direction of these electrons, it would be possible to transport images electronically.

After graduating from high school, Farnsworth briefly enrolled at Brigham Young University, but dropped out due to lack of funds. He worked in a radio repair shop and in a fundraising campaign for the Crocker First National Bank, which brought him into contact with George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, who provided Farnsworth with financial backing to develop his television prototype.

By 1928, Farnsworth had developed a camera tube called the image dissector that could transmit silhouette images, but he lacked the resources to continue developing his invention on his own. He extended invitations to representatives from several electronics companies, including RCA’s Vladimir Zworykin, who was working on his own all-electronic television.

Farnsworth’s Battle with RCA

Although he was able to produce a working prototype, Farnsworth’s work with television would be hindered by a series of legal battles that tangled up his patents and squandered his company’s thin resources. As a result, it took him far longer than he should have to bring the system to market and forced him to rely on liquor to cope with stress.

In the late 1920s, Farnsworth teamed up with Philco, a radio manufacturer and electronics corporation. This partnership helped Farnsworth secure more funding to develop his inventions. He had already filed several patents by the end of the decade. Then RCA sent the head of its own electronic television lab, Vladimir Zworykin, to evaluate Farnsworth’s work. RCA argued that Zworykin’s 1923 patent on a “kinescope” (a device for showing moving pictures) gave it the right to produce a television set. But Farnsworth proved that Zworykin’s invention did not cover the essential elements of his cathode ray tube television. The key piece of evidence was a drawing that Farnsworth’s high school chemistry teacher saved from his childhood.

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