Biography of Gregorio Zara, Inventor of the Videophone

Gregorio Zara

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Gregorio Zara (March 8, 1902—Oct. 15, 1978) was a Filipino scientist best known as the inventor of the videophone, the first two-way electronic video communicator, in 1955. All told he patented 30 devices. His other inventions ranged from an alcohol-powered airplane engine to a solar-powered water heater and stove.

Fast Facts: Gregorio Zara

Known For: Inventor of the video telephone

Born: March 8, 1902, in Lipa City, Batangas, Philippines

Died: Oct. 15, 1978

Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, Sorbonne University

Awards and Honors: National Scientist Award (Philippines)

Spouse: Engracia Arcinas Laconico

Children:  Antonio, Pacita, Josefina, Lourdes

Early Life

Gregorio Zara was born on March 8, 1902, in Lipa City, Batangas, Philippines. He earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master's in aeronautical engineering (summa cum laude) at the University of Michigan, and a doctorate in physics at Sorbonne University in Paris (summa cum laude with Tres Honorable, the highest graduate student honor).

He returned to the Philippines and became involved in both the government and the academic worlds. He worked in several posts with the Department of Public Works and Communications and the Department of National Defense, mostly in the aviation. At the same time, he taught aeronautics at several universities—including the American Far Eastern School of Aviation, the Far Eastern University, and the FEATI University—and published many books and research papers on aeronautics.

In 1934 Zara married Engracia Arcinas Laconico, who the year before had been named Miss Philippines. They had four children: Antonio, Pacita, Josefina, and Lourdes.

Discoveries Begin

In 1930, he discovered the physical law of electrical kinetic resistance, known as the Zara Effect, which involves the resistance to the passage of electric current when contacts are in motion. Later he invented the earth induction compass, which is still used by pilots, and in 1954 his airplane engine powered by alcohol had a successful test flight at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Then came the videophone. Before video calling became as commonplace as it is in the 21st century, the technology had been developed but started slowly, possibly because it was so far ahead of its time. In the middle of the 1950s, long before the start of the digital age, Zara developed the first videophone or two-way television-telephone. The device left the realm of science fiction and comic books when Zara patented it in 1955 as a “photo phone signal separator network.”

Videophone Catches On

That first iteration didn't catch on, largely because it wasn’t intended as a commercial product. But in the 1960s, AT&T began working on a model of a videophone, called a “picturephone,” aimed at the public. The company released the videophone at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, but it was seen as impractical and didn't fare well.

It caught fire as the digital age was beginning in the late 1990s. The videophone first caught on as a device that easily enabled distance learning and video conferencing and also proved helpful for the hearing impaired. Then came such derivations as Skype and smartphones, and the videophone became ubiquitous worldwide.

Other Scientific Contributions

Zara's other inventions and discoveries include:

  • Improving methods of producing and harnessing solar energy, including new designs for a solar-powered water heater, stove, and battery (1960s)
  • Inventing wooden aircraft propellers and a corresponding propeller-cutting machine (1952)
  • Designing a microscope with a collapsible stage
  • Helping design the robot Marex X-10, which could walk, talk, and respond to commands
  • Inventing the vapor chamber, used to visualize radioactive elements

Zara died of heart failure at the age of 76 in 1978.

Legacy

In his lifetime Gregorio Zara amassed 30 patents. In the year of his death he was presented the National Scientist Award, the highest honor the Philippine government gives to Filipino scientists, by President Ferdinand E. Marcos. He also received:

  • The Presidential Diploma of Merit
  • The Distinguished Service Medal (1959) for his pioneering works and achievements in solar energy research, aeronautics, and television
  • The Presidential Gold Medal and Diploma of Honor for Science and Research (1966)
  • The Cultural Heritage Award for Science Education and Aero Engineering (1966)

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