Vladimir Kosma Zworykin has been called "The Father of Television," though there were
hundreds, if not thousands of individuals involved in the slow, methodical process of putting together
the pieces until they worked. Zworykin's younger contemporary, Philo Farnsworth, also shared major
credit in television’s birth, as did Zworykin's beloved Russian physics teacher, Boris Rozing, a
Scotsman Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton, and many other inventors and scientists of the time.
David Sarnoff, head of RCA, had a vision of bringing television into the home. He chose and
supported Zworykin as the man who would create the technology for electronic television. What
matters most is not that Zworykin was given the credit, but that he was the kind of scientist who
followed his passion over a lifetime and made the best of his good luck.
Vladimir Kosma Zworykin was born in Murom, Russia, (about 200 miles east of Moscow) on
July 30, 1889, the youngest of 7 children. Murom was a successful center of commerce, and
Vladimir’s father, Kosma, was an educated well-to-do merchant who owned and operated a fleet of
riverboats on the Oka River. He was frequently away on business, leaving the running of the big
family to mother Elana. Vladimir grew up in a big mansion and had a carefree childhood, full of
orchestrating practical jokes, doing well in school, and hiking and playing in the nearby woods.
Because his older brothers showed no interest, Vladimir's father took him on trips to learn the family business.
In the early 1900's, life was changing in Russia. There was general dissatisfaction with the tsarist
government, with rampant corruption and no freedom. The ruling class had all the wealth and
power, leaving the average Russian to live in terrible conditions.
In 1911, while revolution was brewing, Zworykin studied at the St. Petersburg Institute of
Technology. He worked in the private lab of Professor Boris Rozing, who introduced him to the
cathode ray tube and the theoretical dream of “electrical telescop.” Rozing had already built his first
television device, and Zworykin spent most of his free time helping with the experiments. German,
French and American scientists also were busy at work experimenting and obtaining patents for
various parts of the television puzzle. When he graduated with an engineering diploma in 1912, the
equipment needed for a working television still had not been developed. Zworykin wanted to continue
helping Rozing, but Zworykin’s father wanted him to help run the family business. Vladimir
convinced his father to let him continue his studies in France at the College de France in Paris, where
he studied X-rays under Professor Paul Langevin, a prominent French theoretical physicist who
eventually won a Nobel Prize. In 1914, the threat of war put an end to Zworykin’s studies and he
returned to Russia.
During World War I, Zworykin's expertise in wireless transmission got him assigned to work
with the Marconi Company and gave him access to the latest in radio equipment, including improved
high-vacuum amplifying tubes. He also met and married his wife, Tatiana Vasilieff. He wanted to join
Marconi's Russian branch after the war, but world events ruined his plans.
|A 1930 demonstration of electronic television|
In early 1917, after great civil unrest, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and power shifted to the
Russian parliament. In October, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government. Zworykin
wanted to stay out of the civil war he saw coming, so he avoided signing up for the Red Army. An
order for his arrest was announced, and Zworykin's friends helped him escape. After a year and a half
of hard work, on January 1, 1919, Vladimir Zworykin arrived in America. Eventually he found
work at the Westinghouse unit of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). He was able to buy a
house, and his wife joined him.
Zworykin received a patent for the kinescope, the first television picture tube, in 1923. The next
year he became a United States citizen and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh where he received
a Ph.D. His efforts to build and operate a cathode-ray television system started sometime in June 1924.
The Westinghouse Electric laboratory made Zworykin's project a high priority, and he was able to
purchase equipment and hire staff to move the work along more quickly. However, the project was
taken away from him, and he learned an important lesson: commercial research required profitability.
In 1929, he was transferred to RCA by David Sarnoff, the company's president, and given his
own lab in California. Zworykin filed his patent for color television that year, and Sarnoff gave him
as much money as he said he needed, even during the Depression, when other departments were being
closed. During the 1930s and 1940s, RCA spent more than $50 million on the development of
Zworykin's television system used a high-voltage cathode-ray tube and presented a 5-inch image
that was bright enough to be viewed in a well-lit room. At this time, Philo Farnsworth's system was
also well developed, but his image was limited to a blurry 2 inches. Zworykin visited Farnsworth's lab
and was given a complete tour and description of Farnsworth's work. Farnsworth hoped that
Zworykin, representing RCA, would provide critical funding. The two men reportedly got along very
well, both appreciating the inventions of the other. However, Zworykin’s supervisors at RCA decided
they didn't need to buy Farnsworth's patents or system. Farnsworth's work, especially the higher
quality dissector tube, gave Zworykin ideas to improve his own 2-sided picture tube.
As more and more scientists around the world approached a working model of a television
system, patent wars raged. Business managers, attorneys and legislative officials fought it out in
courts, the Patent office, and in boardrooms. Sarnoff made sure Zworykin had everything he needed,
including buying up television patents internationally so Zworykin would have the greatest chance of
success. RCA kept its work on television as secret as possible
In 1931, Sarnoff tried to buy Farnsworth's company, especially for its alternate camera tube,
the only other one in existence. He lost out to another company, Philco, and from that time on there
was intense rivalry between Farnsworth and RCA, with battles in the U.S. Patent Office, where RCA
tried to get control of the dissector tube.
Zworykin was always open to suggestions from his co-workers. As a result, he was able to
produce his other great invention, a practical camera tube that vastly improved his television system.
He called it the iconoscope from the Greek icon meaning 'image' and scope meaning 'observing'.
RCA began publicizing its progress with television when the world was in the depths of the
Depression, but it did so slowly, wanting to keep from competing with radio, which was still the only
profitable part of its organization. Finally, in June 1933, Zworykin presented a complete description of
his television system during the Chicago World’s Fair before the Institute of Radio Engineers. The
New York Times put the story on its front page, and people thought television was just around the
corner. Zworykin stated, "The fate of television now rests in the laps of the financial and
merchandising experts." David Sarnoff was on his way to realize his dream of putting a television in
every home, but people were still going to have to wait for awhile.
Zworykin returned to Russia several times, where he was well received, lecturing throughout
the country on television and helping them purchase a complete working system from RCA.
Zworykin turned his attention to new inventions, including work on the electron microscope.
During World War II, Zworykin developed a camera a hundred times more powerful than the
iconoscope, which was the first night-vision camera, called the sniperscope or snooperscope, and he
worked on radio-controlled missiles. Technology from the night vision camera led to a new tool for
measuring radioactivity, the scintillation counter. Zworykin also worked with the mathematician John
Von Neumann on the early development of the computer, using vacuum-tube technology.
Retiring from RCA in 1954, Zworykin continued work in his own laboratory. He created the
endoradiosonde, a tiny transmitter that was swallowed to let doctors monitor processes inside the
body. The ultraviolet microscope was another of his inventions. He was given many awards, including
the National Medal of Science in 1967. This is the highest scientific honor given in the United States. In 1977, he was
inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Zworykin was very ambivalent about how his invention developed into modern day television.
He had envisioned a way of bringing culture and education to all people and was distressed at the
violence and crime. He didn't think television was good for children and once quipped that the best thing about
television was "the off switch." Nevertheless, he was proud of television's positive effects in areas
ranging from politics to news to transportation.
Vladimir Zworykin died of old age July 29, 1982.
On the 100th anniversary of Zworykin's birthday in 1989, Voyager 2 sent back
television pictures of the Planet Neptune and its moon Triton using vidicon cameras which grew out of the work of Zworykin and RCA.