Who Invented The Television? The Complete Truth

  • The invention of the television cannot be credited to one person. 
  • There are many TV pioneers, but John Logie Baird, Charles Francis Jenkins, Philo Taylor Farnsworth, and Vladimir Zworykin made important contributions in the early 20th century. 

Some inventions have changed the way people live. One of those revolutionary inventions is television — a mass medium for entertainment, news, and advertising.

Before the 1940s, the number of homes in the United States with television sets could be counted in thousands. By the end of the 1990s, more than 98% of American homes had at least one television set.

Today, US adults spend more than 5 hours watching television per day on average. Like other high-consumption way of life, TV watching is prompted by a quest for escape, pleasure, and anesthesia.

But who actually invented the television and when? It turns out this question cannot be answered in just one line. There were several people who developed different parts of ‘tele-vision’ or ‘long-distance sight’ technology in the early 20th century.

Although the concept of having something that transmits moving pictures existed long before the invention of the first television, a few individuals and corporations competed worldwide to deliver the device that supersedes previous technology.

Mechanical Television

The earliest experimental television systems (in the early 1920s and 1930s) relied on mechanical-scanning devices, such as a rotating mirror or a rotating disk with holes in it.

In 1925, a Scottish engineer John Logie Baird demonstrated the first experimental mechanical television. He formed the Baird Television Development Company that established the first transatlantic television transmission (between New York and London) in 1928.

John Logie Baird demonstrates his mechanical television system in New York | 1931 | Wikimedia

Baird’s role in the practical introduction of broadcast television for home entertainment and his early technological successes have earned him an important place in television’s history. In 2015, he was listed in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.

The other inventor who played a major role in the invention of mechanical scan televisions is Charles Francis Jenkins. He was an American pioneer of early cinema.

Charles Francis Jenkins

The first commercial TV license in the US was granted to one of his businesses, Charles Jenkins Laboratories. Jenkins held more than 400 patents for his inventions related to television and motion pictures.

But since mechanical televisions never produced good quality images, they were replaced by electronic-scan technology by the end of the 1930s.

Electronic Television

While still a teenager, Philo Taylor Farnsworth realized that emerging electronic technology could scan pictures more finely and far faster than any mechanical instrument. By the age of 21, he invented the first fully functional all-electronic television system.

Philo Taylor Farnsworth with the television receiver he invented  

On September 7, 1927, he successfully demonstrated the first electronic television in San Francisco. The device scanned images with a beam of electrons to create and display the picture. The first image Farnsworth transmitted on it was a simple straight line. It is the direct ancestor of modern television.

Farnsworth further improved the device in 1929 by eliminating a motor generator, so that the TV now had no mechanical parts. In the same year, he was able to transmit the first live human images with this television, displaying a 3.5-inch image of his wife.

Meanwhile, a Russian engineer Vladimir Zworykin filed some patents on modules of a television system. He built a television transmitting and receiving system using cathode ray tubes.

Vladimir Zworykin demonstrating the electronic television | Wikimedia 

While working with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Zworykin developed several components that accelerated the development of televisions in the early 1930s.

His notable inventions include charge storage-type tubes and the new camera tube called iconoscope, which produced a much stronger signal than previous mechanical televisions.

Read: 12 Ingenious Nikola Tesla Inventions In Various Fields

Color Television

Although the idea of producing a color image (using three monochrome images) had been tested in the early 1880s, it was John Logie Baird who demonstrated the world’s first color television system in 1928.

He used scanning discs at both transmitting and receiving ends with 3 spirals of apertures. Each spiral had filters of a different primary color. The receiving end also had 3 light sources and a commutator (a rotary electrical switch) to alternate illumination.

On 4th February 1939, Baird successfully broadcasted the world’s first color picture from his Crystal Palace studio to a projection screen at Dominion Theatre in London. It was a mechanically scanned 120-line image.

Baird had also started working on a fully electronic, single-tube color television system named ‘Telechrome’. By 1944, he managed to produce a 3D image using monochrome signals on the same system. However, his sudden death in 1946 ended the development of this project.  

Baird’s first all-electronic color TV showing a live image | Wikimedia 

Many engineers and corporations were working on similar concepts through the 1904s and 1950s. Their mechanisms differed primarily in the way they rearranged colors produced by the three guns.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the color television improved a lot in terms of brightness and picture quality. In Europe, color broadcasting was standardized on the PAL format in the early 1970s.

The Era of Digital and Smart TV

Digital television was developed in the early 1990s and digital broadcasts became common by the end of the decade. Unlike earlier devices that used analog signals to transmit video and audio, digital television relies on the transmission of video and audio by digitally processed multiplied signals.

The roots of digital television have been tied to the availability of high performance, inexpensive computers. Today, digital television is transmitted in high definition with higher resolution and widescreen aspect ratio compared to analog TV.

The mass acceptance of these devices in the early 2010s encouraged major manufacturer to produce smart TVs — a conventional digital television set with integrated Internet and interactive web 2.0 features.

Read: Who Invented The Light Bulb?

Smart TVs are expected to become more popular in the coming years. As of 2018, 70% of the televisions being sold around the world are smart TVs.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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