The Paul Pert Screen Collection

A Resource Devoted to Classics of the Golden Age
____Incorporating The Cult Screen Archive____

 Pioneers of Television

The question of who invented television is an eternal debate. Generally, the answer you would get from most people — if indeed you were to get an answer at all — would be that it was Scotsman John Logie Baird.

However, the public image of Baird has changed over the years, as those who would seek to discredit his contribution to television as we know it today say their piece, their reason being that his mechanical system was superseded by electronic television — a fact which is definitely true.

The question however, remains and in order to adequately position oneself to attempt an answer, an understanding or definition of exactly what the word 'television' means must first be ascertained.

Records indicate that the word was first used in 1900, to describe an invention that did not yet exist, by people who knew little of exactly how it would effectively be achieved. Their vision was of a system that would transmit images onto a screen over distance.

Therefore, taking all this into consideration, the populist answer to the fundamental question would indeed appear to be correct, as quite simply, Baird achieved this before anyone else a fact which is somewhat inescapable.

In an age when TFT screens are rapidly replacing CRT technology, and soon to become the norm, the argument that Baird did not invent television because his mechanical system was superseded by CRT technology rather falls down flat.

However, Baird’s televisionsand other subsequent televisions whether mechanical or electronic utilized components invented by several preceding inventors, all of whom deserving credit for their respective contributions, as without them, Baird would no doubt have only achieved a more limited success. I have therefore endeavoured to pay tribute to as many of these pioneers as possible.

Jöns Jakob Berzelius (1779–1848)
Swedish scientist Berzelius discovered selenium with his colleague Johann Gottlieb Gahn in 1817, after careful analysis of what they had thought at first was Tellurium residue at the bottom of a camera.


Alexandre Edmond Becquerel (1820–1891)
Alexandre Edmond Becquerel was a French physicist. Through his studies of relationships between electricity, magnetism and light, he discovered the electrochemical effects of light in 1839.

Willoughby Smith (1828–1891) 
Telegraph operator Joseph May in Ireland, discovered that selenium rods changed properties when exposed to strong sunlight. The principle of selenium's photosensitivity and the possibility therefore of converting light into electrical impulses was subsequently confirmed by English engineer Willoughby Smith of the Telegraph Construction Maintenance Company. He found that the resistance of selenium became lower when exposed to bright light. Their discoveries were reported in the 'Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers' in 1873.

George R. Carey (Born 1851)
In 1875, George R. Carey of Boston, Mass. - a professional surveyor - was among the first to propose using the photoelectric properties of selenium as a means for transmitting images after further researching May's 1873 discovery. He used it to devise a crude system for transmitting images.

Constantin Senlecq (1842–1934)
Constantin Senlecq proposed fax transmission via telegraphy using a selenium scanner. A French scientist and inventor credited with the invention of the 'telectroscope' he worked independently of the American inventor George R. Carey who came up with a similar idea at approximately the same time.

Sir William Crookes O.M., F.R.S. (1832–1919)
Sir William Crookes was a London-born Chemist and Physicist. In 1878 he established the principle that cathode rays travel in straight lines and cause phosphorescence in objects upon which they impinge and also that the reaction causes great heat upon impact.

Maurice LeBlanc (1857–1923)
In an article which appeared in 'La Lumière Electrique' in 1880, French Engineer Maurice LeBlanc proposed scanning a moving image with light beams reflected onto a selenium photocell, converting them into electricity for transmission to a screen.

Shelford Bidwell (1848–1909)
Shelford Bidwell, an English physicist, was best known for his work with 'telephotography'
a type of early fax machine. He demonstrated an apparatus for transmitting silhouettes. However, it highlighted the need to divide a picture into elements as the control of current by light was not enough. In the late 1870s, he carried out experiments using selenium photocells to scan an image. The results of his work were published in an article in the February 10th, 1881 edition of 'Nature' magazine entitled 'Tele-Photography'. His device is now in the care of the London Science Museum.

In 1908, Bidwell wrote an article which appeared in 'Nature' magazine entitled 'Telegraphic Photography and Electric Vision' which reported on the difficulties faced by inventors wishing to develop 'distant electric vision'. In particular he highlighted the difficulty in transmitting the large volume of data necessary in order to create a continuous image.

William Lucas
William Lucas described the first significant visualisation of a television scanning system in a letter to 'The English Mechanic and World of Science' in 1882. He described a horizontal and vertical scanning system of the type used by modern television, though he never actually constructed the system described stating 'the motions required are somewhat involved and the fact that they must be synchronous and have a high speed still further complicates the mechanism by which they must be produced.'

Paul Nipkow (1860–1940)
Paul Nipkow's invention, the 'Nipkow Disc', patented in 1885, was the world's first electromechanical television system. The system utilized the principle of dissecting an image and transmitting it sequentially, and consisted of a rapidly rotating disk placed between a scene and a light sensitive selenium element. Its image had only 18 lines of resolution but was nevertheless the first television scanning device and a fundamental component of mechanical television.

Lazare Weiller (1858–1928)
In 1889 Frenchman Lazare Weiller devised a method of image scanning using a mirrored drum which reflected light onto a selenium cell. In an article entitled 'On the Remote Vision by Electricity' published in 'Civil Engineering' on October 12th, 1889, a process described as 'Phorosphore' which makes it possible to analyse mechanically and to remotely reconstitute an image of 10 centimetres was described. Although not actually constructed until 1898, the apparatus provided a finer but more expensive alternative to the Nipkow disc. The system was described as 'Wheel of Lazare Weiller' in the Larousse Encyclopaedia and was used in early mechanical televisions. Baird also incorporated it into the system implemented by the BBC for its first regular services in 1932.

Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850–1918)
German Inventor Karl Ferdinand Braun received a Ph.d from the University of Berlin in 1872 and became professor of physics at the University of Strasbourg in 1895. In 1897, he introduced the first commercially available cathode-ray tube. CRT technology is used to this day in television sets and computer monitors.


Sir John Ambrose Fleming (1849–1945)
Sir John Ambrose Fleming, English electrical engineer and physicist, patented a two-diode thermionic valve in 1904. The device created an electrical signal by controlling the movement of electrons in a low-pressure space. It was the first vacuum tube and as such enabled the technology of electronics in television to move forward.

Max Dieckmann (1882–1960)
In 1906 Max Dieckmann and Gustav Glage produced and patented 'raster images' on a cathode-ray tube in Germany. Raster scanning is the pattern of image storage and transmission used in computer image systems where an image is divided into successive sample elements known as 'pixels'. The concept was inherent in Paul Nipkow's mechanical disc-scanning patent of 1885.

Boris Rosing (1869–1933)
Russian Boris Rosing of St. Petersburg conceived the idea of an 'electronic vision' system using cathode-ray tubes and mirror drums but in common with several other inventors he could find no means of amplification. Rosing's invention also built upon Nipkow’s invention. Rosing was reputedly assisted by V.K. Zworykin. He filed a German patent in 1907 and then again for his improved version in 1911 which he followed up with a demonstration.  His system was electromechanical rather than electronic, and although primitive, was nevertheless one of the first demonstrations utilizing the CRT for the purposes of television.

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton F.R.S. (1863–1930)
In 1908 in response to Shelford Bidwell's article in 'Nature' magazine entitled 'Telegraphic Photography and Electric Vision', Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton F.R.S., published 'Distant Electric Vision'¾an article recognised as having laid down the fundaments of modern television; at the time however there were still aspects which made practical television impossible. The same difficulties existed some twenty years later, and in an article in 'Modern Wireless' entitled 'Television by Cathode Rays' Bidwell repeated his reservations stating: 'Surely it would be better policy if those who can afford the time and money would abandon mechanical devices and expend their labours in what appears likely to prove the ultimately more promising method in which the only moving parts are imponderable electrons.' 


©2009 Paul Pert