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Visionary Period, 1880's Through 1920's

Television was actually invented long before the technology to make it a reality came into being. As early as 1876 Boston civil servant George Carey was thinking about complete television systems and in 1877 he put forward drawings for what he called a "selenium camera" that would allow people to "see by electricity." In the late 1870's, scientists and engineers like Paiva, Figuier, and Senlecq were suggesting alternative designs for "telectroscopes." The excitement over the possibility of "seeing at a distance" was promoted even further in a March 1877 New York Sun letter to the editor that said:

“An eminent scientist of this city...is said to be on the point of publishing a series of important discoveries, and exhibiting an instrument invented by him by means of which objects or persons standing or moving in any part of the world may be instantaneously seen anywhere and by anybody.”

Other developments throughout the late 1870's and 1880's included:

  • Eugen Goldstein's introduction of the term "cathode rays" to describe the light emitted when an electric current was forced through a vacuum tube (1876).

  • Sheldon Bidwell's experiments in telephotography (1881).

  • And, in Germany, Paul Nipkow submitted a patent application for a way to electrically transmit images using spinning metal disks; calling it the "electric telescope."


Paul Nipkow electric telescope drawing and patent: click for more information about these images

Thus, the key ideas for what we know as television were being discussed at the same time that Bell and Edison were becoming famous for their inventions. In fact, many historians believe that the original intent for what we now know as television was to see the person you were talking to on the telephone at the same moment you were speaking. Bell was so concerned that someone would beat him to the punch on such an invention that in 1880 he deposited a sealed box containing a "photophone" with the Smithsonian Institution in case he needed to prove his priority of invention.

But others did not limit their ideas to just providing images of telephone speakers. An 1890's trading card in the One Hundred Years Hence series depicted people listening to a live concert at home while a device projected the image of the performers on the wall. In fact, there were so many ideas about "distance vision" that it was a major subject at the 1900 World's Fair (Paris), where the 1st International Congress of Electricity was held. At those August meetings, Russian Constantin Perskyi made the first known use of the word "television."

Soon after, the momentum shifted from ideas and discussions to physical development of television systems. Two paths were followed:

  1. Mechanical television - based on Nipkow's rotating disks, and

  2. Electronic television - based on the cathode ray tube work done independently in 1907 by English inventor A.A. Campbell-Swinton and Russian scientist Boris Rosing.


American Charles Jenkins and Scotsman John Baird followed the mechanical model while Philo Farnsworth, working independently in San Francisco, and Russian émigré Vladimir Zworkin, working for Westinghouse and later RCA, advanced the electronic model.

Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworkin: click for more information about these images Charles Jenkins and John Baird: click for more information about these images


depiction of Initial broadcasts as silhouettes and QSL postcard for W3XK -- America's first television station: click for more information about these images

Jenkins, in the U.S., and Baird, in England, got the 1st television programming on the air in the 1920's, even if all they initially broadcast were stick figures and silhouettes. Charles Jenkins also claims two other firsts in regard to American television:

  • He received the 1st U.S. television license for W3XK (1928), operating out of Wheaton, MD; and

  • He broadcast the 1st television commercial in 1930, for which he was promptly fined by the Federal Radio Commission, the predecessor of the FCC.


Meanwhile, also in the 1920's, Farnsworth was demonstrating an electronic pickup and image scanning device he called the Image Dissector, and Zworkin introduced his first iconoscope camera tube, which he called an "electric eye."

Yet, because there were no commercial manufacturers of television sets at this time, all of this work went on largely out of the public eye until April 9, 1927. On that day Bell Laboratories and the Department of Commerce (home to the Federal Radio Commission) held the 1st long-distance transmission of a live picture and voice simultaneously. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was the "star" of the show. He said:

“Today we have, in a sense, the transmission of sight for the first time in the world’s history. Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.”

 New YorkTimes and Boston Post Headlines on First TV Test: click for more information about these images

Thus, the "Visionary Period" of television ended with two competing methods of broadcasting having been developed and some broadcasts having taken place. But the American public, except for a few electronic and radio hobbyists, remained largely unaware of and completely untouched by television.




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last reviewed/updated on 11/21/05 


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