The turn of the last century was a time of amazing, ground-breaking inventions. Inventors themselves were super stars and many went on to amass fortunes from their inventions. We all know who invented the electric light bulb, the telephone, photographic film and radio but how many of us can name the person behind of one of the most important inventions ever – television.
The answer is Philo T. Farnsworth. If you didn’t know that, don’t feel bad. In 1957 Farnsworth appeared on the TV Show I’ve got A Secret. The TV celebrity guests were challenged with guessing his secret, that he invented television. None of them knew who he was or what he did; he walked away with a $50 prize.
Farnsworth was a boy genius from the tiny town of Beaver, Utah who came up with the concept of an electronic television system while he was still in high school in the early 1920s. After proving mathematically that his system could work, he spent his entire life perfecting and promoting his brainchild. He was able to secure funding, build a prototype and demonstrate it in San Francisco in 1925. The picture he transmitted was just a still image painted on glass, when someone in the room asked when they would see some dollars in this thing, he showed them his second image; a dollar sign.
Farnsworth was not the sole inventor of television. There were many others, notably John Baird in Britain and Charles Jenkins in the United States, who were working on the problem of image transmission in the early 1920s.
Of course movies, telephones and radio already existed by then but image transmission was a tougher problem because of the technical difficulty of converting even one image, much less a series of images, to an electrical signal that can be transmitted along a wire or over the air. Each image has to be scanned and turned into a continuous stream of information that can then be re-assembled into an image by the receiver. The devices developed by Baird and Jenkins were partly mechanical; the camera had a light sensor that would generate electrical current based on the intensity of light that fell on it, to scan the image it had a wheel with small holes cut in a spiral pattern. The wheel rotated in front of the light sensor which created the signal based on what it “saw” through the holes. The receiver had a light that reacted to the signal, and a similar wheel that ran in synch with the one in the camera, thus recreating the image back on a screen.
There were successful television broadcasts as early as 1925 with that mechanical system and in a few years there were experimental mechanical television broadcasting stations all over the North America and Europe. The first television station in Canada, VE9EC in Montreal, went on the air in 1931. An engineer at the station, Alphonse Ouimet (who later became head of the CBC) made Canada’s first television receiver, based on Baird’s design, in 1932. The mechanical system was very crude though, most systems had 60 scanned lines of resolution per image, compared to the standard 525 for a modern electronic system. The picture was very small and often the image was indecipherable.
Farnsworth’s system was important because it was all electrical, the image could be scanned much more precisely. It was obvious to all who saw it that with more research and development there was almost no limit to the amount of detail that could be transmitted. His system was the basis of all television broadcasting until very recently, when it was gradually replaced by digital technology.
In 1930, after years of court battles, Farnsworth was granted patents for his invention. He promptly entered into sharing agreements with RCA and Westinghouse and set up his own production facility in Philadelphia; the modern television industry was officially on its way, but slowly.
The president of RCA, General David Sarnoff, later billed himself as “The Father of Television” but in fact he initially did his best to suppress it, seeing the new invention as a threat to his very lucrative radio business (RCA also owned the NBC Radio Network). The other factor that hampered TV’s early growth was the incredibly bulky, unreliable and expensive equipment. The first receivers were four feet high, three feet wide and had a screen that was three inches square. The Great Depression pretty well killed the industry in 1933, making all that pre-war TV equipment very rare indeed. In fact there are fewer pre-war television receivers in existence than there are Stradivarius violins.
Collectors of early television equipment are also very rare but tenacious. Even right up to modern times, TVs are usually very bulky, need highly skilled and expensive restoration work; and unlike vintage automobiles, are difficult to show off. That’s why most examples of early TVs are in public or private museums.
Television sets are also considered banal, there was no reason to collect them but, a few major collectors have lead the way. One of the best known is Canadian television pioneer Moses Znaimer, the visionary behind CITY-TV. His collection of what he considers to be the most important television receivers is one of the largest in the world and can be seen at his museum, MZTV, on Queen Street West in Toronto.
There are some amazing old TVs out there if you look hard enough; even the early mechanical ones often had beautiful art deco cabinets. The early 1940s models looked exactly like radios of the time, except with a (very small) picture screen. Not all of them were bulky; there were table-top models and even portables. Later models were made of Bakelite, they are a bit easier to find and are quite collectable today. Of course the 1950s models can be very dramatic, one of the most popular among collectors being the Philco TVs that had the screen on a swivel stand above the cabinet. One of the last collectable TVs is the Sony Trinitron, the first Japanese-made TV to become popular in North America. Its clean design and superior picture quality made it the TV to own in the 1970s.
Philo T. Farnsworth could never have imagined all this. He was a brilliant inventor but had no concept of how, or why, TV could be used for entertainment. He did see other uses for his scanning technology. In 1940 he patented the facsimile transmitter, or fax machine, another device that was ahead of its time.
Almost none of the early TV makers could envision the impact television would have on our society. Fortunately we do have collectors who have dedicated themselves to finding, preserving and sharing the few remaining examples of this important part of our history