From Pastime to Primetime by chenmeixiu


									                                                                                                        JUNE 2008

From Pastime to Primetime
The Pioneers of Television
by Gene Fender

As a medium, we often take television for          few of his predictions came to be during his
granted. Rather than consider it an important      lifetime.
development in communication technology,
we are comfortable ignoring the the device         Jenkins believed that the requirement of a
that has integrated itself into our lives. There   particular application rather than a particular
was a time when television was merely a            machine needed to be defined before
concept, and many visionaries during               television could capture the attention of the
television’s infancy possessed not only            public, but early television did not follow this
remarkable invention as part of their collective   pattern of development. Early devices were
faculties but also a keen insight into the         the the domain of tinkerers and hobbyists, and
potential of television.                           the technology required much refinement as
One such visionary, C. Francis Jenkins,            well as the backing of radio giant RCA to
contributed perhaps less than the other            evolve into television as we know it. Once
inventors of television in terms of original       reliable and inexpensive television sets came
technology, but he had a high understanding        to market, the American public rapidly
of the state of the art in his day. In his book    consumed them, and television stations raced
Vision by Radio, Jenkins’ prediction of            to create enough content (and sell enough
television’s potential proved startlingly          advertising) to the public.

It is believed that the distant electric modulation of light for many
purposes will soon become a common phenomenon and eventually
of inestimable service in science, in engineering, in industry and in the
home. Nor will this service be confined to radio. Present metallic
channels now employed for other purposes (e.g., high tension power
lines, railroad rails, city lighting wires and water pipes) can be made a
new source of revenue—and at a ridiculously insignificant cost.
It is no surprise that he supposed television      Television in the Nineteenth Century
would become widespread or that there              Television came very near to reality for the
would be numerous educational and                  Victorian age thanks to the fundamental
entertainment purposes for television, but his     realization of a German engineering student,
suggestion that other channels might be used       Paul Nipkow. He realized that the eye sees
to carry television was genius and something       areas of light and dark and that the
that has only become a recent                      arrangement of intensities forms a complete
telecommunications development as we watch         image. Changes in the intensities create
videos on the Internet and on our cell             changes in the image which give the
phones—pathways that had been reserved for         appearance of motion. He reasoned that it
other communication purposes. It is a pity that    should be possible to use a device to divide an
                                                   image into discreet parts. In 1884, Nipkow

                                                                                                      Image from Baird’s
                                                                                                      Mechanical Television
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                                                                                                      (Howe, Tom. CED Magic.
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applied his idea to the design of a theoretical            was probably not enough to create a working
scanning device and display mechanism. Either              television. Nonetheless, it is unknown if Paul
of these was based on a spinning disk.1                    Nipkow actually built a prototype of his
                                                           television system. No form of mechanical
His camera device would have been                          television would become practical until the
comprised, at its simplest, of a lens, a                   debut of the amplification tube in 1907.2
perforated disk, a motor and a selenium cell.
The lens, as in any other camera device,
focused an image onto the surface of the disk.
The disk had a series of small aperture holes
arranged in a spiral pattern. The motor turned
the disk so that the holes arced across the area
where the image was focused. This let varying
amounts of light pass through each hole as it
made a pass across the image (below). The
intensity of the light passing through was
detected by the selenium cell. The cell was
                                                               Detail of scanning area on Nipkow disk
photosensitive and generated an electric
charge that varied according to the amount of
light it was exposed to. The fluctuating                   The Mechanical Broadcasters
charges from the selenium cell could be used               Though the technology available to Nipkow
to generate an electrical signal that could drive          prevented him from creating functional
the receiver directly or be broadcast as a radio           devices, his concept of the scanning disk lived
signal.                                                    on in the refined development of mechanical
                                                           television that happened simultaneously in
                                           Selenium Cell
                              Lens                         several countries. It seems everyone was
                                                           developing something based on Nipkow’s
                                                           theory, but the grandest efforts were carried
                                                           out by Scotsman John Logie Baird for the
                              Disk         Motor           British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

                                                           The commercially available machine of Baird’s
    Nipkow’s scheme for a scanning disk camera             design that the BBC would ultimately adopt
                                                           was a 30-line system in 1932. While very
                                                           crude in resolution, the 30-line system was
The receiver worked on a similar principle and             mature and exceptionally low-cost in
was comprised of another disk with a spiral of             engineering terms. The BBC used their existing
holes, a motor and a neon lamp. The neon                   audio transmitters for the low-bandwidth
lamp was placed behind the disk and                        video. There were no wide-band transmitters
fluctuated in intensity according to the signal            available for service development anyway, and
generated by the selenium cell from the                    there was little point in spending a great
camera. The motor would spin the disk as light             amount to create one during this early phase.
was emitted through the holes (above right).               The BBC continued through 1935, until the
This caused a sweep of light that created scan             development of electronic television led to the
lines to form an image by virtue of the eye’s              demise of the 30-line service. It was replaced
persistence of vision—how the retina retains               with the world's first regular higher resolution
an image momentarily.                                      (405 lines) television service by the BBC in
Though the photoconductive properties of the
element selenium were already established in
Nipkow’s time, the sensitivity and frequency
at which a selenium cell could register changes              Bellis, Mary. The Television System of Paul
                                                           Nipkow. 2007.
                                                             McLean, Don. The World’s Earliest Television
 Yanczer, Peter F. Telorama. 28 February 2007.             Recordings. 2007.
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In many parts of the world, particularly in the     unconvinced that a young man could develop
U.S., amateurs created mechanical television        a device to the commercial stage.
receivers from kits or from scratch as an
extension of the already popular radio hobby.       Nonetheless, he feared “that a breakthrough
This was in response to the surprising number       in visual broadcasting would disrupt the
of experimental broadcasts including those of       market for radio” (Schwartz). Challenging
the first U.S. television station, W3XK, owned      RCA—at that time a radio monopoly—would
by C. Francis Jenkins.                              be a daunting task for any competition,
                                                    though. Since the late 1920s, RCA had the
The End of Mechanical Television                    best scientists and engineers, held most of the
By 1935, most people had given up on                radio technology patents and controlled
mechanical television. The low resolution had       licensing of the technology to the rest of the
made very apparent that the mechanical              industry. “No radio could be sold without a
system was too limited in its commercial            royalty flowing back to the company.”
application. Synchronizing the discs and
modulating light sources at the higher speeds       To deflect any
necessary to make an image acceptable were          excitement the
impossible to achieve.                              public might have
                                                    had anticipating
As early as 1908, another inventor, Campbell        Farnsworth’s
Swinton, recognized that better technique was       invention, Sarnoff
needed because the mechanical method was            wrote a press release
not capable of practically generating higher        to suggest that
definition (300-400 lines) television. He           television technology
theorized that only by using cathode rays,          was far from being
which exhibit no inertia, could this be             ready for a public
accomplished. In 1911, he developed his idea        product and that
and published a schematic. “Cathode ray             only RCA was
television of today, all over the world, follows    capable of launching          1930 Baird
Swinton's ideas exactly,”4 but it would be yet      one. In reality, RCA          “Televisior”
another inventor to actually make it work.          was the company with          (Bennett-Levy,
                                                                                  Michael. Television
                                                    no solution. Instead,
                                                                                  History: The First 75
The Reivention of Television                        Sarnoff devised a plot
                                                                                  Years. 2002.)
Though many others were developing theories         to take Farnsworth’s
and devices along the same lines, it was Philo      technology from him—legally or not—though
T. Farnsworth who first made cathode ray            Farnsworth was not exactly resisting the idea
tube television a reality thanks to his epiphany    of selling or licensing his invention. His
in his father’s potato field. The parallel rows     financial advisors had suggested he sell the
he plowed as a teenager inspired his idea that      technology in the first place.
images could be scanned in lines using
electrons to represent light and rasterize the      Sarnoff put his plan into action by first hiring
image on a photosensitive plate. By age 19, he      the head of television research at
had raised enough capital to begin                  Westinghouse, Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin
prototyping his concept, and this lead to the       was quite accomplished in his own work
approval of his two most basic patents—an           towards developing a commercial television
electronic television camera and a television       solution and held patents on components to
receiver.                                           camera and receiver designs in the 1920s,
                                                    even though he had never created a working
The Battle for Technology Farnsworth’s              prototype. He had already sold these patents
experiments did not go unnoticed by the             to RCA (prices ranging from $50,000 to
industry. David Sarnoff, acting president of        $100,000) in order to obtain funding to
NBC's parent company, the Radio Corporation         continue his research. Yet still, Zworykin’s own
of America (RCA), certainly noticed but was         patent for a complete television system was
                                                    still pending while Farnsworth's own
    Yanczer, Peter F. Telorama. 28 February 2007.

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applications were officially approved by the         finally had its television system, but
US Patent and Trademark Office.                      Farnsworth was never paid any licensing fees.

Zworykin made an appointment to visit                Creating televisions was not enough, though.
Farnsworth's lab in 1930. Farnsworth agreed          To ensure interest by the press and the public,
to this hoping Westinghouse (Zworykin failed         Sarnoff had RCA sponsor the 1939 World's
to mention he was already working for RCA)           Fair Television Pavilion in New York City—an
might license his patents. During his stay,          event billed by Time magazine as “the
“Zworykin picked up Farnsworth's image               greatest show of all time.”
dissector, the world's first electronic television
camera, and marveled at it. ‘This is a beautiful     Sarnoff also secured the rights to broadcast
instrument,’ he exclaimed. ‘I wish I had             the opening ceremony on the radio and on its
invented it myself.”5                                technological successor. In this ceremony he
                                                     proclaimed about the “birth in this country of
After his visit, Zworykin tried to reverse-          a new art so important in its implications that
engineer Farnsworth’s devices, but after one         it is bound to affect all society,” with Franklin
year and spending a great deal of RCA’s              D. Roosevelt appearing afterwards becoming
money, he failed to create a working                 the first president to be televised. He stocked
electronic television system. Adding to RCA’s        New York department stores with just-minted
technological problems were the sharply              RCA television sets selling for $600 apiece.7
declining sales of radios and phonographs due
to the Depression. In his desperation, Sarnoff       Even with a successful debut of an actual
attempted to hire Farnsworth and buy his             product, RCA still could not make Farnworth’s
company and patents for $100,000 as an               patents disappear. “[Later] it was proven that
alternative to the previous failures. The            Zworykin's system infringed on some of
inventor rejected the unacceptably low offer,        [them]. RCA reluctantly paid Farnsworth's
and Sarnoff responded by launching a legal           company royalties until the patents ran out.
assault aimed at overturning his patents. This       But years of delay tactics had taken their toll.
halted Farnsworth’s commercial progress for          By the late 1940s, the last of Farnsworth's
years and delayed the introduction of                company was sold to International Telephone
television products to the public.                   and Telegraph, and Farnsworth went to work
                                                     for ITT as a scientist, devoting most of his
The Patent Office finally rejected RCA’s claims      remaining life to nuclear fusion.”8
and restored Farnsworth’s patents in 1935. By        RCA’s first televisions were regarded as a
this time, Farnsworth found his own financial        pricey novelty, and during World War II, the
alternative by licensing his patents to Philco in    commercial production of television
the U.S. and Baird Television in Britain. He also    equipment ceased. Cathode ray tubes were
licensed to AT&T, which, amazingly enough,           instead produced for radar units and other
had plans on producing picture phones!6              technological war uses. This laid the television
                                                     momentarily dormant.
A Television in Every Home
Sarnoff lost in his attempt to swipe                 Despite the fanfare that RCA had generated at
Farnsworth’s technology, but he was                  The World’s Fair, few Americans had even
determined to make RCA the top producer of           heard of television until after World War II,
television technology. He hired the best             but this was to change quickly. “According to
scientists away from Westinghouse, GE, and           one survey in 1950, before they got a TV,
the Victor Talking Machines Company to               people listened to radio an average of nearly
converge in RCA’s lab. By the late 1930s, RCA        five hours a day. Within nine months after
                                                     they bought a TV, they listened to radio but

  Schwartz, Evan I. "Televisionary." Schwartz
April 2002.                                            Schwartz, Evan I. "Televisionary." Schwartz
  AT&T. Milestones in AT&T Television                April 2002.
History. 2007.                                         “video/TV history.” PC Magazine 2006.
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                                                     JUNE 2008

only for two hours a day. They watched TV
for five hours a day.”9

After the war, newfound affluence and a
decrease in the price of television sets allowed
a tremendous number of mostly suburban
families to invest in a set. By 1949, Americans
were buying 100,000 sets every week to
watch 98 commercial television stations in 50
large cities.

The End of Television
Not only have mechanical televisions
disappeared and cathode ray tubes found
themselves on the verge of obsolescence,
broadcast television as we know it is about to
end. On February 17, 2009, all 1,700 U.S.
analog television stations will shut down.
Viewers who have cable or satellite will not be
aware of this, but the 21 million hold-outs will
pull nothing from their rabbit ears. Anyone
who wants to watch television will have to
upgrade to digital television, but is this really
television anymore?

Digital television is not merely an upgrade in
the quality of the image and sound.
Programming is served in a huge number of
titles that are instantly accessible to anyone
who can afford them. Set-top boxes allow
recording and viewing options that far eclipse
anything the humble VCR could ever do. We
no longer even need a television to watch
television. That is to say, television is no
longer tied to a particular device. It is a visual
medium that can cross multiple platforms, and
in doing so has ceased being only a passive
viewing activity.

With video content easily distributed on the
Internet, for example, anyone can be a
broadcaster with little technical expertise. This
new media participant is rather removed from
the difficulties—and perhaps the joy—that
was experienced by the earliest hobbyists and
television viewers despite the ability to take
part in the content.

 Ganzel, Bill and Claudia Reinhardt. “TV Turns
On.” Wessels Living History Farm. 1999.

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