6.2 The Invention of Television

The invention of television is a complex story with a cast and plot which is more dramatic than most dramas which have appeared on television. This story is well-told in Tube: The Invention of Television [FISHER & FISHER]. Let us focus on three major characters, at the risk of slighting the large supporting cast of eccentric geniuses and enterprising businessmen.

Like many good stories, it's about a Scotsman, an American and a Russian. They shared a common dream - to send visual signals over air waves. John Logie Baird (1888-1946), Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1907-1971), and Vladimir Kosmo Zworykin (1889-1985) all made major contributions to the invention of television. All three are credited by their supporters as the inventor of television. Although their invention has in the interval created many millionaires, only one of them was to die rich and honored. The other two died broke and broken men.

John Logie Baird was an eccentric Scottish inventor whose inventions, except for an undersock, had so far never worked. He had migrated to Hastings in the south of England because of his delicate health (even his body didn't work very well). There he began to build what would become the world's first working television set.

by purchasing an old hat box and a pair of scissors, some darning needles, a few bicycle lamp lenses, a used tea chest, and a great deal of sealing wax and glue. The contraption that he assembled from these variegated pieces of equipment soon "grew and filled my bedroom. Electric batteries were added to it, wireless valves and transformers and neon lamps appeared, and at last to my great joy I was able to show the shadow of a little cross transmitted over a few feet." [FISHER & FISHER, Page 31] 60
It turned out that Baird was on the wrong track. As we discovered when talking about film (see Section 4.2), the illusion of movement takes advantage of the physiological phenomenon of persistence of vision. That is, the fact that the sensation lingers after the stimulus has gone. However, the image lingers for a very short time and thus the images must follow one another very quickly. If the rate is below the critical flicker frequency (CFF), required to delude the eye into reading a series of still images as a moving image, the illusion is lost. This CFF can not be reached by means of mechanical energy - it is necessary to use the new electrical energy.

However, his demonstration that the transmission of images over space was possible encouraged his competitors to seek a solution, but by electrical means. A 14-year-old farm boy called Philo Taylor Farnsworth, inspired by some old copies of Science and Invention he found in the attic of the farmhouse and by the back-and-forth pattern of his ploughing, realized that the CFF could be reached by snaking an electronic beam over the object. Previous attempts by people who had never ploughed a field were hung up on writing and thus returned to the beginning of the next line without taking advantage of the return trip.61

Farnsworth had the necessary technical skills to come up with the idea but lacked the necessary social skills to take the idea to the market. That required the entrepreneurial genius of a Russian immigrant to the United states, Vladimir Kosmo Zworykin. He had contributed to the technical development of television but he also had the social skill to interest another Russian immigrant, David Sarnoff, later President of RCA, in providing financial backing for his inventions, and the business skills to market television. That's why he was the one who died rich and honored.

Simultaneous discoveries and inventions suggest that the times are ripe for this discovery or invention. The pieces are available - it requires only someone to come along and put them together - if not Baird, then Farnsworth; if not Farnsworth, then Zworykin; if not Zworykin, then some one else. This phenomenon - called the Zeitgeist (German for the spirit of the times) - suggests a sort of technological determinism. However, it suggests only that the technology may be inevitable. It says nothing about the way in which this technology will be used. Nor does it say that this technology will determine that it will use people rather than that people will use it. Anticipating a further charge of technological optimism, I also plead guilty as charged. Media is intrinsically good, since it brings people together. This is not to say that people can't fiendishly find ways to use it to evil ends.

60   The main event in Hastings, according to traditional history, is of course the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I would like to argue that this more obscure event of the first TV image projected by John Logie Baird in 1923 is, in the long run, more important. If the Big Story of historical time is the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions, as argued in this book, this was a major episode in that Big Story. Harold may have lost an eye in 1066 but we all gained an eye in 1923.

61   However, if they had done their homework on the history of writing, they could perhaps have been inspired by boustrophedon script. Egyptian hieroglyphs could be read from left to right or from right to left (you could tell which by observing the direction the animals were facing) or alternating between the two (boustrophedon means as the ox turns in ploughing). The latter option was usually chosen for large documents on long walls - the reader did not need to walk back to the beginning to continue reading [ROBINSON, Page 94].