Words have winners and losers, just like life, and also just like history: while Americans celebrate Philo Farnsworth as the lone eccentric genius who ‘invented’ television, the full story is far more complicated. This week marks the 85th anniversary of the first public display of color television. But it was a Philadelphia born scientist and engineer for AT&T named Herbert Eugene Ives that made the presentation, and rather than working in lone isolation he was directing a large team with state of the art laboratories. The word television itself was coined twenty years earlier in 1907 to describe the action of seeing by means of Hertzian waves or otherwise, what is existing or happening at a place concealed or distant from the observer’s eyes (courtesy Oxford English Dictionary). Like yesterday’s word, television was a mashup of both Latin and Ancient Greek roots: tele- from the Greek meaning far or far off and -vision from Latin visio, visionem meaning act of seeing, sight, thing seen from the verb videre, to see.
To continue debunking the myth of Philo Farnsworth-since the advent of radio scientists and engineers all over the world were working singly and in groups and labs to create television. Farnsworth was in fact a child progidy, visionary and technical genius, and he does deserve credit for creating, two years after the Ives demonstration, a television with a true electronic basis. He gets (and deserves) as much credit as anybody for his contribution-but he wasn’t working in a vacuum. The race for television was as fierce and well funded as any of today’s chase for modern computer technology or new app!
Which brings us back to history’s other losers: the words that we do not use today to describe television, with word meanings in parentheses: phonovision (sound + vision), telephonoscope (far away + sound + sight), ikonophone (image + sound), telephote (far away + light), televista (far away + scene). Now we just call television the idiot box.
Image of Vladimir Zworykin demonstrating early television in 1929 courtesy the Smithsonian Institution.