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Chapter 8 - Pre-War World-Wide Television Effort, Zworykin’s European Travels

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), a service of RCA, conducted its first experimental on-the-air broadcast on July 7, 1930, in New York City. In that same year, NBC and RCA engineers moved RCA’s experimental television station W2XBS from Van Cortlandt Park to the New Amsterdam Theatre Building where they began broadcasting 60-line pictures.

In June 1931, an RCA-NBC television transmitter was installed on the top of the Empire State Building and W2XBS began regular television and facsimile operations in December of that year. Experimental broadcasts continued and in the next few years, during the course of extensive field tests, the transmitted picture was increased from 120, to 240, and then 343 lines, respectively.

NBC, on June 29, 1936, began field-testing television transmissions from W2XBS, using Zworykin’s all-electronic television system. These transmissions were received on experimental receivers scattered throughout the New York area. In 1937, scanning had reached 441 lines, and television programming was extended to include pickups remote from the studio.

Television was officially introduced by David Sarnoff as a service to the American public on  April 20, 1939, at the New York World’s Fair. President Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first Chief Executive ever to be televised ten days later.

The decade of the 1930s also witnessed a rapid growth in interest in electronic television abroad. Due to the many patent and licensing agreements RCA had with foreign companies, Zworykin’s Camden Laboratories became a focal point for many foreign visitors. (p. 101) This exchange of information on television between RCA and European laboratories continued throughout the decade, and also partly through Zworykin’s periodic trips to Europe and his presentation of scientific papers before various international congresses.

A person, traveling throughout Europe, before World War II, for the special purpose of observing television development was, first of all, greatly impressed by the general interest in the subject not only by the persons actually engaged in the research and construction of the equipment, but by the general public as well. In effect, the workers in the field appeared to be engaged in a strenuous race to see who would be able to demonstrate the best television picture first. The general public in turn watched the developments with great interest, this interest being expressed by the many popular articles in newspapers and in the semi-technical press and the great attendance at all lectures given on the subject of television.

After my trip to Europe in the fall of 1934, I reported that a transition was taking place from mechanical to elec­trical methods of picture transmission. The general impres­sion was that most of the work in television was directed toward perfecting the electrical methods, while the mechanical methods were seen only as temporary substitutes or relics of earlier efforts.

Another peculiar fact about the European television situation was that in every country this development was under the auspices of the respective governments who paid for the erection of transmitting stations, public demon­strating rooms, programs, etc. In some countries, partic­ularly in Germany, the government was interested in tele­vision not only as a new method of communication, but also as a new and more efficient method for propaganda and, more ominously, perhaps as a new military tool. (p. 102)

In England, television was largely concentrated in two rival concerns, Electric and Musical Industries, Ltd. [EMI] and the Baird Television Company, both of which were building a complete television system for the Government Post Office. EMI was building a television system for 240 lines with 25 pictures per second. The general system was very similar to ours, in fact it was almost an exact copy. The picture also compared favorably with our own. The Baird Television Company was building a system of their own using 940 lines with disc transmitter for film and trying to use a Farnsworth tube for studio and outdoor pickup. They were building an entirely separate trans­mitter and studios. The state of completion was about the same as that of EMI. The picture shown was very good considering that it was a 240-line picture.

In Germany, television research was under the direction of the Government Post Office. In addition, television was declared a government secret and some parts of the equipment, for instance, the Iconoscope, were even considered a military secret. The Post Office kept under strict surveillance all the developments in the laboratories of several television firms, the most notable of which were Telefunken, Fernsehen, Loewe, and Lorenz. A 180-line picture was provided with a disc transmitter and cathode-ray receivers. This system was expected to be superseded by a newer one, which would probably use 375 lines. Telefunken had obtained a sample of our Iconoscope about a year before and had successfully reproduced it in their own laboratory. They had a system capable of transmitting up to 400 lines with a fair degree of deflation.

In France, the Government Post Office operated a television broadcasting station in Paris. They were broadcasting a 180-line picture transmitted by means of a lens disc and reproduced by cathode-ray tubes. The picture, received over a radio channel, was poor and had a great deal of interference; difficulties were also encountered with scanning and synchronizing. A newer system was being constructed in the laboratory of the Compagnie des Compteurs [in] Montrouge [Paris]. This system used a disc transmitter for 240 lines and a large radio transmitter. Even this system was already considered obsolete and the govern­ment was planning a third system with up-to-date equipment and a greater number of lines to be con­structed for the opening of the International Exhibition that was to be held in Paris in 1937.

In Holland, television developments were concentrated in the laboratories of the Philips Company and were mostly for outside sales, since the Philips Company was a more or less international radio organization. (p. 103)

The year 1937 witnessed television development moving almost completely toward electronic devices. At the receiving end, particularly, this change was almost universal. With the exception of a few isolated cases, where a rotating mirror receiver was used in Germany for demonstration purposes, everyone used cathode-ray tubes for receivers. It is interesting to note that the European systems universally adopted high-vacuum cathode-ray receiving tubes, similar to those we used from the very beginning, instead of the gas filled tubes which they insisted upon using for so many years.

The structure of the electron gun, although varying slightly in size and shape, basically was almost identical to ours. There was a great variation in the opinion about the best method of deflecting the cathode-ray beam. Magnetic deflection was adopted by some, while electrostatic deflection was advocated by others. The general trend was that where glass-blowing labor was cheaper, electrostatic deflection was favored. In many cases, thyratrons were used in the deflection circuits. Most users of the thyratron experienced difficulty in maintaining adjust­ment and gradually switched to high-vacuum devices.

A large amount of work was being carried on through­out Europe on fluorescent materials. Special chemical firms concentrated on this development in practically every country, and every television company had its own pet fluorescent material which it claimed was better than all others. The colors were different, ranging from a golden yellow to practically white.

Three firms in Europe were successfully manufacturing the Iconoscope. EMI in England, which started first, was the most advanced. Their Iconoscope, called "Emitron," had several slight modifications from our own model, but these modifications were not essential and in no way improved the performance of the tube. Its performance, however, was fairly good and the sensitivity of their tube was very close to ours.

The Iconoscopes made by Telefunken and Philips were closely patterned after the models that we sent to them about a year before. It is of interest to note that all these laboratories watched our patent applications very closely and in most cases immediately constructed laboratory models.

As far as I was able to discover, the general impression among television workers in Europe was that the Iconoscope was the only satisfactory solution to the pickup problem. Those who did not have access to the Iconoscope and had to use the Farnsworth pickup tube encountered much difficulty with the transmission of studio and outdoor pictures, although for film trans­mission purposes the Farnsworth tube was usable. (p.104)

A considerable change in television receivers also was noticed. Previously, the trend was toward the develop­ment of receivers for one wavelength only, the reason being that only one television transmitter was likely to be installed in any one large city. For this reason, most of the receivers were built around the T.R.F. [tuned radio frequency] system. However, eventually almost everyone adopted a superheterodyne method. Our system of transmitting the sound and picture on two channels with simultaneous tuning for both was practically universally adopted. There was quite a discrepancy in opinion as to the width of separation between the picture and sound carrier, the width of the frequency band for picture transmission, modulation of the picture signals in the positive or negative direction, etc., but the general design was more or less the same as ours.

Television receivers were being prepared not only by firms actually engaged in the development of television systems, but also by practically every radio firm. In other words , the moment television broadcasting began, there immediately appeared on the market a great number of different television receivers made by various companies.

My impression of the German government’s particularly strong interest in television was confirmed by a visit from the director of one of the big electronic laboratories in Berlin. He came to my hotel in Budapest, the day after my arrival from Berlin, where I had given a talk on television to a Radio Engineering Society. He said that "a very important person" in the government, who was interested in tele­vision, was disappointed that he did not have a chance to hear my presentation. The professor suggested that I come back to Berlin and stay there as a guest of the government for a longer time. He even offered to take me there on a military plane, which he had at his disposal. This was a flattering proposal, but I had a very confusing impression from conversations with some of my German friends, so I declined the invitation. This visibly upset the professor; it appeared as though he was under orders to bring me to Berlin. When later in the day I saw Dr. [Eugène] Aisberg, Director of Tungsram Electronic Laboratory, he congratulated me on my decision and confirmed my previous impression on the situation in Germany.

I recollect with great pleasure my visit during the next few days to the Tungsram Laboratories. It was surprising to me to find in a country as small as Hungary such a well-equipped laboratory and so much advanced work in electronics. One of the laboratories which impressed me particularly was that of Dr. [Paul] Selenyi, who showed me a method of storing the image on used movie film by electrostatic charging with an electron beam transmitted by a thin-glass window on a cathode-ray tube. He was hoping to use this method for a large-screen television projection picture. As far as I know, he was not able to translate this idea into practice. However, the idea itself survived and many years later was used in modern copying machines.(p. 105)

Of all the trips Vladimir Zworykin made to Europe in the 1930s, his trip in late 1939 was his most memorable. The trip was organized, as were all his previous visits, partly for visiting various laboratories, and partly to attend international conferences in Rome, Zurich, Paris, London, and Dundee. He sailed from New York to Naples on the Saturnia. During the crossing, he received a radiogram from the RCA representative in Tel Aviv requesting him to deliver a talk there on television.

As an inducement, he said, he would take me around the country and show me some archeological points of interest. Accordingly, Mr. A met me in Alexandria and together we flew to Palestine. After presenting my report before a very responsive and enthusiastic group of engineers, we started with A. in his car on a sightseeing tour. At that time Palestine was still under the British mandate, and it was necessary to have a special permit to travel through different parts of the country. For the permit, we had to go to Jerusalem for U.S. and British papers on account of the unsettled conditions. The most difficult to obtain was a permit to travel to the Dead Sea, where I was especially interested in seeing the Solomon copper mines. For an engineer, I think these mines have tremendous interest, illustrating how without mechanical power, and using only prevailing winds, it was possible to build blast furnaces for smelting copper.

On our way back through Damascus, I could not resist the temptation to have a swim, or rather a float, in the Dead Sea.

When we arrived at the hotel in Damascus, I was handed a telegram from the American consul telling me to leave the country as soon as I could. It was obvious that war was imminent and without losing time, we started for the air­port in Beirut. However, many other people had the same idea and all the departing planes were already booked many days in advance. Only due to the energy of my companion and by paying a premium did he succeed in putting me on the plane to Rome. In Rome, the news was even more alarming; Italy declared mobilization and all transportation out of the country was canceled. This created a personal problem for me, particularly since I was scheduled to be in Dundee, Scotland, in a few days to present my paper. Knowing from past experience that the most helpful persons in Europe for a traveler are the concierges in big hotels, I went to talk to one of them. (p. 106)

The fellow told me that my problem was a very difficult one, but that he would try to help and suggested that in the meantime I have a good sleep. About midnight I received a telephone call in my room. Someone said that he could place me the next morning on the plane to Paris, if I was willing to pay a premium; of course, I agreed. Next morning I met the individual who phoned me at a prearranged place in the airport, which was packed with excited passengers trying to get out of Italy. He took me behind one of the hangars where there was a plane already filled with passengers, and in a few minutes we were in the air. A few hours later, we landed at Le Bourget [airport] in Paris.

Here, although the excitement was not as intense as in Rome, normal passage was still not available, but again, by the same method as before, I succeeded in flying that same evening to London.

The people whom I visited the next day in London were rather skeptical of the imminence of the war. They stressed that the Italian mobilization had already been canceled, and they were confident that there would not be any war.

So a few days later, I departed to Dundee and found the Congress was proceeding as scheduled; my paper on the "Electron Microscope" was on the program for the next day. The presentation was the last one of the morning session and during lunch we heard by radio the announcement of the declaration of war against Germany and mobilization. Of course all the rest of the meetings were canceled and everyone started home. The organization committee announced that they had succeeded in securing accommodations for all participants who wished to go to the U.S.A. on the S.S. Athenia sailing from Liverpool the next day.

This created a small problem for me because most of my luggage had been left with American Express in Damascus to be delivered to London. To travel on a ship, and partic­ularly an English ship, without dinner clothes, according to my past experience, seemed inopportune so I decided to return to London first and try my luck from there. This proved to be difficult since the rush of returning Americans already had started and all accommodations were booked. So I was marooned for a while in London which now was a completely different city from the one I left only four days before. It was very interesting to watch how people adjusted themselves to the new situation. There were many more pedestrians on the streets than a few days ago. Everyone was carrying a gas mask, and when I went out without one I was stopped by a policeman who asked why I did not have one on my person. lie sent me to a place where he said they would give me one. There, however, I was told that they did not have masks for tourists. (p. 107)

The next day I read in the newspaper that the Athenia had been torpedoed; there was considerable loss of life and injury. I was so glad that I had not taken it.

To sit quietly in an atmosphere of general excitement and feverish activity was impossible for me, so I sent a cable to D[avid] Sarnoff asking for permission to discuss with British military officials some of the military work we were doing in our laboratory. I was particularly anxious to discuss our work on flying bombs with television sights and methods of measuring distance by means of ultra-short radio pulses. The permission was promptly granted and our representative, M. G., arranged an interview with Dr. Darwin, Chairman of the National Research Council, and two military men from the Navy and Army.

The result of this interview was quite unexpected. After I finished my presentation, Dr. Darwin told me that his country was already at war and they did not have time to embark on such obvious long-term research so the best I could do was to go back to my laboratory. I told them that I had tried to do this but found it im­possible and that I hated to be idle at such a time. The answer was that they would do something about my passage and the next day I got a berth on the Acquitania to New York.

A couple of years later when Dr. Darwin came to the U.S.A. and visited our laboratory, I asked him why they were so disinterested in my proposal when I knew by that time that they were engaged and at full speed in both projects. He answered that they could not discuss them with me because both of those projects were "top secret." (p. 108)

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