The Russian Inventor of the Television

PHOTO by scanrail / Depositphotos
Seventy-six years ago, a Russian immigrant received a patent for the television

Vladimir Zworykin was born in Murom in 1888 to a wealthy, respectable family: his father was even a former city mayor. Vladimir never shied away from his school studies: far from it, he was an avid learner. “I really enjoyed PE, sciences and physics. The school had equipment to demonstrate the laws of physics during lessons. I was quickly put in charge of these devices and my teacher often chose me as his assistant while he was conducting experiments in front of the other students,” he wrote.

Vladimir’s father insisted that the boy joined a specialised school that focussed on the natural sciences: “Like many young people, I had a keen interest in complex machinery and was eager to take apart and put back together anything mechanical that I could lay my hands on.” After staying with relatives in Moscow, he became fascinated by cars, which were a real rarity at the time.

In 1912, Zworykin graduated from the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, where he studied under Professor Boris Rosing. Zworykin’s enthusiasm got him a place on the experiments team, led by Rosing himself. “The following Saturday I visited his research lab, located next to the Bureau of Standards, where Professor Rosing was a staff member. It was there that I learned he was working on television technology, which I had not heard anything about before. That was the day when I encountered a scientific problem which would captivate me for the better part of my life.”

In his student years Zworykin had the opportunity to go on a European tour, which was organised by the International Chamber of Commerce to introduce future engineers to plants and industrial labs. Yet his only memory of the trip was of its shoddy organisation. “I notified the Institute director upon my return. ‘I hope you didn’t lose anything?’ he asked. ‘No, just a couple of suitcases.’ ‘Well done. The other group lost a member coming back from Brussels, so we had to contact the international police.’”

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Vladimir Zworykin with iconoscope

On the advice of Rosing, Zworykin continued his studies at the Collège de France in Paris. He studied X-rays and was able to build a fairly good apparatus, which was later used to help doctors. It was his first encounter with medical electronics.

However, his academic pursuits were curtailed by the outbreak of the first world war. He was enlisted as an engineer, working mostly with radios. The war then spilled over into revolution, so conditions for pursing scientific research in Russia became worse than ever before. Zworykin began to think about moving abroad. He moved to Omsk and got a job which required him to take trips to America. After the second of these trips, he left Russia, never to return again.

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Vladimir Zworykin demonstrates the electronic television

In the US he was hired by Westinghouse Electric, where he eventually had an opportunity to continue his televisual experiments. “After a few months, working almost completely on my own, I put together an electronic television system. I was immensely proud of the result and spent a lot of time in the library, trying to find a suitable name for the system. I called the electronic transmitter the ‘iconoscope’, from the Greek ‘icon’ (image) and ‘scope’ (to see). The receiving tube was named ‘kinescope’ from ‘kineo’ – to move.” In 1923, he filed a patent application for both devices.

The company’s management however did not consider the idea useful and offered to “put the guy to more practical endeavours.” Time and again, however, Zworykin returned to his favourite subject. Gradually, he perfected his device and succeeded in transmitting the image, though it was initially of poor quality.

Zworykin’s research earned him a PhD and helped him attract investors. In 1938, his “television system” patent was approved. “One of the aims of my invention is to provide a system which enables a person to see distant moving objects or views by radio. Another aim of my invention is to eliminate the synchronising devices heretofore employed in television systems. Still another aim is to provide a system for broadcasting, from a central point, moving pictures, scenes from plays, or similar entertainments.”

Zworykin’s iconoscope

The invention (and the man behind it) quickly gained recognition; the scientist went on to give presentations and lectures. He came to the USSR several times, but did not dare to stay, owing to his fear of imprisonment or even death. During the World War II, he worked on electron optics and the development of night-vision devices. After the war the focus of Zworykin’s research shifted to medical devices and microscopes.

Author: Alena Manuzina