by Iain Logie Baird, 6 May 2021

Telefunken was a large radio manufacturer that began to develop television technology in the early 1930s. Electronic television sets using cathode ray tubes were manufactured by Telefunken in Berlin as early as 1932.

By 1935, a 180 line picture was provided with a disc transmitter and viewed with mostly cathode ray receivers. This system was expected to be superseded by a newer one, which would probably use 375 lines.

Through a patent-sharing agreement, Telefunken obtained a sample of RCA's Iconoscope in 1934 and successfully reproduced it in their own laboratory the following year. They then had a system capable of reproducing images with up to 400 lines of resolution.

Three firms in Europe were successfully manufacturing the Iconoscope. EMI in England, which started first, was the most advanced. Their Iconoscope, called "Emitron," had several slight modifications from RCA's model, but these modifications were not essential and in no way improved the performance of the tube. Its performance, however, was fairly good and the sensitivity of their tube was very close to RCA's.

The Iconoscopes made by Telefunken and Philips were closely patterned after the models that RCA sent to them about a year before. Vladimir Zworykin in his autobiography remarked: '...all these laboratories watched our patent applications very closely and in most cases immediately constructed laboratory models'.

In Germany, television research was under the direction of the Government Post Office. As the Nazis increased their control over the country, television was declared a government secret and some parts of the equipment, for instance, Iconoscope development, were considered a military secret. The Post Office kept under strict surveillance all the developments in the laboratories of Telefunken and the other German television firms.

A Telefunken 'Olympia-Kanone' (Olympic-Cannon) in use at the Berlin Olympics

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin. Telefunken Iconoscope cameras like the one shown above were used, along with Image Dissector cameras provided by Fernseh. This was the first Olympiad to be broadcast on television. Twenty-five large screens were set up throughout Berlin, allowing the local people to watch the Games for free. Over seventy hours of coverage was broadcast.

The year 1937 witnessed television development moving almost completely toward electronic devices. At the receiving end, particularly, this change was almost universal. It is interesting to note that the European systems universally adopted high-vacuum cathode-ray receiving tubes, similar to those RCA used from the very beginning, instead of the gas-filled tubes which they insisted upon using for so many years.

Telefunken was one of the companies to manufacture the Volksfernseher/Volksfernsehempänger (People's Television). It received a 441 line picture at 50 interlaced frames-per-second. It was publicised for the first time in 1939 at the 19th International Radio Fair in Berlin. With this television, the German government intended to follow the concept of the Volksempfänger, the people's radio, and Volkswagen, the people's car. In July 1939 they produced 50 sets and put them on the market for 650RM (Reichmarks).

Telefunken Deutsche Einheits—Fernsehempfänger (Television Receiver) E1, 1939. This set is in the Bundespostmuseum, Frankfurt.

Despite its relatively low price, it featured a square cathode ray tube—something British and American manufacturers had a great deal of difficulty making until about 1950. The planned production was 10,000 units, but the start of WWII put an end to this.

During World War II, Telefunken provided the television guidance system installed in the Henschel Hs 293 air-surface bomb. Although this weapon was used operationally on several occasions, the television-guided version (Hs 293D) remained purely experimental.

In the early 1960s, Walter Bruch developed the Phase Alternating Line (PAL) colour television system for the company. It represented an improvement upon the pre-existing NTSC colour system developed by RCA in America.