Who invented Television Philo Farnsworth versus Sarnoff and Zworykin

Vladimir Zworykin and RCA Chairman David Sarnoff recount early researchThe invention of television was the work of many inventors over several decades, as we discussed in our previous article. Turning the vision of the television as an invention into a real commercial product that occupied American homes was the work of business visionary David Sarnoff with the help of Russian American scientist Vladimir Zworykin.

Scientist and inventor Vladimir Zworykin

As a young engineering student, Vladimir Zworykin worked for Russian scientist and inventor Boris Rosing and assisted him in some of his laboratory work at the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology in Russia. Following the Russian Revolution, Zworykin moved to the United States in 1919. Zworykin found work with Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh. Based on their pioneering efforts in radio, he tried to convince them to do research in television. His work on television resulted in two patent applications. The first, entitled "Television Systems" was filed on December 29, 1923, and was followed by a second application in 1925 that was awarded in 1928.

Zworykin applied to the physics department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1924. Due to his previous credited work Zworykin received his Ph.D. only two years later upon completion of his dissertation on the improvement of photoelectric cells.

Zworykin demonstrated his invention for television to Westinghouse executives in 1925. According to Zworykin himself his demonstration, was “scarcely impressive.” The Westinghouse executives suggested that Zworykin should spend his time on more practical endeavors.

Business visionary David Sarnoff

In 1917, General Electric purchased the American branch of the Marconi Company and combined its radio patents to form a new company called the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Russian born David Sarnoff was promoted to General Manager of RCA in 1921 and was given full authority to run the company. In the 1920s David Sarnoff of RCA had the vision of developing television.

In 1929, Zworykin invented the all electric camera tube. Zworykin called his tube the Iconoscope "a viewer of icons". He demonstrated both the iconoscope and kinescope to the Institute of Radio Engineers. The Iconoscope tube could produce good pictures with a reasonable amount of light. In attendance at the demonstration was David Sarnoff of RCA. Sarnoff recruited Zworykin to develop television for RCA, and put Zworykin in charge of television development for RCA at their laboratories in Camden, New Jersey.

Even though many others worked to invent television, and working models were demonstrated before RCA, Sarnoff used the 1939 World's Fair to introduce commercial television to the world, and began regularly scheduled broadcasting at the same time. David Sarnoff realized the potential of television, and poured huge resources into its development, even during the lean years of the depression.  Sarnoff had the drive, and the resources to turn his vision into a reality.

Philo T. Farnsworth fights the war over television

Philo T. Farnsworth fights the war over televisionWhen I was young my encyclopedia told me that Vladimir Zworykin was the inventor of television. For many years I took it as a fact that Zworykin invented television. Thanks to the commercialization of the internet, years later I found a whole new world of information, and discovered that the invention of television was not a simple question to answer, and learned of a battle by the followers of Philo T Farnsworth to promote his cause as the inventor of television.

Philo T. Farnsworth was a Mormon farmer who lived in Utah, not exactly the place for the hot bed of technology. In 1922, a young Farnsworth filled several blackboards in his chemistry class with sketches and diagrams showing his high school science teacher his idea for an electronic television system. Farnsworth received a patent for his television system raised money from friends to build his invention. Many years later that high school teacher would testify in court what he saw on the blackboards of the school, in support of Farnsworth's claims.

David Sarnoff offered to buy Farnsworth's patents in 1931, with the condition that Farnsworth become an employee of RCA. Farnsworth refused Sarnoff's offer, and spend much of the next several years fighting David Sarnoff and RCA in the court room over television patents.

When other developers and their patents got in Sarnoff’s way, he fought them hard. Philo T. Farnsworth was one of the few who stood up to Sarnoff and won. Farnsworth eventually prevailed as RCA finally conceded to a multi-year licensing agreement with Farnsworth. But Sarnoff and RCA would grab the spotlight as RCA introduced electronic television to the world at New York World's Fair 1939.

Who knows of Farnsworth?

Even though Farnsworth won the battle, defeating RCA in court to uphold his patent claims, he lost the war as the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation never took off. Farnsworth sold his company to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in 1951. Most people have heard of RCA (Radio Corporation of America), they went on to be a large and profitable company. Farnsworth's family continues to promote his name, and his claim to the invention of television.

Zworykin always the scientist.

Decades before NASA landed a man of the moon Vladimir Zworykin talked about the scientific discoveries that could be shared on television, stating that “You can see the opposite side of the moon if someone sends a rocket there with a television camera. " In a 1975 interview Zworykin said he was disappointed with the outcome of television. "Yes. I am not presently satisfied with the programs.... Our programs are commercial, and therefore the income from broadcasting depends upon the number of people viewing. By taking surveys of this, right or wrong, they conclude that lower quality programs appeal to more people."

In their roles at RCA, it was clear that Sarnoff was the visionary businessman and Zworykin was always the scientist. Compared to Microsoft as the 800 pound gorilla of technology of the 1990s, RCA was the 800 pound gorilla of technology of the 1930s. There have been comparisons made to David Sarnoff of RCA as a driving force to establish the dominance of his company in the development of television to that of Bill Gates of Microsoft and his obsession to have Internet Explorer win the browser wars.

Although many people have called Vladimir Zworykin the Father of Television, Zworykin himself always said that television was the creation of hundreds of inventors and researchers. Zworykin seemed not only to be uncomfortable with being called the Father of Television, he also seemed to be unhappy with what became of his work.


Top right photo shows Vladimir Zworykin (left) and RCA Chairman David Sarnoff (right) recount early research. Screen capture and cropped by Tom Peracchio from 1956 RCA promotional film about television tracing scientific development of electronic television systems from 1920s to 1950s.