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History of Television: Invention & Timeline

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history

Learn about the inventors and scientists responsible for bringing television into the world. Explore the progressive phases of development in the history of television. Discover the advances in technology and industry that made television possible.

Who Invented Television?

If you are looking for the single great mind who invented television, you will be sorely disappointed to discover that the idea came from many diverse sources. While it's easy to claim that Gutenberg invented the printing press and Watt invented the steam engine, the many revolutionary inventions that changed the world beginning in the late nineteenth century are harder to assign. While we generally can agree that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, his claim to the invention was disputed in its time. Elisha Gray and others also had claims to the idea.

But understanding who invented television and how it came to be proves to be a much more complicated story than that of the telephone. About a year after Bell introduced his telephone (then called a 'talking telegraph'), people started talking about a new invention of Thomas Edison's: a visual telephone. If Bell's invention could allow people to hear over great distances, Edison's 'Telephonoscope' would allow people to also see their distant friend. An illustration published in the British humor magazine 'Punch' associated Edison with the new invention and showed how it could be used to see and hear from London across the world to the British colonies.

Punch, The Telephonoscope, 1878
telephonoscope

It's also important to realize that television is in a state of re-invention today. While our parents may have grown up with TV programs and the nightly news, kids and young people today may only be familiar with YouTube and Netflix streaming video (not to mention all the other streaming services popping up all over the place). Today, we're witnessing the growth of many new forms of television. These new options make it possible for anyone to be a broadcaster (YouTube) and to access television content (Netflix, Hulu, etc) on many devices, including home computers, tablets, and even smartphones. These new inventions are breaking down the distinctions we once made between television programming, video, and cinema, allowing us to reframe the meaning of television from live broadcasting to digital content delivery.

Experiments and Demonstrations

People who study the history of television generally agree that the chronology can be parsed into different stages.

  • Speculative Era, nineteenth-century
  • Experimental phase, late nineteenth century to 1920s
  • Demonstrations, 1920s and 1930s
  • Broadcast era, 1940s-present

It began with a speculative era in the late nineteenth century. The beginning of the twentieth century brought scientific advances that made it possible for engineers to cobble together working systems. The first successes in the 1920s and 1930s promoted confidence in television, despite a Great Depression in America and a World War. Television finally made its way into the home, as the result of organized efforts on the part of a burgeoning American mass media industry and the federal regulation of broadcasting over the airwaves.

Several lectures and articles written by American physicist Alan A. Campbell-Swinton, published between 1908 and 1924, promoted a new way of thinking about television as an electronic medium. While today we sometimes think of electronic as synonymous with digital, today, electronic can sometimes mean the same thing as digital, in the age before computers it referred simply to the magical ability to harness the power of electrons. Campbell-Swinton suggested to the electrical engineers then working on television that the an electron beam, called a cathode ray, could be used. This brought about the development of the cathode ray tube, or CRT monitor, the main component in television screens before LCD flat screens. You might recognize one if you have ever seen an old broken television, or a CRT without its plastic casing.

old cathode ray tube monitors destined for the junk heap
tv recycling

While Campbell-Swinton can be credited as introducing the cathode ray tube, biographers often point to Philo Farnsworth as the inventor of television. A young genius raised on a ranch in Utah, he mused that he came up with the idea of how to engineer cathode ray tubes while plowing the fields. His daughter reminisced:

At one point he turned and saw all the fine lines on the field he had gone over with the harrow, and he said to himself, 'I can just magnetically deflect those electrons across the screen in the same way you plow a field, line after line.' That's the way he did it, and that's the way it is done today.

Many years in the future, according to (creator of The Simpsons) Matt Groening's sci-fi comedy animated series Futurama, Philo's distant ancestor Hubert would follow in his footsteps to become a 31st century mad scientist.

Television in the Home

Television finally made it into homes in the late 1940s following World War II. A decades-long process in federal regulations of broadcasting standards and technological developments in electronic transmission brought about the birth of the American mass media entertainment market.

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