The Invention of Television

Through the Ages – Television

Imagine the days without television. And then imagine how amazing it would be to see television for the first time. A whole world in front of your very own eyes. It’s an invention that practically no one would now know what to do without. But what is the history behind the gadget that beams ‘Revelations’ into our homes…

Strangely enough, the television idea came out of the mind of a 14-year-old boy from Idaho, USA. Way, way back in 1921, Philo Farnsworth (a “born inventor” in his own words and a boy who was fascinated by all things electrical) was struck with the idea of “pictures that could fly through the air” by radio waves.

He spent much time studying various pieces of electrical equipment and later sketched a design for a high school project. The idea stayed in his mind as he grew up and he continued to try to work out the ways to make his ideas come to life. As he continued his studies, Philo learned about the tiny, subatomic particles called electrons, about how they could be manipulated by magnets, about photoelectric substances that could convert light into electricity and back again, and about a device called a “cathode ray tube” that combined some of these…. and he began to wonder how they could all work together to form a system of television with no mechanical parts at all.

In 1927 he started his first experiments. 20-year-old Farnsworth and his wife together they set up shop in a loft at the foot of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. On September 7, 1927,

Farnsworth and his tiny “lab gang” performed their first successful experiments, transmitting the simple image of a straight line; as long as he could see if the line was horizontal or vertical, he knew that information was being transmitted from the bottom of one bottle to the bottom of another. His experiments were successful.

1929 saw the first experiments by a television station. The first TV images were of a paper mache Felix the Cat. The images were a tiny five centimetres tall and were put on screens for two hours a day, nothing like the full colour, moving images we are so used to today! The display (TV screen) had a small motor with a spinning disc and a neon lamp, which worked together to give a blurry reddish-orange picture about half the size of a business card! Yet people were amazed by what they saw and continued to experiment – with the images getting better and better all the time.

Over the years ‘electronic’ television was perfected. In 1939 working television was shown to the public in New York at a fair that was attended by nearly a million people. People were amazed by the images, but TV received mixed reviews because the quality was so poor, with transmission cutting out and flickering constantly. But it was enough to captivate the world, and experiments continued. Several countries began broadcasting, most experimentally, with limited numbers of TV-sets in the hands of the public. When the television first started selling to the public the cost of the receiver was $600, which was about the price of a new car! At first television was a vehicle for selling goods and services (those ads have been around forever!) and for providing light entertainment. It wasn’t for several years later that people started to realise that it could also provide education.

When World War II started in 1941 it limited the amount of TV equipment being produced, and many broadcasts stopped. Manpower and resources were directed towards the war effort. But, after the war, the strong economy and a new “Television Industry” would fuel the exponential growth of television. But it was in 1946 when a new TV model went on sale at $375 – much cheaper and better quality than the early models. Television sets were soon added to the ‘must have’ list. The explosion of sets into the American marketplace occurred in 1948-1949. The post-war sales boom for England followed a few years later The growth of network programming in this new art and studio production would evolve into a multi billion dollar and global industry and the statistics prove it: in 1939 there were less than one thousand working televisions in the world…. Fifteen years later there were over 25 million and at least one TV in 90% of American homes!

1950-1959 was an exciting time period for television. In the USA, B&W television came onto the scene at the beginning of the decade, mid-decade saw electronic colour TV and remote controls (which were on a long cord plugged into the TV – not small and gadgety like they are now!), and at the end of the decade the public witnessed some interesting styling changes and the introduction of transistorised television. TV sets got smaller and the pictures bigger. The industry grew and grew – getting better all the time and captivating people with the stories that could be told on the tele.

Since then, or course, technological advances have never stopped and now television is in 98% of houses in the Western World. In America, consumers have access to over two hundred different TV channels providing infomercials, sport, education, comedy, news, action and fun.

You have to wonder what Philo Farnsworth would think about television now… and we can all thank him for the invention that brings Revelations into our homes.

Join us soon for another Through the Ages