Charles Francis Jenkins (1867–1934)


Charles Francis Jenkins was a pioneer of early cinema technology and the first person to demonstrate television in the United States. His businesses included Charles Jenkins Laboratories and Jenkins Television Corporation (the corporation being founded in 1928, the year the Laboratories were granted the first commercial television license in the United States).

Jenkins was born in Dayton, Ohio, growing up near Richmond, Indiana, where he went to school. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1890 where he worked as a stenographer. He began experimenting with movie film in 1891, and eventually quit his job and concentrated fully on the development of his own movie projector, the Phantascope. At the Bliss School of Electricity in Washington, D.C. he met his classmate Thomas Armat, and together they improved the Phantascope's design. They did a public screening at the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1896 and subsequently broke up quarrelling over patent issues. Armat eventually won the case in which Jenkins had tried to claim sole ownership of the patent, and Jenkins sold out to him. Armat subsequently joined Thomas Edison, to whom he sold the rights to market the projector under a new name, the Vitascope.

Jenkins moved on to work on television. He published an article on "Motion Pictures by Wireless" in 1913, but it was not until 1923 that he transmitted moving silhouette images for witnesses, and it was on June 13th, 1925 that he publicly demonstrated synchronized transmission of silhouette pictures and sound. He was granted the U.S. patent No. 1,544,156 (Transmitting Pictures over Wireless) on June 30, 1925 (filed March 13, 1922).

In 1928, the Jenkins Television Corporation opened the first television broadcasting station in the U.S., named W3XK, which went on air on July 2 and first transmitted from the Jenkins Labs in Washington. From 1929 onwards, transmissions were made from Wheaton, Maryland five nights per week. At first, the station could only send silhouette images due to its narrow bandwidth, but that was rectified and real half-tone black-and-white images were soon being transmitted.

Jenkins ensured that there were plenty of viewers by marketing very inexpensive television receiver kits based on the Nipkow disc principle. These were connected to a standard radio receiver and tube amplifier to operate.

In 1931, Jenkins Television Corporation was sold to Lee DeForest, to become Deforest-Jenkins. By 1932, his mechanical technologies (also pioneered by John Logie Baird) began to be overtaken by electronic television systems such as those devised by Vladimir Zworykin (with RCA) and Philo Farnsworth.

Although Jenkins was a very interesting character, he is today one of the lesser-known pioneers of television. In his day his contributions were of the greatest importance. In his lifetime, he acquired over 400 patents.