An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Vladimir K. Zworykin

Posted on July 29, 2013


‘The switch, to turn the damn thing off’
(Vladimir K. Zworykin, when asked what his favourite part of the television was)

In our hyper modern world, its easy to forget that there was a time without some of the technological gadgets we’re surrounded by. Take the television for example. It has maybe been surpassed by the internet and all that jazz, but believe it or not there was a time where TV wasn’t a thing. I know, its true. From the late 19th century onward it was an idea becoming reality, and possibly the biggest role in the development of modern television was played by a Russian by the name of Vladimir K. Zworykin. He invented the principles of what would become the modern day parent, it seems.

Zworykin was born on the 29th of July 1888 in the town of Muram, some 200km away from Moscow. He had a fairly steady upbringing, but rarely saw his father who was a travelling merchant. His engineering work would start early though, as he repaired his Dad’s riverboats from the age of nine. Nine! He would go on to study at the St Petersburg Institute of Technology. His very first patent on a TV system would come before his graduation, in 1907. His demonstration of this device in 1911 would be one of the very first demonstrations of a working television. After graduating in 1912, he moved on to Paris to study x-rays, a practice that was cut short by god damn World War One. He got off pretty lightly in the war, getting a job for Russian Marconi pretty quickly, where he would test army radio equipment. The super tense situation in Russia following the war would see him head to the US, where he found work at the Westinghouse Labs in Pittsburgh (go Pens).

Once in Pittsburgh, he was finally able to engage in serious TV experiments. More patents would come, but for whatever reason the Westinghouse management were kinda miffed at his work, seeing it as a total waste of time. The idea of sending images through wire had been around for a while, but up until this point it had been done through projecting light or using magnetic fields. Zworykin’s idea was to use cathode ray tubes as both transmitters and receivers, which led to the invention of the kinescope and the more known iconoscope, which was the very first all electronic camera tube.

This came after a chance encounter with David Sarnoff, who would hire him on the spot at a demonstration and put him in charge of his companies TV development. This allowed his experiments to truly take off. The iconoscope came in 1931, and its successful use at the 1936 Berlin Olympics would well and truly put Zworykin on the map. Television would finally be introduced to the masses at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. World conflict would once again put a pause on work, but when World War Two ended television could finally take off. In 1946, there were just 7,000 sets in all of the United States. By 1950, that would rise to 10,000,000. Yes, 10 million.

Trying to imagine a world without television is difficult. Heck, even when it doesn’t really provide anything useful, its still always there. Just today, me and Ciric watched about two hours of the thing with no real purpose. It is such a big part of modern life that we don’t notice it that much. The influence on modern day existence that Vladimir K. Zworykin had is almost impossible to properly gauge.