Four Key Players in Early Television Development

by Malcolm Baird

[Germany and several other countries have also contributed to television. Russia played an indirect part as it was the birthplace of three of the people named below Sarnoff, Shoenberg and Zworykin.]

John Logie Baird 1888-1946, UK Gave first demo of a television picture in Jan.1926 (mechanical). In 1930 Baird Television Ltd. (BTL) was formed. It was taken over by the Gaumont British Picture Co. in 1932 and it began to move towards cathode ray tubes and electronic cameras. In 1935-36 BTL had an agreement with the Farnsworth Company, to use the Farnsworth camera. BTL lost to Marconi-EMI in the 1936 competition for BBC high definition service. From 1939 to 1945, John Logie Baird continued research on colour/stereo TV at his own expense.

Marconi-EMI Ltd., UK Jointly owned company formed in London in 1934 to develop electronic TV and compete with Baird’s partly mechanical system for the BBCs high definition service (Nov.1936). Through Marconi the company had strong links with RCA. The electronic TV development project was managed by Isaac Shoenberg (1880-1963). It is still debatable whether the Marconi-EMI electronic camera (Emitron) was simply a version of the Zworykin/RCA camera (Iconoscope) or whether it was an entirely independent British achievement.

Philo Taylor Farnsworth 1906-1971, USA Conceived an electronic TV camera tube (the image dissector) and in Sept.1927 gave a demonstration of a moving blob of light. By 1929 he was showing silhouettes. RCA was using some of Farnsworth’s ideas and he brought a patent infringement suit against RCA which was finally settled in 1939 in his favour. After WW II, his small TV company went out of business and he fell into obscurity. Recently in the USA there has been a move to portray him as the true Inventor of Television who had been thwarted by Sarnoff and RCA.

Vladimir Kosma Zworykin 1889-1982, USA Emigrated from Russia to USA in 1919. In 1923 he took out a patent on an electronic TV camera tube but it was not demonstrated. In 1927 he joined the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and received major backing from its president, David Sarnoff (1891-1971). RCA demonstrated all-electronic TV in New York in 1936 and at the 1939 World Fair. Zworykin was known as the Father of Television, but his reputation and that of RCA are under attack in the USA, due to the ongoing pro-Farnsworth campaign.

How many of these historic British and American television companies still exist?

None of the companies above exist today. Television sets are mainly made in Asian countries. The early public interest in TV technology has been overtaken by interest in programming, with new technical developments being largely taken for granted.

Baird Television Ltd. ceased operation soon after Britain entered World War II in September 1939. However the Baird name was later used by other companies, most recently the TV set manufacturing division of Radio Rentals Bradford.

Radio Corporation of America (RCA) went into slow decline after the death of David Sarnoff in 1971. It was dismantled in 1987 and its assets were taken over by the General Electric Co. and sold off. The RCA brand name is still used on some types of electronic equipment made by Thompson SA of France. The RCA record labels are presently owned by the Sony Corporation.

Marconi-EMI was dissolved after 1936 having served its purpose by winning the competition for the BBC camera system.

EMI continued to make TV sets until 1957 and camera equipment for a few years after that. Until August 2007 it existed as a large music recording company without any interests in TV. It has now been taken over by a private investment group.

The Marconi Co. has recently been having financial difficulties and frequent changes of ownership. In October 2005 it sold off the bulk of its assets to its rival Ericsson, marking a sad end to over 100 years of proud existence.

The Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation was closed in 1949. Farnsworth TV sets were sold between 1946 and 1949, and are rare collectors' pieces today.