Who Invented the Television?

Who Invented the Television

Philo Farnsworth showing off his invention for the first time (1928)

As with many inventions, more than one inventor was working on the television nearly simultaneously. This often creates controversy as to who the actual inventer was and that is definitely the case with the television. In this particular case, the controversy was hotly debated during the “cold war” as one of the inventors was Russian born (although he did become a naturalized U.S. citizen the year after filing his patent) while the other was a farm boy from the state of Utah. So who invented the television? A son of socialist Russia or a true blue capitalistic American?

The Russian-born inventor’s name was Vladimir Zworykin. His contribution to the development of the television was extremely important. He was the first person to file a patent application for an electron scanning tube. He called his an “iconoscope” and it was the basis for picture tube type television sets that are still used to this day! The problem with Zworykin’s patent was that the device itself never actually worked! The theory behind it was sound, however and he was the first one to patent the idea.

The U.S. inventor’s name was Philo Farnsworth. His contribution was that he actually got television to work, using his own version of an electron scanning tube. He did so by displaying the world’s first television picture on September 7, 1927. Philo Farnsworth went one step further in his claim to have invented the television, however, as he stated that he had the idea for that tube independently and considerably earlier than Vladimir Zworykin’s patent. In other words, he said that he hadn’t simply improved on Zworykin’s design.

To add to the “cold war” controversy mentioned earlier, Zworykin had filed for his patent in 1923 but did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 1924. Therefore, he was still Russian at that time! So the argument (which continues to this day) is not simply over who invented the television, but also, which nation gets the credit!

In 1930, Philo Farnsworth was granted a patent for his electron scanning tube. In his case, a working model was provided with his patent application. Also in 1930, Vladimir Zworykin visited Farnsworth’s laboratory and copied his design. Zworykin was not able to get his “copy” working until 1934, however, and could not get a patent for that version until 1938. Even then, the quality of the picture was horrible and his employers even ordered him to “move on” to something more productive!

A law suit was initiated in 1938 between Zworykin (and RCA who now employed him) and Farnsworth over who invented the television. During the suit, Farnsworth’s high school teacher testified that Farnsworth shared the basis for his scanning tube at the tender age of 14, thus confirming Farnsworth’s claim to having the idea first. Of course, we’ll never know to what, if any, extent that testimony was true. The “cold war” aspect at the time would have been a great motivator for a “good” American to want to help claim the invention for his country. Or, of course, the teacher may have been totally honest in their recollection.

Anyway, Philo Farnsworth won the suit against the corporate giant (RCA) and the Russian. RCA was forced to pay him royalties starting in 1939. In other words, the court ruled that Farnsworth was the one who had invented television. Again, of course, we must keep in mind that was a U.S. court!

So, in conclusion, it would seem that in order to determine who invented television, we would have to determine the following things:

1. Who actually first developed the theory behind the operation of the electron scanning tube?

2. Does Zworykin’s 1923 patent get precedence or does Farnsworth’s working model and 1938 court ruling?

3. Are the two inventors contributions both substantial and therefore, should they be considered co-inventors?

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