Vladimir Zworykin

Known as “the true inventor of television” (a claim sometimes disputed), Zworykin developed the iconoscope, the standard television camera until 1946, as well as the kinescope, its receiver. He also pioneered practical, noncommunication uses for the technology, such as the electron microscope.

Born: July 30, 1889; Murom, Russia Died: July 29, 1982; Princeton, New Jersey Also known as:Vladimir Kosma Zworykin (full name) Primary fields:Communications; electronics and electrical engineering Primary inventions: Iconoscope; kinescope; electron microscopy

Early Life

Vladimir Kosma Zworykin (VLA-dee-meer KOZ-mah TSVOR-ee-kihn) was born to a prosperous merchant in Murom, Russia. In 1910, he entered the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology to study with physicist Boris Rosing, who three years earlier had completed and demonstrated his first cathode-ray tube television. The young Zworykin’s work in Rosing’s laboratory led to an improved design that Rosing demonstrated in 1911. World War I interrupted Zworykin’s research in 1914: His skill in electronics made him valuable to the Russian Signal Corps, which assigned him to detached service with Russian Marconi, evaluating communications equipment for the Russian army. When the Russian Revolution (1917) began co-opting all research, especially in such a vital industry as communications, Zworykin sought to leave his country. His exact itinerary is difficult to establish (he apparently went back to Russia at one point), but he may have spent a year in Paris studying X rays under Paul Langevin in 1918 before settling in the United States the following year. He became a U.S. citizen in 1924.

Zworykin began working for Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh while pursuing graduate study in physics at the University of Pittsburgh. By 1926, he had completed his Ph.D. and demonstrated a television system based on the cathode-ray tube (CRT). Westinghouse management told him to stick to more practical projects. In 1929, he successfully demonstrated his kinescope, a CRT receiver that was the basis for all picture tubes in the twentieth century. The demonstration impressed David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), who hired Zworykin for his new laboratory in Camden, New Jersey. There Zworykin developed an electronic scanner that he called an iconoscope, to deliver the image to a kinescope. It was Zworykin’s basic design that the Germans used to televise the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Zworykin continued to develop applications for his iconoscope and kinescope, particularly electron microscopy, which was under development in Germany in the 1930’s, until his retirement from RCA in 1954.

Life’s Work

When introduced as the “father of television” in 1951, Vladimir Zworykin scorned the title. With a disparaging remark about the children’s show Howdy Doody, he remarked that he would not want his own children to watch what the medium had become. Zworykin had expected his invention to serve science and industry, not merely entertain. His confidence in the importance of industry is ironic, since management at Westinghouse gave very little encouragement to his early experiments in television. His 1923 patent application was still pending in the fall of 1925 when he demonstrated his improvements on the design. Because the image he broadcast was still—a simple X—management, not understanding the technical achievement, was unimpressed and ordered him to concentrate on other projects. However, the demonstration led to a new patent application that included a key element in television camera design: the creation of a “mosaic” pattern on the image plate. Zworykin’s 1923 patent had spoken of a “layer” of photoelectric material, but subsequent experiments proved the need to have discrete areas (what are now called “pixels”) electrically insulated from one another.

Following the letter of Westinghouse’s ban on his television research, Zworykin continued to develop hardware that could be used in television but that had other commercial applications. One success in this area was his mercury-arc light valve, which would later be the basis for his kinescope. He also produced a photoelectric cell in a vacuum tube that was a great deal more sensitive than previous cells. Westinghouse billed it as an optical smoke detector. Also, since photocells became desensitized with use, Zworykin in 1926 developed potassiumbased photocells that outlasted the sodium cells then in use. While banned from direct television research, Zworykin was still free to apply for patents, and his 1928 patent for a cathode-ray television system caught the eye of one of the leaders in television research, A. A. Campbell Swinton, who convinced Westinghouse management of the viability of Zworykin’s television work. Consequently, Zworykin was free to develop the kinescope, which he demonstrated in 1929.

the Empire State Building. However, there were only three receivers in the city, and the highest stated ambition was to have one hundred sets in operation in New York. The home market for receivers, announced in 1932, had not materialized. A repeat demonstration in 1937 was reported to have greater clarity, though the contrast was higher than that of film. A 1938 demonstration showed a higher percentage of gray tones. At the opening of the New York World’s Fair in April of 1939, RCA began the first public television service, with Zworykin’s iconoscope cameras and kinescope receivers.

In 1940, Zworykin demonstrated his improvements on the electron microscope, and he gave a scholarly paper on the subject. He also published his classic book, Television: The Electronics of Image Transmission, which detailed the state of the art at that time. For his work on electron microscopy, Zworykin was awarded the Rumford Medal by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1941. During the war years, Zworykin was influential in the development of the infrared snoopHired away from Westinghouse by David Sarnoff at RCA, Zworykin at last had the freedom (and funding) to pursue his television research. In 1931, he produced a working version of the iconoscope, though his success was marred by the fact that other researchers had beat him to the patent office, even though he was the first to prove “operability,” a key criterion in patent disputes. In 1932, RCA demonstrated Zworykin’s iconoscope in a broadcast from the Empire State Building, viewed by fifty top radio and electronics manufacturers. The Depression made Sarnoff hesitant to develop commercial applications for Zworykin’s work, though he continued to support it, albeit under tight secrecy. By 1933, however, Sarnoff decided to publicize the iconoscope, and a picture of it appeared in the Sunday New York Times of July 2. Zworykin’s scholarly paper on the iconoscope was reported by the newspaper as front-page news. The U.S. State Department allowed Zworykin at this time to return to Russia and deliver his paper to scientists there. Shortly after, and, it is likely, in no small part due to this trip, the United States and the Soviet Union resumed diplomatic relations for the first time since the 1917 revolution.

In 1936, RCA staged a second demonstration of its now-improved television system broadcast from depended at least in part on a Zworykin invention. Zworykin died on July 29, 1982, at the Princeton Medical Center, at the age of ninety-two.


Although RCA’s claim for Zworykin as the “father of television” may be a bit exaggerated, Zworykin surely contributed as much as any one inventor to the development of video technology. Furthermore, his pioneer work on the electron microscope, and his wartime development of television-guided missiles, which Zworykin had proposed as early as 1934, were major contributions to the Allied war effort. During the war, Zworykin served as a member of the Ordnance Advisory Committee on Guided Missiles, and he was a scientific adviser to the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Force. In the 1950’s, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) named its highest award in video technology the V. K. Zworykin Award. In November of 1980, ninety-one-year-old Zworykin was awarded the Fellowship Citation Plaque of the Royal Television Society of London at the 122nd technical conference of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). In 1984, he received a posthumous Emmy, the Trustees Award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for his seventy-year career in television research. Robert B. Frederick, the president of RCA, accepted the Emmy in Zworykin’s honor. In addition to directing what was in the 1940’s the largest broadcast laboratory in the world, Zworykin wrote six informative books on the subject of television that became standard reading.

—John R. Holmes erscope, once being stopped by the police in Princeton, New Jersey, for driving without headlights to test the infrared “night vision” effect. Because he was driving around the RCA Laboratories, the police suspected that he was a spy.

After the war, Zworykin went to work on a largescreen color television, which he demonstrated publicly for the first time in March of 1947. By this time, he had been promoted to vice president of RCA Laboratories. By the time he retired in 1954, color television was on its way to American homes, and every camera and receiver

Further Reading

Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1942 to 2000. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. An overview of the developments in television since World War II. Helpful for placing Zworykin’s accomplishments in historical perspective. Copiously illustrated with archival photographs. _. Zworykin, Pioneer of Television. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. The most thorough discussion of Zworykin’s contributions to television available, this work is scrupulously documented, though unfortunately not with a separate bibliography: The researcher must scour the 292 pages of notes to find book and article titles. Flehr, Paul D. Inventors and Their Inventions: A California Legacy Seen Through the Eyes of a Patent Attorney. Palo Alto, Calif.: Pacific Books, 1990. Includes a discussion of Zworykin’s advances in television technology from the point of view of patent law. Not very helpful on the technical side, but offers a clearer picture than do the standard television histories of the legal issues involved. Udelson, Joseph H. The Great Television Race: A History of the American Television Industry, 1925-1941. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982. A readable narrative of Zworykin’s race against other industry hopefuls, particularly Philo T. Farnsworth, to produce commercial television equipment. What is gained in storytelling interest, however, is lost in perpetuating futile quibbles over the various television “firsts.” Zworykin, V. K., and G. A. Morton. Television: The

Electronics of Image Transmission. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1940. A history of the development of video technology, in Zworykin’s own words. While Zworykin is not shy about documenting his own role in developing the medium, he gives ample credit to his competitors. The descriptions are technically detailed yet understandable to the nontechnical reader.


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