Who Invented the Television?
Television as we know it can be traced back to a farm boy's eureka moment while plowing a field. Philo Farnsworth was born in Beaver Creek, Utah, in 1906 as the first of five children. He grew up without electricity in a log cabin build by his grandfather, who was a Mormon pioneer. At age 21, Farnsworth sent the world's first electronic television transmission. But it would take a decade of legal battles against a broadcast giant to get credit for his revolutionary invention.
From farm to fame
Farnsworth made it work, but television was an old idea by the 1920s. In 1884, Paul Nipkow patented a key design in what is now called mechanical television. Nipkow bored a pattern of holes into a disk, and then placed it between the light reflecting off a scene and a light-sensitive material. As the disk spun before the scene, the beams of light that fell through the holes were recorded on the material behind it, turned into an electronic signal and sent to a receiver to be rebuilt into the image with another spinning disk.
Farnsworth correctly thought that mechanical television would never produce a picture clear enough to be marketable. Instead of a disk, Farnsworth used a glass lens. The lens captured light reflecting off a scene and focused the beam onto a cesium-coated plate — similar to how the eye focuses light on the retina. Each image was then scanned and divided like the field that inspired him: dots of lights called pixels aligned in 60 rows, like individual plants standing in a row of soil. As a beam of light hit the cesium, it shot off electrons that were detected and amplified into an electrical signal and then transmitted over radio waves to a receiver.
For a receiver, Farnsworth used a glass vacuum tube with a filament, called a cathode, which acted as a gun shooting a beam of electrons. At one end of the tube was a screen coated with phosphors, which light up briefly when hit with electrons. Row by row the electron beam sweeps across the phosphor screen. The beam recreates one image then another so quickly that the human eye perceives a moving picture.
Later, signals of various strengths within a pixel were used to create color television. New televisions today use tiny cells of plasma that light up like mini-florescent light bulbs, or cells of liquid crystals to illuminate pixels.
Electron guns and patent fights
Farnsworth graduated from high school early and was accepted to Brigham Young University in 1922. Two years later he left college to support his family after his father's death. He never forgot his ideas for television and by 1926 Farnsworth had married, moved to San Francisco and started a research laboratory.
Farnsworth gave his first public demonstration of electronic television in 1928 with enough media fanfare to catch the attention of David Sarnoff, the ambitious young head of RCA (then the Radio Corporation of America).
Sarnoff predicted television would be the next dominant medium and wanted RCA to rule the market. In 1929 he met, then hired engineer Vladimir Zworykin to design a television for RCA. Zworykin had won electronic television patents using cathode ray tubes in 1928 and 1929, but hadn't yet developed a television suitable for mass markets, according to the MIT School of Engineering.
Both Zworykin and Sarnoff visited Farnsworth's lab to examine his working models, but by 1931 Zworykin still hadn't produced a satisfactory television. Sarnoff offered Farnsworth $100,000 for his patents and models. Farnsworth turned him down, and in response RCA filed lawsuits claiming Zworykin invented television first.
The courts ruled in favor of Farnsworth in 1939, which forced RCA to pay him $1 million to license his technology. At the time, WWII had stifled much of television research and development. Farnsworth continued inventing and founding new companies, but also fell into depression and developed problems with alcohol. His television patents expired in 1947, just before annual television sales in the United States boomed from several thousand to several million.
Farnsworth appeared on television in 1957 as a guest on the quiz show "I've Got a Secret." Panelists were unable to guess who he was and his segment had to be cut short — for a commercial break. Farnsworth died in 1971 with 300 patents to his name. [Countdown: Top 10 Life-Changing Inventions]
A television in every home
Today nearly every home in America has at least one television, and the average American household logs eight hours or more a day watching it. The time we spend watching television has increased over the years, but people were instantly hooked. In 1950, the average American household spent four hours and 43 minutes a day watching television, according to Nielsen. All those logged hours meant the creation of a huge entertainment and advertisement business. ESPN alone was estimated to be worth $40 billion in 2012, according to a report by Forbes magazine.
Across the globe, television remains a powerful medium. A recent Nielsen study of Nigeria, Ethiopia and other large African nations found television reaches 90 percent of people, radio reaches 86 percent of markets and newspaper penetration trails at 47 percent. Even the strictly isolated country of Bhutan decided to broadcast television in 1999. But what time in front of television does to society is still debated.
As early as 1972, a report by the Surgeon General indicated that violent television has “a modest association” with aggression among some children. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics “discourages media use by children younger than 2 years” because it interferes with playtime that is valuable for the developing brain. Time spent watching television has been linked to poor grades, eating habits and depression.
Yet, television has the ability to be educational and inspirational. Julia Child taught the nation a new way to cook. Sesame Street taught several generations of children the alphabet. News networks brought the moon landing, the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and countless other historical moments into the living rooms in a way radio could not.