Tube: The Invention of Television

A. David Wunsch is Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he teaches courses on antennas, complex variable theory, and the history of radio. Newsletter of the Mercurians, in the Society for the History of Technology, November 1997, 10(1).

Tube: The Invention of Television, David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996), pp. xii + 427 diagrams, photographs, line drawings, bibliography, index.

Of hundreds of books in print about television, only a handful address the technical history of one of the great inventions of this century. It is not hard to understand why: the subject is difficult. Even a typical electrical engineering graduate cannot fully explain how a color TV works. The number of people trained in this field is actually rather small compared to microprocessors or even radar. David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher, father and son, are to be commended for wading into the technical history of this hard subject and making it relatively clear and certainly exciting. Their recent book is in the distinguished Sloan Technology Series whose stated goal is to educate the public in the history and impact of technology.

The authors tell their story through the lives of a relatively small number of people, producing a history of the invention built on brief, interlocking biographies. The technique has its risks an important contribution by a colorless individual tends to get overlooked in preference for some lively, eccentric rascal.

The Fishers' cast of characters includes Philo T. Farnsworth, Vladimir Zworykin, Charles Jenkins, David Sarnoff, John Logie Baird, and Peter Goldmark, with cameo appearances by a variety of American, German, Russian, Japanese, and English inventors. Their story commences roughly with the Nipkow disc, proposed in 1884 by the German Paul Nipkow for image scanning and reproduction by mechanical means. Nipkow's idea was eventually implemented in various forms, setting the stage for mechanically based television systems (involving rotating prisms, lenses, and other devices) that stayed around until the 1930s. Baird and Jenkins created such working systems that were ultimately doomed by the all-electronic systems of Farnsworth and Zworykin. The Baird and Jenkins stories are painful to read.

Even so, the mechanical systems did fulfill a useful role in the development of television. Although rudimentary, they attracted publicity and capital. When commercial broadcast radio itself was less than a decade old, in 1928, Jenkins began TV transmission, having formed his television company that year, capitalized at 10 million dollars. Thousands of receivers and kits to build receivers were marketed in the next few years by him and others.

Whether Farnsworth or Zworykin is the father of all-electronic black and white television is a complicated question. Both emerge here as geniuses of inventions, with Zworykin having the advantage of the enormous technical and financial backing of RCA as well as the business acumen of his boss, David Sarnoff. The Fishers are evenhanded in their treatment of these inventors and their rivalry, unlike the recent public television documentary, Big Dream, Small Screen, which minimized Zworykin's contributions and depicted him and Sarnoff as villains who stole the ideas of the guileless Farnsworth. Ironically, Sarnoff and Zworykin are both victims of the evolution of their own medium.

What lessons can be drawn from the Fishers' saga? In the penultimate chapter, "The Fading Days of the Lone Inventor," they argue that television's invention marked the end of an era when one person might develop, market, and get rich with his invention. No single inventor became wealthy from television. In fact, Farnsworth, Jenkins, and Baird died nearly broke. Zworykin prospered as an RCA employee, but never amassed the fortune of an inventor-entrepreneur. The contrast with previous generations (Marconi, Bell, Edison) is striking, but the point has been made before with respect to radio and other technologies.

The transformation of television from a partly mechanical to an all electronic system is part of a much vaster trend in this century, including, for example, the obsolescence of rotary automobile distributors. What is unusual is that television experienced this metamorphosis twice: once in the evolution of black and white systems, and again in the "color wars," when Goldmark's partly mechanical color system was dropped by the FCC in favor of RCA's all-electronic invention.

There are a distressing number of errors in Tube, surprising because one of the authors, David Fisher, is a scientist and the author of a previous book on the history of radar. Sprinkled throughout are pieces of misinformation, some of it attributable to the authors' heavy reliance on secondary or unreliable sources, other caused by carelessness. The errors reach a crescendo on page 105 with:

The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) has long since evolved into a typical American conglomerate. . . . The four great inventions of the early years of this century were the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane and radio. . . . The American Marconi Company, set up in 1919, was clearly not an American company set up by Marconi, but was rather his British company's setup to take over radio sales in America.

It would be useful to give this section to students in a history of technology class and to ask them to find the mistakes. They would notice that RCA is not a conglomerate (it once was), but was purchased and sold off piecemeal by General Electric. Most astonishing is assigning the invention of the telegraph and telephone to this century, despite the clear impacts they each had by 1900. Finally, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America was founded in 1899.

There are technical errors as well. The Fishers erroneously ascribe to Fleming's diode the ability to strengthen a weak current. They rely only on Charles Jenkins's autobiography to assert that he invented the automobile self-starter in 1910 this is inadequate evidence to overturn the received wisdom that Charles Kettering did so in 1912. The Fishers are also unaware of recent scholarship showing that Sarnoff's famous radio music box memo or 1915, which they cite, was probably written in 1920, which makes him seem far less prescient. Tube also owes its readers more and better diagrams. The few figures serve to give the flavor of subjects rather than elucidate them.

Tube is the latest technical history of television, but it will not be the last since television is about to enter one of the most interesting phases of its life. With the introduction of high definition television (HDTV), everyone who wants to watch television after the year 2006 must purchase a digital television receiver or an adapter for their nondigital set. The price for the digital receiver will not be trivial present estimates hover about $1,200. Some, no one knows how many, may elect the cheaper route, missing the benefits of the digital system's improved image. Whether people care enough about their received TV image to pay heavily for its improvement is an open question. As the Fishers demonstrate, the public was not quick to spend lots of money on color television it caught on over a decade as the cost of the receiver fell.

In ten years an updated technical history of television will be needed. I hope the Fishers will write it, and, at the same time, remedy the nonfatal flaws of their present work.