Paul Nipkow (1860–1940)


Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow, born 22nd August 1860 in Lauenburg in Pomerania. While at school in Neustadt, West Prussia, Nipkow studied telephony and the transmission of moving pictures. After graduation, he went to Berlin in order to study science. He studied physiological optics with Hermann von Helmholtz, and physiological optics and electro-physics with Adolf Slaby.

While still a student, he invented a device he entitled the 'electric telescope'. The key component of this invention later became known as the 'Nipkow disc'. Accounts of its invention state that on Christmas Eve, 1883 when he sat alone at home with an oil lamp, he conceived the idea to use a spiral-perforated disk to divide a picture into a mosaic of points and lines. Another important component of his invention was a selenium photocell.

Nipkow applied for a patent in the imperial patent office in Berlin for his electric telescope. This was for the electric reproduction of illuminating objects, in the category "electric apparatuses". German patent No. 30105 was granted on 15th January 1885, retroactive to 6th January 1884, the 30 marks fee being lent by his future wife. It was allowed to lapse after 15 years because he was unable to pay the costs of extending it.1 Nipkow had taken a position as a designer in the Berlin-Buchloh Institute and did not continue further development of the electric telescope.

The first practical television systems used an electro-mechanical picture scanning method, the method that Nipkow had helped create with his disc he could claim some credit for the invention. Nipkow recounted his first sight of television at a Berlin radio show in 1928: 'the televisions stood in dark cells. Hundreds stood and waited patiently for the moment at which they would see television for the first time. I waited among them, growing ever more nervous. Now for the first time I would see what I had devised 45 years ago. Finally I reached the front row a dark cloth was pushed to the side, and I saw before me a flickering image, not easy to discern.'

Paul Nipkow appearing on German television in 1937. Nipkow is standing behind the microphone.

A few years later, the leadership of the Third Reich saw the propaganda value in claiming television was a German invention, and in 1935 named the first public television station after Nipkow. He became honorary president of the "television council" of the Reich Broadcasting Chamber. Nipkow died on the 24th of August, 1940 in Berlin. By government order he was given a state funeral.

1 'Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, Television Pioneer, Dies', The Baltimore Sun (25 August 1940).