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Chapter 5 - A New Life

The first news that greeted Zworykin upon his arrival in New York was the news that the Kolchak Government had collapsed and that, therefore, his official status was at an end. However, since the Russian Embassy in Washington still had not recognized the Bolshevik Government, Zworykin was granted an interview with the ambassador, Professor [Boris A.] Bakhmeteff, who offered him a job with the Russian Purchasing Commission in New York City.

Since he was without funds, he accepted a job as a mechanical adding machine operator in the Commission’s bookkeeping department. Concurrent to this, he began to study English. He stayed in a boarding house in Brooklyn and soon acquired many new friends.

During all of his travels, he was constantly trying to find information concerning the whereabouts of his wife, and finally, after he had been in New York for several months, he received her address (through embassy channels) in Berlin. She was most anxious to join him in the United States, so he borrowed some money to finance her trip. When she arrived, he rented a house in Mt. Vernon [New York] and after so many years of chaos, at last gave his life some semblance of normality. He then decided to try and enter the engineering profession. (p. 76)

Since my arrival in New York, I never stopped looking for a new job in my profession, and finally received an invitation to come to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to be interviewed for a position at the Westinghouse Research Laboratory. I was so impressed by the laboratory that I accepted the offer at once, in spite of the fact that the proposed salary was exactly half the one I received from the Commission. On my return, my friends told me how foolish I was, going to a new place, with an uncertain job and for such a miserable salary. The move was complicated also by the fact that my wife was expecting a baby. Still I was determined to go to work in industry and was convinced I would have greater satisfaction and more opportunity working in my profession, so as soon as our first daughter (Nina) was born, we moved to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh was quite different from New York. The life was less expensive and we were able to rent nice rooms in the home of a Telephone Company engineer with whom we soon became good friends. The laboratory work absorbed me at once. I was assigned to the group working on the development of a new amplifying radio tube (known later as WD-11) for radio receivers receiving broadcasts from the newly built (by Frank Conrad) radio station KDKA I worked hard, sometimes staying in the laboratory overnight if the work could not be interrupted. I began to feel that I was a useful member of the group and I liked it. Soon I was assigned the preparation of cathodes for radio tubes. This required the coating of platinum filaments with barium-strontium salts in order to make them good electron emitters. The process was purely manual and the results were not uniform. I proposed, and eventually built, a semi-automatic coating machine which hastened the process and made the coating much more uniform. This machine which required the use of molten resin as a carrier for activating salts, had to be raised and lowered by compressed carbon dioxide gas. The installation was a temporary laboratory type; many parts of the equipment were connected by rubber hoses.

One day, I caught the flu so I had to stay home. After several days my boss telephoned me and said that they had run out of filaments and nobody was familiar with the operation of the coating machine. Although still quite weak, I agreed to come the next day and asked that in the meantime, they attach a (p. 77) fresh tank of compressed gas. As soon as I came to the laboratory, I started the operation of the coating machine, but at the moment I switched on the current to heat the filament, there was a loud explosion and the whole batch of molten resin was blown up. I managed to duck under a piece of asbestos cloth, which I happened to be holding in my left hand, and thus escaped with only a burned hand and a few marks on my suit. We found out that the explosion occurred because someone mixed the carbon dioxide tank with the one containing oxygen. I describe this accident to illustrate how little attention was paid to safety procedures in the laboratories of those times. Later, we had more serious accidents.

Meanwhile, the work progressed and I developed some methods to improve radio tubes, particularly a method of heating filaments in radio sets by A.C. current instead of by batteries. This, in turn, required the preparation of patent disclosures, a work with which I was completely unfamiliar. Communication with the patent lawyer was handicapped by my difficulties in English.

I was so absorbed in my work that I hardly noticed a year had gone by. At the time of my employment, I was told that I could expect a raise after a year if my work was satisfactory. I felt that I had more than fulfilled this requirement and was confident of a raise, but instead all of us received a notice of a ten percent salary reduction because of the hard times the company was experiencing. This was so unexpected and disappointing that I resigned on the spot and, after a month, found work in Kansas City, Missouri. I accepted the new job by correspondence, without knowing anything about the company or the kind of work I was to perform, mostly because the salary was almost double the one I had been receiving at Westinghouse.

I arrived with my family in Kansas City where we were met by the director of the laboratory who had been very kind in renting a nice house for us in a pleasant part of the city. We liked the environment and I was eager to start work and to learn what my new duties would be. I found that a new laboratory had to be constructed and, in effect, everything had to be started (p. 78) from scratch. It took several months to build the laboratory and to assemble the equipment. The experiment I was to perform in this laboratory was to prove that high frequency current would speed the cracking process in an oil refinery. Although all I knew about oil refining was what I read in the library and in a few books that I was able to buy, the experiment was a straightforward one, and I was able to assemble suitable equipment that proved to be workable. In a couple of months I completed the experiment and submitted my report to the company Board of Directors. However, I found that they had expected my results would prove their patent claim on the importance of using high frequency current in the oil cracking process, which they hoped to sell to a big oil company. My laboratory experiment proved just the opposite. This resulted in the closing of the laboratory. This was a big shock, but fortunately I was partly prepared for it, I had already begun to be satisfied with work in the laboratory, so I organized a small one at home. Of course I did not have a chance to work with television, but was working with the application of high frequency techniques to other problems: radio broadcasting, rail­road signaling, etc., for which I applied and later received several patents.

This was the era of custom built broadcast radio receivers and I had my share in this activity. This work paid well since people wanted built-in sets, as part of their furniture, with all kinds of gadgets, alarm clocks, percolator starters, etc. I did this work at home and it improved our financial condition, so I bought a secondhand automobile to commute to the laboratory and to take my family on holidays out of town.

I always liked to tinker with machinery so now having my own first automobile I usually serviced it myself. One day, in order to tighten the brakes, I had to jack the car up. Since I did not have four jacks, I used instead a stack of bricks on three corners and crawled under it. By accident, I kicked out one of the supports and the car fell and pinned me to the ground. I could hardly breathe. Fortunately, the other three supports were still holding so I did not move. There was no one home in the house to help me and after a long time, my neighbor, a school teacher, arrived and came over to see what I was doing. When he saw what had happened, he jumped in his car and soon returned with the whole local fire department who eventually freed me. (p. 79)

Many years later I asked my older daughter Nina what it was she remembered most about our life in Kansas City. She said it was the word cathode ray which she remembered was repeated around the house very often. Evidently, I was talking about television.

Eventually, through a friend, I made contact with a small company building crystal radio receivers. The radio fever had just started in the United States and many cities, including Kansas City, had or were constructing radio broadcasting stations. I agreed to become a consultant to this company and in a short time succeeded in constructing a very inexpensive compact radio tuner with a regenerating circuit. This was incorporated into their radio set and soon we were able to organize quite a sizable production. Christmastime was coming and we sold all that we could build. I was happy because I received a good share of the profit. However, after the holidays were over, the sets began to come back for repairs, mostly due to defective soldering. The work had been done by high school boys and girls hired by the company during Christmas vacation and now I had to do all the repairs. Since this was more than I could handle alone, I proposed to organize the production on a more rational basis and hire more qualified workers. This required a considerable investment and my partners disagreed. I was also testing a radio for automobiles, using the canvas top of the car to house a regenerative loop antenna. The set was performing beautifully and we were planning to organize a production of auto-radio sets. Before we started, however, we received a notice from police headquarters that they would not permit the installation of radio receivers in cars since it would divert the attention of drivers and might lead to accidents. This of course ruined our plans.

In the meantime I received news from Westing­house that changes had been made in the laboratory, by a new director, and soon after, I was sent an offer to return there. I answered that I would return only with a higher salary and a contract for several years. The acceptance was confirmed by telegram and in a month we were back in Pittsburgh. (p. 80)

I decided to leave the family in Kansas City until I found a suitable home so I drove to Pittsburgh alone. At that time the highways were not as good as now, and part of the road between Kansas City and St. Louis was a dirt road. I soon got lost and when night came, I saw a farm and tried to get some information from the farmer as to where I was. At first the only answer to my knocks was a furious barking of dogs, but finally a voice from behind the locked gates asked what I wanted. I asked how I could get to St. Louis. The answer was that if I had found my way this far, I should be able to find the rest of it and that if I did not go away, the dogs would be released on me. That upset me and I cursed in Russian under my breath, but evidently sufficiently loud enough because the voice asked what I had said. I did not want to become involved in a fight, so I began to leave. The gate opened and the farmer began speaking to me in Russian. When he found that I had left Russia only two years before, he insisted on bringing me into the house, woke up his wife, and we spent the whole night talking. He emigrated to the United States from the south of Russia with his parents when he was a young boy. Now he was a prosperous farmer with a couple hundred acres of land and a good farm. His sons and daughters had married and gone to live in the city, so he was delighted to have company, particularly from home. With considerable reluctance, they let me go the next day, after feeding me to my limits.

From St. Louis the road was good, and I arrived safely in Pittsburgh. Here, however, I immediately ran into trouble by entering a one-way street in the wrong direction. The traffic policeman, a big burly man whistled me down. He stopped traffic and taking his time, slowly approached me pulling out his notebook. When he was half way through the usual preliminary, "Are you blind, not seeing where you are going, etc., etc." and I had already begun visualizing a summons and probably a fine, he noticed my Missouri license. His stern features relaxed, "So you are from Missouri—how are things there? How could you know our new traffic regulations? Where are you going?" So Kansas City helped me again.

I returned to Westinghouse in a different capacity and the new director, Mr. S[amuel] M. Kintner, asked me to suggest what I wished to work on. Of course I suggested electronic television and he promptly gave his consent. (p. 81)

I plunged enthusiastically into my new work. In a few months, working practically alone with occasional help from an excellent glassblower, Chris, I had assembled a completely electronic television system. I was so proud of the results that I spent considerable time in the library trying to find a proper name for it. The electronic pickup tube I named "Iconoscope" from two Greek words, Icon (image) and (scope) to see. The reproducing tube I named "Kinescope," from kineo (to move). Mr. Kintner was very impressed by the performance of the system, which proved the feasibility of electronic television. Although the quality of the trans­mitted image was very poor in the beginning, it was obvious that it could be improved with further work.

To continue the work more help, space, and a budget were needed. So we decided to show the installation to the general manager of the Westinghouse Company, Mr. H[enry] P. Davis. I will never forget that day. To start with, in trying to improve the performance, I blew up some condensers and had to spend the entire night repairing the circuit. But in the morning when Mr. Davis arrived with Mr. O[tto] Schairer, Director of the Patent Department, and Mr. Kintner, everything was working. I was able to demonstrate instant transmission of images without mechanical means. Furthermore, I was particularly anxious to prove the most important aspect of this system—the storage effect. This resulted from the presence in the Iconoscope of a photo-electric mosaic in which every photo-electric element was combined with an individual condenser. The condenser charged continuously while the corresponding photo-electric element received light from a particular point of the transmitted picture. Since the picture transmission is repeated thirty times per second, the picture signal is generated by light falling on the mosaic for 1/30th of a second. At the same condition, systems without storage effect, for comparison, utilize for the generation of the picture signal for a given picture element only light emitted by the element at the moment at which it is trans­mitted. This is many thousand times shorter. The two systems may be compared with photographic cameras with exposure times of 1/30th second or 1/300,000th second, respectively.

However, Mr. Davis was not at all impressed. He asked me a few questions, mostly as to how much time I spent building the installation, and left after (p. 82) saying something to Mr. Kintner which I did not hear. Later, I found out that he had told him to put this "guy" to work on something more useful.

This was a tremendous blow to me and to soften the effect Mr. Kintner suggested that I write a patent application on my television work and then begin working on something in which Westinghouse was currently interested. He decided on sound movies, since they required the use of photocells with which I was familiar.

At this time there was an agreement between the Westinghouse Laboratory and the Physics Department of Pittsburgh University whereby the University offered courses and an advanced degree in physics for original work performed in laboratory. Since the university accepted for partial credit my work in the "College de France," after receiving from Professor Langevin a very complimentary account of my work in his laboratory, I was able to complete their requirements and receive my Ph.D. in 1926. This took two years of evening courses and my work in the Westinghouse Laboratory on photo­electric cells.

Our financial condition by now had improved considerably and we owned a small house in a suburb of Pittsburgh and a new automobile. A second child was born, Elaine, and we hired a young girl to help my wife. We now had a number of friends and were more engaged in social activities.

Among our best friends was the family of Colonel [Ilya] Mouromtseff whom, as I already mentioned, I knew in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) and later in New York. He also joined the Westinghouse Research Laboratory and soon became a well-recognized expert in radio tubes. Another family with whom I was and am still very close is Dr. and Mrs. J[oseph] Slepian. He was a well-known scientist of the Westinghouse Company and was internationally known for his work in applied mathematics.

At that time the Westinghouse Company had assembled a considerable group of Russian refugees, some with high reputations in the scientific world, such as Professor Stephen Timoshenko, a specialist on strength of materials, whose many books are translated in most known languages. Professor [Joseph T.] Tykociner who had the earliest patents on sound movies and now is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois. (p. 83)

This period of my life in Pittsburgh was to be well remembered by me for many reasons. In 1924 I received, after five years residence in the United States, my naturalization papers, so important to me since they rectified my status as a person without a country.

Furthermore, the laboratory work was progressing well. As a result of continuous efforts to make photo-cells more and more sensitive, since they were the key develop­ment to all my projects including television, I developed a combination (in a single vacuum bulb) of a photo-cell and an amplifier. The device was so sensitive that it could detect a whiff of smoke passed between the cell and a light source. This attracted the attention of the company publicity men and the cell was exhibited in Pittsburgh’s main department store, where it was used to control household appliances. It received tremendous publicity and my picture was placed not only in all the Pittsburgh newspapers but also in the windows of many stores. From a scientific point of view, this device was not of great value and I was actually ashamed before my colleagues for this undeserved publicity.

After my disappointment from my demonstration of electronic television, I was careful to direct my work along the lines of current interest to the Westinghouse Company. This required rather adroit maneuvering. I had learned by this time that it is impossible to work on an idea in commercial research without camouflaging it, unless you can convince commercial people of its immediate profitableness. It does not matter that you yourself are convinced of its importance.

My earlier work on television had convinced me of the importance of the photoelectric effect for the efficient transformation of light into electric energy. Presently, I succeeded in developing a new photoelectric cell that performed very well. Since, at that time, the field of application of photocells in which the company was most interested was sound for motion pictures, I began to work on the recording and reproduction of sound on movie film. This effort resulted in a new recording camera utilizing a Kerr cell, that was quickly adapted to commercial production. One result was the loss of two of my colleagues, who received and accepted very attractive offers from a big movie studio (p. 84) in Hollywood. Although I received a similar proposal from the same studio, I decided to stay in research, and obtained permission to transfer my work to facsimile, which required many elements needed for television.

The sensitive photo-cell which I continued to improve began to be known and since the factory was not interested in producing them, we continued to make them in the laboratory, on an experimental basis, and supplying them free to physicists and astronomers—some are still in use even now. These cells helped me to develop a new type of high-speed facsimile with rapid picture reproduction on special paper requiring no photographic development.

I began to publish some of my earlier work in scientific journals. This gave me more independence in the choice of new problems for a group I had just began to form in the laboratory. Naturally this choice concen­trated more and more on problems associated with television.

The first problem we undertook was a reproducing tube—the Kinescope. The deflection of the electron beam to produce a uniform raster was solved first. We also succeeded in developing an efficient electron gun with electrostatic focusing in a high vacuum with fairly linear modulation of the electron beam intensity. It was able to produce a sharp, brilliant spot on the fluorescent screen, made of the finely ground natural mineral willemite.

However, for a long time we were unable to produce a satisfactory Iconoscope for converting the image into electric signals. Our photo-sensitive mosaics would work in spots, but were nonuniform in the light sensitivity and electric capacity of their individual elements. Thus, so as not to delay the test of other components, we decided temporarily to build a mechanical scanning transmitter. Since the best material available for transmission was in the form of movie film, we built a scanner with a vibrating mirror especially designed to transmit the film. As soon as the system was completed, we started experiments with transmitting movie films by radio so as to test reception at a distance. I installed a television receiver at my home, a distance of about five miles from the laboratory. (p. 85)

At this time an incident occurred which, although inconsequential, upset me for a considerable time. One day I received a long distance telephone call from a person calling himself Mr. Russell who said that he was calling me from Washington, D.C. He had just arrived from London, representing a very large foundation, and had been sent to the United States to investigate rumors about a new discovery in television. He said that this foundation had established an award, similar to the Nobel Prize, for any significant inventions in this field. He also added that he realized that this work was confidential, but by the rule of the foundation, the award could be given only after one of their representatives had witnessed the true nature of the invention.

I remember answering him that he was right about the confidential nature of our work and therefore I could not discuss it with him. He was very insistent, saying that this was my chance of a lifetime and that I should not let it slip by. He suggested I discuss it with my superiors. Finally we agreed that I would think it over and he would call me the next morning.

I related this conversation next day to Mr. Kintner, adding that I did not believe his story and really wondered who was trying to fool me. Kintner’s guess was that someone wanted to know how far we had progressed, and since I had the receiver in my home, he could not see much harm in showing the fellow the picture to then see what would happen. So, two days later, the fellow came to my home. I arranged the transmission and showed him a film with Mickey Mouse transmitted by radio with sixty lines definition. He was very impressed, congratulated me, and said that I would certainly receive the award. Only then did I remember to ask him what the size of the prize was and he quoted an amount several times larger than the Nobel Prize. This convinced me that the whole thing was a hoax and I told him so, asking him who he really was and what was his purpose? He assured me that I was mistaken and that I would soon hear from him and his foundation. Of course, I never heard from him again.

However, several years later, while visiting in San Francisco, I learned from Philo Farnsworth that he heard about this incident from the science editor of one of the San Francisco newspapers. At that time I took this hoax (p. 86) rather hard for several quite unrelated reasons. The sight of miraculous money which appeared like magic and then disappeared put a strain on our family relations. My colleagues in the laboratory kidded me and asked me why I did not take it as a compliment. To me it seemed like commercial spying. Only a few years before we had gotten much undeserved publicity for controlling a washing machine by a puff of smoke, just because it took the fancy of newspapermen and now, when we were on the verge of something really big, we were insulted by a hoax.

Furthermore, with the exception of a few individuals like Mr. Kintner, the Westinghouse Company still had no real interest in television and by denying us publication of our work, prevented us from having the priority. After all, in the previous four years that I had been associated with the Westinghouse Company, I applied and subsequently received over thirty U.S. patents on various ideas, not counting patent applications that were not processed as yet. I began to question if it were worthwhile struggling against such a lack of interest from the company management. However, I was determined to complete the development of the whole system which still needed the Iconoscope—an electronic converter of the light image into electric signals.

Although we now had a satisfactory electronic receiver, a complete system of electronic television needed the Iconoscope. As I have already mentioned, we had a partial solution of the problem but were unable to reproduce a good uniform image. For that we needed to develop a technique of making an improved photo­electric mosaic since we had already proved the importance of storing the light image in the mosaic in the interval between successive transmissions. This feature, which proved to be an important advantage over earlier proposed television systems, led to a tremendous inherent gain in sensitivity that makes present-day television as sensitive as the human eye. We finally succeeded in finding a very simple method of making the mosaic; our first step was to invert the optical system and to project the light image on the side of the mosaic scanned by the electron beam rather than on the opposite side, as we did initially. This gave the iconoscope its original dogleg shape. In addition, nature came to our help; during our (p. 87) innumerable attempts to make a uniform mosaic, we found that the simple evaporation of a thin silver film on mica and the subsequent heating to right temperature in vacuum produced the most beautiful, uniform mosaic of insulated silver globules. This was the final link needed for the creation of present-day electronic television. Some of the iconoscopes made at that time and by this method gave years of service in the early days of television broadcasting. (p. 88)

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