Sep 29, 2022 • 8M

"A box of moving images": The invention that amused the world

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Leaning back on a cosy couch and binging your favourite series or enjoying a soccer match on the television screen would be a terrific idea for spending those lazy weekends, right? Television, from a luxury possession, has become part of every household in the past few decades. Entertainment, information, news, live coverage of events worldwide; whatever your choice, the television covers it for you. But until the 1920s, this wonder of moving images was not a part of our daily lives. The history of television dates back to the early 19th century, and unlike many other inventions, no single inventor deserves credit for the television. So come, let's find out the history behind this incredible creation.

The first invention that contributed to the television's creation was Samuel Morse's telegraph in 1835. It enabled long-distance communication through the exchange of codes by transmitting a series of tapping sounds over electrical wires. The invention of the telephone in 1876 further developed communication technology. Alexander Graham Bell, through his creation, made it possible to send live voice messages across many miles of wires. Various sources have confirmed that both Bell and Thomas Edison speculated about the possibility of telephone-like devices that could enable the transmission of images and sounds.

Another stepping stone towards television technology came in the year 1887. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz discovered radio waves, enabling communication without wires, through the air using electromagnetic energy. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi developed the wireless telegraph or radiotelegraph in light of Hertz's invention, which later led to the development of the broadcast radio. Voices, music and other sounds got transmitted through the radio over the air instead of wires.

Along with the invention of all these technologies, scientists actively tried developing the technology to transmit moving images. The earliest steps, in the 1870s, towards developing TV involved the chemical element selenium. Scientists discovered that selenium, while exposed to bright or dim light, showed fluctuations in its ability to conduct electricity. They used this feature to convert moving images into electrical impulses, but the element responded too slowly.

A crucial breakthrough happened in the year 1884 when German scientist Paul G. Nipkow came up with a system of sending images through wires via spinning discs. The system, which he called the electric telescope, was an early form of mechanical television. The design, a set of spinning metal disks with holes arranged in a spiral pattern, scanned the light reflected by a moving image, turned it into an electrical signal, and transmitted it across a wire. The exact process got reversed on the other end of the wire, and the setup turned the signals back into light. Nipkow patented his invention and further improved the design. But the invention failed to create sharp images or recreate facial expressions of the subject. By 1926, two independent inventors, the American Charles Francis Jenkins and the Scotsman John Logie Baird perfected mechanical TVs.

Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin arguably considered the fathers of the development of the television in America, succeeded in utilising cathode ray tubes to build the first working electronic television systems.

The 1897 invention of the cathode ray tube, considered the foundation of modern television, by German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun opened the doors to television's transition from mechanical to electronic. Russian physicist Boris Rosing and Scottish engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton worked independently to develop an all-electronic TV by replacing the spinning discs of Nipkow's system with cathode ray tubes.

Russian scientist Constantin Perskyi was the first to coin the term "television", meaning "seeing at a distance," at the 1900 World's Fair. The word is a combination of the Greek word "tele," meaning "distant," and the Latin word "visio," meaning "sight." In 1927, Scottish engineer John Baird, credited with giving the first demonstration of both colour and stereoscopic television, gave the world's first demonstration of true television before 50 scientists in central London.

Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin arguably considered the fathers of the development of the television in America, succeeded in utilising cathode ray tubes to build the first working electronic television systems. Zworykin demonstrated his electronic TV system, in coordination with Radio Corporation of America (RCA), at a 1929 convention of radio engineers. 

Farnsworth was born in a farmer family in 1906. When he was 14, he came up with the idea of a vacuum tube that could dissect images into lines, transmit those lines and turn them back into images. While still in high school, he began experimenting and demonstrated various systems for his teachers. At the age of 21, with the support of investors, Farnsworth completed the prototype of the first working fully electronic TV system in 1927, which he called the Image Dissector.

David Sarnoff, who became the president of RCA in 1930, was among the earliest to foresee the true potential of the television.

The long legal battle of Farnsworth with RCA, which claimed Zworykin's 1923 patent took priority over Farnsworth's inventions, is marked in the history of the invention of the television set. It is still considered one of the top patent wars in the history of America. The ruling came in favour of Farnsworth, and many historians now view Farnsworth as the true father of the television. However, says he never earned much from his invention and died in debt in 1971. 

David Sarnoff, who became the president of RCA in 1930, was among the earliest to foresee the true potential of the television. He introduced the television to the public in a big way at the World's Fair in New York City in 1939. From the beginning to the mid-1940s, television began to get popular among Americans. Over the course of a decade, almost half the American population had a television set as part of their households. According to, in the 1960 presidential election, television played a crucial role in the victory of John F. Kennedy.

The following years showed steady advancements in television technology. By the 1960s, colour television took over the market, followed by cable in the '70s, VCRs in the '80s and high-definition in the late '90s. From a small box with a tiny screen, televisions have sized up to a queen-sized bed today; from 4 inches, they grew to 10s and 100s; from grainy black and white images, it evolved to 4k, 8k, LCD, LED and much much more. As a famous cartoon represents it, the boxiness of the television set thinned down over the years, while the size of viewers spending hours in front of the television increased. Every year, the technology behind the television is advancing, and television manufacturers are competing to bring larger, sleeker, and better designs into the market. 

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