Television: an international history of the formative years

Russell Burns

Institution of Electrical Engineers 1997

ISBN 0 85296 914 7

Hardback pp 656

75 (discount to IEE members) but also see end of review.


Who invented television? If you are British the usual reply is Baird, cross the Atlantic and they will say CF Jenkins. But the story of television is not that of a single inventor, it is a star studded epic that crosses time and technology. Man had dreamed of distant vision for millennia; dreams turned to reality in the 1920s; the climax was in the 1930s. Russell Burns guides us through this epic in a book of similar proportions.


To begin at the beginning. Burns starts the journey in classical times and halts briefly at significant inventions such as the camera obscura, lantern slides and zoetropes. Then he reaches what were possibly the two most critical discoveries in the prehistory of television. The first of these was the concept of breaking down an image into a myriad of elements - scanning - used by Alexander Bain in his early attempts at facsimile transmission. Bain was hindered by the lack of any means of translating amounts of light into corresponding electrical signals. Willougby Smith discovered the photosensitivity of Selenium in 1873 to provide that vital link.


Burns puts all of these contributions into their context and clearly illustrates their place in the evolution of television. He has chronicled the contributions made by the stars in the television hall of fame. Nipkow, Campbell-Swinton, Baird, Farnsworth, Zworykin, Engstrom, Shoenberg and others are all placed in their context. After the broad sweep of the early chapters we see much more detail about TV development in many countries.


One abiding theme of the book is the David and Goliath contest between the lone inventor and the giant corporation. Unlike the biblical story, the Davids of television ultimately lost. The Davids are represented by Baird and Farnsworth while EMI and RCA were the Goliaths. It seems unlikely that television would have evolved in a practical form without the huge resources of EMI and RCA yet the lone inventors provided the vital stimulus to make television a reality. The contest is also reflected in the push for ever more lines. From the mechanically scanned 30 line pictures which had necessarily limited entertainment value to the bold foresight and ultimate glory of EMI's all-electronic 405 line system the story is one of heroic efforts and achievements.


Although the scope of the book is wider than any other single history of television it still seems very heavily centred on the US and the UK. Perhaps this is a reasonable reflection of the pre-eminence of these countries' contribution to television. There are smaller, but still substantial, chapters on developments in France and Germany but it would have been interesting to know more about early work in such countries as Russia and Japan.


Since writing this review I have heard that the IEE has reduced the price from 75 to 39. This is a praiseworthy move. At the original price this excellent book must be mainly for the libraries; the reduced price makes it affordable for all who are interested.


Jeffrey Borinsky MIEE CEng