Vladimir Kosma Zworykin Biography (1889-1982)


Zworykin is often called the father of television. During the 1920s he invented the iconoscope, a transmission device that became the precursor to the modern television camera, as well as the kinescope, a reception device almost identical to the television tubes used today.

Born in Mourom, Russia, Zworykin was the son of a prominent river boat merchant. Though his father had hoped to give the family business to his son, he did not balk at sending Zworykin to the St. Petersburg Institute of Technologyto study electrical engineering. After receiving his degree in 1912, Zworykinmoved to France to study under physicist Paul Langevin. While focusing primarily upon the phenomenon of X-rays, Zworykin began to explore the possibilityof transmitting a visual signal via a wireless system. His graduate work wasinterrupted after just two years when, in 1914, Russia entered World War I.Serving as a radio operator and technician, Zworykin was able to study the inner workings of radio systems, knowledge that would prove essential for his future endeavors.

After the war, Zworykin remained in Russia only briefly, electing to emigrateto the United States at the onset of the Russian Revolution. Thus, in 1919,he came to America and, after a year spent learning English, got a job in thelaboratories of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Curious as to its possible applications, he studied the cathode-ray tube there, and within five years he had developed the iconoscope.

Previous television systems were photomechanical--that is, they used alarge perforated spinning disk to scan an image. The advantage of Zworykin'siconoscope was that it was completely electronic. Within the device's tube was a plate covered with thousands of tiny droplets of cesium-silver, each acting as a microscopic photoelectric cell. As light passed through a lens and fell upon the droplets each one produced a small electric charge, with each droplet's charge being different from the others. For example, if a droplet sawa bright spot, it would produce a greater charge than if it had been exposedto a dim spot. These droplets retained their charge until being scanned by an electron gun within the iconoscope; as the electron beam passed over the droplets the charges were converted into an electronic signal that could be sent to a receiver. Since the electron beam scans the photoelectric plate sixtytimes every second, it is possible to collect a series of images and run themtogether, creating motion.

In 1925, the year after he had invented the iconoscope, Zworykin developed the kinescope. Using a cathode-ray tube and another electron gun, the kinescopereceives the signal from an iconoscope and scans the image back onto a fluorescent screen, converting it once again into a visual image. Zworykin was awarded the patents for his iconoscope and his kinescope in 1968.

Though his electronic television was certainly a landmark achievement, it didnot impress his superiors at Westinghouse. However, it did attract the attention of David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). In 1929 Zworykin became the director of electronic research at RCA, rising to vice-president in 1947.

While at RCA Zworykin spent several years and close to four million dollars improving and refining his television system, and by the 1950s it had blossomed into a nationwide industry. In later years he began to turn his attention toward using his vast knowledge for other applications. He took his basic iconoscope design and modified it, making it possible to magnetically focus a stream of electrons in order to magnify an image. Using this as a springboard, James Hillier (b.1915) developed a practical and affordable electron microscope, a device that was used by medical professionals to examine viruses and human tissue in unprecedented detail. Zworykin also invented a device called thescintillation counter, one of the most precise tools for measuring radioactivity. In all, Zworykin held more than eighty patents.

For his work, Zworykin received numerous accolades, including the Rumford Medal in 1941 and the United States National Medal of Science in 1967.

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