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Chapter 6 - Television and RCA

In late 1928, an event occurred that changed not only Zworykin’s personal life but inevitably, the social life of twentieth century man—if television can be considered, as I believe it to be, one of the great cohesive social phenomena of this century. Zworykin was sent to New York City by Mr. S[amuel] M. Kintner to meet David Sarnoff, the noted communi­cations pioneer and general manager [vice president] of the Radio Corporation of America. Sarnoff, who rose from the telegraph clerk who received the last message of the dying Titanic to a visionary in the field of electronics, was quick to grasp the impact of Zworykin’s new device. His subsequent support of Zworykin ensured the eventual success of a practical electronic all electronic television system.

My first impression of Sarnoff was as a man of tremendous energy, drive, and vision. He listened without interrupting my story, asked a few questions to clear some points that I didn’t make sufficiently clear, and then asked "How long it will take you to build a system which will produce a picture better than the present results with mechanical systems?" I remember telling him that given proper facilities I hoped to do it in two years, since considerable progress was done in the last years at Westinghouse. The next question was what facilities I would need and how much it will cost. The last question was the most difficult one and I estimated in terms of space and an additional two engineers, which I estimated as a budget of an additional $100,000 a year. Later in many of his speeches and reminiscences of the history of television development, Sarnoff pointed out the difference between this figure requested by me and many million dollars spent by RCA on T.V. before it became a commercial success.

In Sarnoff I found another dreamer of television, visualizing clearly how it could be used when it became technically feasible. Sarnoff saw television as a logical extension of radio broadcasting, which was itself already commercially prosperous. The interview with Sarnoff proved to be a turning point in television development. The laboratory received some additional help and research began to move much faster. Furthermore, I was permitted to deliver a paper describing our earlier work on television before the Institute of Radio Engineers in Buffalo, New York, in November 1929. The presentation attracted a very large (p. 89) audience and, since I could describe only the earlier part of our work, a lively discussion ensued and many embarrassing questions were asked that I was not permitted to answer. All during the discussion I kept noticing a blackboard on which someone had written that I was wanted on long distance. When finally I was able to call back our New York office, I was told that the Patent Department had changed its mind and withdrawn the permission for the paper. I answered that it was too late, since the paper had already been presented. In the meantime I was sent abroad by Westinghouse to visit some laboratories that were contractually connected with their organization. I went to Paris and revisited Professor [Pierre] Langevin and the Laboratory of Mme. [Marie] Curie. There I met Dr. [Fernand] Holweck, beginning a friendship that continued until his tragic death in occupied Paris during the Second World War.

On my return from abroad, I learned that as a result of a ruling of the Anti-trust Commission, all work on communications had to be transferred from Westinghouse and General Electric to the Radio Corporation of America [RCA]. My personal dilemma was either to remain with Westinghouse and continue working on some other problem, or to join RCA and move to Camden, New Jersey. It meant breaking up my home again, selling the house, and starting a new life. However, to continue my work meant so much to me that I decided to move. Fortunately, most of my group of engineers decided to move with me.

Moving the laboratory was not a very easy task and the progress of the work was delayed for several months. In Camden our laboratory was housed in an old factory building that was not well suited for our purposes. We had to improvise facilities which delayed even further the progress of our work. In Camden we were joined by a group of General Electric engineers (headed by Elmer Engstrom) who had worked on television problems under Dr. [Ernst] Alexanderson. As a result it was soon possible to build a broad­cast transmitter on the tower of the Camden City Hall and to begin the actual testing of television broadcasting.

In the following decade, hundreds and perhaps thousands of engineers all over the world worked on refining an electronic television system, but for all their work, it remained basically the same as it was in Zworykin’s Camden Laboratory. Whatever variations were made—they all included the Iconoscope’s fundamental feature—the storage of light during the whole picture frame time in a manner reminiscent of the operation of the human eye. (p. 90) As Zworykin’s laboratory was enlarged, Zworykin and the extraordinary group of young engineers he had gathered around him were able to undertake some research of a more general nature, research that Zworykin characterized as resulting from "scientific curiosity."

One of them was the electronic image tube, a device to transform light images into electronic images. Originally this work was under­taken to study electron lenses for focusing the electron beam into a small sharp spot in both the Kinescope and the Iconoscope. We called the resulting tube an "Image Iconoscope." It became very popular with television cameramen and is still used in many parts of the world. The study of the effects of the bombardment by electrons of different materials led us to the development of the electron multiplier. We found that it was possible to amplify electron currents millions of times by repeated bombardments of properly activated targets. The electron multiplier was eventually applied to television and is now a feature of modern pickup tubes. In the beginning we also tried to use it in sound movie projectors; however, when cost analysis indicated that it would cost more than conventional tube amplifiers, the idea was ruled out.

The history of the electron multiplier from its invention to its present important place among modern scientific tools is a very interesting one. For several years it remained a laboratory curiosity because it was considered to be too expensive for prac­tical application; at that time the requirements for scientific application, such as scintillation counters or in astronomy, were too limited to warrant its production. We continued to make it in the laboratory and distributed a few of them for tests among physicists and astronomers. However, soon after the beginning of the war, we found that RCA received a large contract for electron multipliers for secret purposes. The curious fact is that the electron multiplier was invented as a low-noise amplifier and found only limited use as such. After the war, we found that its secret use was for a random noise generator to interfere with enemy radar. One never knows how new inventions will be used.

The character and scope of the work in the laboratory at this time underwent a considerable change. Our group, initially constituting an isolated laboratory devoted to the general problem of TV, became part of a much larger group and concen­trated largely on electron-optical problems that were directly or indirectly connected with TV. This afforded the opportunity of investigating more closely some phenomena we observed earlier in our TV work. One of these was the old problem of increased precision in the focusing and deflection of electron beams, so important to the good production of TV pictures. This revealed to us the remarkable analogy between the action of magnetic and electrostatic fields on electrons and of lenses and prisms on light. More and more we began to visualize the possibilities (p. 91) of using electron-optical devices similar to well-known optical ones.

We utilized electron lenses for the magnification of electron images at a very early time for viewing a magnified image of the cathode on the screen on Kinescope. This was the beginning of our interest in the electron microscope, and several years later the first commercial electron microscope was manufactured by RCA. (p. 92)

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