Biography of Vladimir Zworykin, Father of the Television

Vladimir K. Zworykin Posing
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Vladimir Zworykin (July 30, 1889–July 29, 1982) is often called the "father of television," but he never accepted that, stating that he shared credit with many others such as David Sarnoff. Among his 120 patents are two instruments that were critical to the development of television: the iconoscope camera tube and the kinescope picture tube. 

Fast Facts: Vladimir Zworykin

  • Known For: Called the "Father of Television" for his work on the iconoscope camera tube and the kinescope picture tube
  • Born: July 30, 1889 in Murom, Russia.
  • Parents: Kosma A. and Elana Zworykin
  • Died: July 29, 1982 in Princeton, New Jersey
  • Education: Petrograd Institute of Technology (electrical engineering, 1912), Ph.D, University of Pittsburg 1926
  • Published Works: More than 100 technical papers, five books, 120 patents
  • Awards: 29 awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1966
  • Spouse(s): Tatania Vasilieff (1916–1951), Katherine Polevitsky (1951–1982)
  • Children: Elaine and Nina, with his first wife
  • Notable Quote: "I hate what they've done to my child…I would never let my own children watch it." (on his feelings about television)

Early Life

Vladimir Kosma Zworykin was born on July 30, 1889, the youngest of surviving seven (from the original 12) children of Kosma A. and Elana Zworykin of Murom, Russia. The well-to-do merchant family was dependent on Kosma's role as the owner of a wholesale grain business and a successful steamship line.

In 1910, Vladimir entered the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, where he studied electrical engineering under Boris Rosing and saw his first television. Rosing, a professor in charge of laboratory projects, tutored Zworykin and introduced his student to experiments of transmitting pictures by wire. Together they experimented with a very early cathode-ray tube, developed in Germany by Karl Ferdinand Braun.

Rosing and Zworykin exhibited a television system in 1910 using a mechanical scanner in the transmitter and the electronic Braun tube in the receiver. After graduating in 1912, Zworykin entered the College de France in Paris, studying x-rays under Paul Langevin, but the studies were interrupted in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. He then returned to Russia and worked as an officer with the Russian Signal Corps. 

Leaving Russia

Zworkyin married Tatania Vasilieff on April 17, 1916, and they eventually had two daughters, Nina Zworykin (born 1920) and Elaine Zworykin Knudsen (born 1924). When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, Zworykin was working at the Russian Marconi company. Rosing disappeared in the chaos, the Zworykin family home in Murom was seized by revolutionary forces, and Zworykin and his wife fled Russia, making two trips around the world before settling down in the United States in 1919. He briefly worked as a bookkeeper in the Russian Embassy before joining Westinghouse at East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1920.

Westinghouse

At Westinghouse, he worked on a number of projects from gunnery controls to electronically controlled missiles and automobiles, but his most important were the kinescope picture tube (the cathode-ray tube) in 1923 and then the iconoscope camera tube, a tube for television transmission used in the first cameras in 1924. Zworykin was one of the first to demonstrate a television system with all the features of modern picture tubes.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1924, and in 1926 he obtained a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh with a dissertation on a method of greatly improving the sensitization of photocells. On November 18, 1929, at a convention of radio engineers, Zworykin demonstrated a television receiver containing his kinescope and obtained his first patent associated with color television.

Radio Corporation of America

In 1929, Zworykin was transferred by Westinghouse to work for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in Camden, New Jersey, as the new director of the Electronic Research Laboratory and at the invitation of RCA's president, David Sarnoff, a fellow Russian emigre. RCA owned most of Westinghouse at that time and had just bought the C.F. Jenkin's Television Company, makers of mechanical television systems, in order to receive their patents.

Zworykin made improvements to his iconoscope, and RCA funded his research to the tune of $150,000. The further improvements allegedly used an imaging section which was similar to Philo Farnsworth's patented dissector. Patent litigation forced RCA to start paying Farnsworth royalties.

1930s and 1940s

By the mid-1930s, Zworykin worked on his own projects and provided leadership for an extensive number of young scientists. He became intrigued by early work on the electron microscope, and he set up a lab and hired Canadian James Hillier, who had built a prototype as a graduate student, to develop one for RCA.

During World War II, Zworykin had input into airborne television that was used to guide radio-controlled torpedoes and a device that helped blind people read. His laboratories were tapped to work on stored-program technology for the early computers, and he explored—but didn't have much success with—self-driven cars. In 1947, Sarnoff promoted Zworykin to vice president and technical consultant to the RCA laboratories.

Death and Legacy

In 1951, Zworykin's wife Tatania Vasilieff, from whom he had been separated for better than a decade, divorced him, and he married long-time friend Katherine Polevitsky. He was forced to retire at 65 from RCA in 1954 but continued supporting and developing research, serving as director of the Medical Electronics Center at the Rockefeller Institute in New York.

In his lifetime, Zworykin authored more than 100 technical papers, wrote five books, and received 29 awards. Among them was the National Medal of Science—the highest scientific honor in the United States—which President Lyndon Johnson presented to Zworykin in 1966 “for major contributions to the instruments of science, engineering, and television, and for his stimulation of the applications of engineering to medicine.” In retirement, he was a founder and the first president of the International Federation for Medical and Biological Engineering; he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.

Vladimir Zworykin died on July 29, 1982, one day shy of his 93rd birthday, at the Princeton (New Jersey) Medical Center.

Sources

  • Abramson, Albert. "Vladimir Zworykin, Pioneer of Television." Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
  • Froehlich, Fritz E. and Allen Kent. "Vladimir Kosma Zworykin." The Froehlich/Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications (Volume 18), p 259–266. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1990.
  • Magill, Frank N. (ed.). "Vladimir Zworykin." The 20th Century O–Z (Volume IX) Dictionary of World Biography. London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Thomas, Robert McG. Jr. "Vladimir Zworykin, Television Pioneer, Dies at 92." The New York Times, August 1, 1982.
  • Rajchman, Jan. "Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, July 30, 1889—July 29, 1982." National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 88:369–398 (2006).