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Why Television Was Invented

By Dr. Colin

Why was TV invented? How was TV invented? Both questions are answered here.

Like nearly everything invented, television was a combination of scientific research and someone’s good idea.

Facetiously, it was invented so we could watch it. Cynically, it was invented for the rich to distract the poor, or for elite to brainwash us.

Seriously, it was invented to prove a concept, the hope that transmitting pictures was possible

So, why TV was invented?

This question (why) is how most people find our page on the Internet. And if you really mean “why,” that is a lot harder to answer than “how.” 

How it was invented is clearly documented in the research and technical specifications that were built on laws of hard science. A potted history of that is the second part of this article.

To know “why” TV was invented entails getting into the mind of inventors (researchers and scientists) who died long ago. Unless their personal diaries (or memoirs, autobiography, in book or magazine interview) describe the moment when even a vague idea of transmitting pictures (between two remote locations) occurred to them, we are left to guess (or stumble upon). Even that is unlikely from what we know about how ideas span the centuries preceding realization.

People down the ages, even ancients and primitives, were clearly smart and imaginative. Which is to say, many modern technologies (or inventions) can be traced to a thousands-year-old idea. Not directly or literally, as few cave men probably pined for a flat screen to watch while tearing into some poorly sautéed mammoth.

Whether by accident or direct consequence, life truly seems to imitate art (science fiction, for example). So many great inventions were preceded by decades or centuries of hopeful portrayal in imagined futures. Science Fiction stories – both from centuries ago and in today’s movies – are full of magical gadgets waiting to be created. We all know and love Star Trek’s transporter, holodeck, replicator, phaser, and the star ship they travel on.

Claiming some prominent “inventor” as “the father of television” won’t explain “why television was invented” because the early work of inventors like Nipkow, Baird, and the corporations who brought modern television to market, is a continuum of small discoveries by brilliant people who share an evolving vision and build upon their predecessors’ work. Work that goes all the way back to the start of civilization.

In short, I think it’s fair to summarize the answer like this.

Television was invented because (answering the “why”) inventors and scientists finally grasped which technologies would together fulfill their idea of (and hope for) a Television system – an idea that changed with each scientific breakthrough and discovery – until indeed one, or many simultaneously around the world, had the Eureka moment, imagining a family at home watching images on some device that were generated at a location far from that household.

They did this work because they carried an idea handed down over thousands of years – that of moving pictures. Theirs was not a ready-made vision dreamed up in a puff of inspiration (the Eureka moment was simply the final confidence it was now possible). It was, however, their luck to have the tools (and intelligence and skill) to be able to create a working television system from an idea born of ancient fascination with animated images.

And the idea of animation grew in expectation and sophistication via a lineage of both great thinkers, and ordinary people with insatiable curiosity. Television was seeded in the minds of our ancestors as animals in motion on Paleolithic cave walls, as time-lapse images of a leaping ram on a 5000 year old Persian bowl .. and 2000 years ago on an ingenious simple device, the zoetrope, that displayed moving images.

Telephones and film cameras fired the scientific community, who immediately knew these two revolutionary ideas contained the promise that images would travel over wire, indeed, wirelessly through space.

Television was invented because it could be, because smart people can see how to combine discovery and invention into something that fills a need (and even creates a need). Television was invented because, simply, it could be imagined, and when it became possible it was built. When demonstrated, it was recognized by the lay public as a marvelous and ingenious gadget of amazing cleverness, immense fascination, and endless possibility.

As you can see, “why” is a messy thing to explain.

Now, tell me why the iPhone was invented.

How TV was invented

baird-1st-imgIf, however, you wish to know how it was invented, here is a potted history of TV written by the secretary’s ten year old son, Gustav.

No one person can be claimed as the inventor of television. Hundreds of scientists in various parts of the world have added individual ideas over the past one hundred years towards the development of TV as we know it and advances are still being made.

In 1817, Baron Jons Jakob Berzelius, a Swedish chemist, discovered an element which he called selenium. Little came of his discovery until the 1870s. It then was discovered that selenium, a non-metallic element, becomes a strong conductor of electricity when it is exposed to light.

Using the photoelectric properties of selenium, Russian engineer Paul Nipkow, working in Germany in 1884, proposed a theoretical television system.

Nipkow scanned his early television subjects by using a rotating disc perforated with holes in a spiral pattern. The light reflected from the subject passed through each hole and fell with varying intensity on selenium cells. The fluctuating voltage produced by the cells changed the brightness of a lamp in the receiver.

A second disc, similar to the one used to scan the subject and revolving in step with it, was placed between the lamp and the observer, who thus saw a reproduction of the subject.

Scottish inventor John Logie Baird began experiments in 1923, using the Nipkow disc,baird-diskcombined with optics and vacuum tube amplifiers. [Side note: Annual Australian television awards, similar to the Oscars, are named ‘Logies’ – a moniker that has startled foreign visitors to that country for decades.]

Baird gave the first demonstration of his “televisor” to forty selected guests in his London laboratory on January 27th, 1926. The flickering image measured seven inches high by three inches wide, and was composed of thirty narrow strips.

Baird struggled to convince the BBC of television’s potential, and it wasn’t until September 30th, 1929, that the first public telecast was made. The viewing audience was watching fewer than thirty receivers.

In 1928, Baird was working on ‘colour’ television. He proved the possibility of outside broadcasting in 1931, when he televised the Derby race meeting. The following year, an astounded theatre audience watched the race on Baird’s TV screen, measuring eight feet by ten feet.

tv-slideThe first all-electronic television camera tube, the iconoscope, was invented in 1923 and eventually successfully introduced in 1933 by the American engineer, Vladimir Kosma Zworykin. [Discussion continues on whether that was his real name or the operational status of his prototypes]

This all-electronic system, using cathode ray tubes, displaced the mechanical system, and is the basic principle used today.

During the 1930s, almost identical television advances were made in Britain and the United States, and stations were increasing their regular TV transmissions.

On April 30th, 1939, the first regular commercial television broadcasts were begun in New York.
All television production was suspended during World War II, but experiments continued.

In 1941, Baird had developed a six hundred line ‘colour’ television system, and was working on stereoscopic TV when he died in 1945.

ampex-vtrIn 1946, after World War II, TV began to burst upon the scene with a speed unforeseen even by the most optimistic leaders of the industry. The novelty of seeing TV pictures in the home caught the public’s fancy and began a revolution in the world of entertainment.

By 1950, television had grown into a major part of show business. Many film and stage stars switched to TV. Television audiences increased. Stations that once telecast a few hours a day sometimes telecast around the clock in the 1960s.

Even as audiences dwindle, operating hours of small regional networks run 24 hours and the number of independent feeds (digital channels)  doubles yearly.


Some believe (those who work in the industry) that television has only a decade of life remaining (circa 2020) before becoming indistinguishable from the sea of media, due mainly to ubiquitous links to the Internet in 21st century technology.

As I writes this (2012) an ‘exit poll’ of 200 acquaintances confirms no-one under 30 years of age watches television, and none of primary school age can identify or name the call signs of their regional channels .. or can explain even what that means.

As a child, I recall the entire population of our small city would squeeze into a local theatre as the audience of a live radio show. Radio!! What’s that?

Also at this time sales of Internet-ready television sets with full computer/network connectivity are universal, guaranteeing a rapid loss of identity for conventional industry media sources.

Interesting times.  [Editor]

Plagiarism note: Kids, knock yerselves out. Free for re-use. But be creative.



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