Who Invented Color Television

A German patent contained the earliest proposal for a color television system.

Television set on stand
Television set on stand. Davies and Starr/Getty Images

The earliest mention of color television was in a 1904 German patent for a color television system. In 1925, Russian inventor Vladimir K. Zworykin also filed a patent disclosure for an all-electronic color television system. While both of these designs were not successful, they were the first documented proposals for a color television.

Sometime between 1946 and 1950, the research staff of RCA Laboratories invented the world's first electronic, color television system.

 A successful color television system based on a system designed by RCA began commercial broadcasting on December 17, 1953.

RCA vs. CBS

But prior to RCA, CBS researchers led by Peter Goldmark invented a mechanical color television system based on the 1928 designs of John Logie Baird. The FCC authorized CBS's color television technology as the national standard in October of 1950. However, the system at the time was bulky, picture quality was terrible and the technology was not compatible with earlier black-and-white sets.

CBS began color broadcasting on five east coast stations in June of 1951. However, RCA responded by suing to stop the public broadcasting of CBS-based systems. Making matters worse was that there were already 10.5 million black-and-white televisions (half RCA sets) that had been sold to the public and very few color sets. Color television production was also halted during the Korean war.

With the many challenges, the CBS system failed.

Those factors provided RCA with the time to design a better color television, which they based on Alfred Schroeder's 1947 patent application for a technology called shadow mask CRT. Their system passed FCC approval in late 1953 and sales of RCA color televisions began in 1954.

A Brief Timeline of Color Television

  • Early color telecasts could be preserved only on the black-and-white kinescope process introduced in 1947.
  • In 1956, NBC began using color film to time-delay and preserve some of its live color telecasts. A company named Ampex made a color videotape recorder in 1958 and NBC used it to tape An Evening With Fred Astaire, the oldest surviving network color videotape.
  • In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the NBC station in Washington, D.C. and gave a speech discussing the new technology's merits. His speech was recorded in color and a copy of this videotape was given to the Library of Congress.
  • NBC made the first coast-to-coast color broadcast when it telecast the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954.
  • The premier of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in September 1961 created a turning point that persuaded consumers to go out and purchase color televisions. 
  • Television broadcasting stations and networks in most parts of the world upgraded from black-and-white TVs to color transmission in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • By 1979, even the last of these had converted to color and by the early 1980s, black-and-white sets were mostly small portable sets or those used as video monitor screens in lower-cost consumer equipment. By the late 1980s, even these areas switched to color sets.
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    Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented Color Television." ThoughtCo, Nov. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/color-television-history-4070934. Bellis, Mary. (2017, November 23). Who Invented Color Television. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/color-television-history-4070934 Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented Color Television." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/color-television-history-4070934 (accessed December 15, 2017).