Television (TV), the electronic delivery of moving images and sound from a source to a receiver. By extending the senses of vision and hearing beyond the limits of physical distance, television has had a considerable influence on society. Conceived in the early 20th century as a possible medium for education and interpersonal communication, it became by mid-century a vibrant broadcast medium, using the model of broadcast radio to bring news and entertainment to people all over the world. Television is now delivered in a variety of ways: “over the air” by terrestrial radio waves (traditional broadcast TV); along coaxial cables (cable TV); reflected off of satellites held in geostationary Earth orbit (direct broadcast satellite, or DBS, TV); recorded on magnetic tape and played in videocassette recorders (VCRs); and recorded optically on digital video discs (DVDs).
Colour television picture tubeAt right are the electron guns, which generate beams corresponding to the values of red, green, and blue light in the televised image. At left is the aperture grille, through which the beams are focused on the phosphor coating of the screen, forming tiny spots of red, green, and blue that appear to the eye as a single colour. The beam is directed line by line across and down the screen by deflection coils at the neck of the picture tube.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
The technical standards for modern television, both monochrome (black-and-white) and colour, were established in the middle of the 20th century. Improvements have been made continuously since that time, and today television technology is in the midst of considerable change. Much attention is being focused on increasing the picture resolution (high-definition television) and on changing the dimensions of the television receiver to show wide-screen pictures. In addition, the transmission of digitally encoded television signals is being instituted, with the ultimate goal of providing interactive service and possibly broadcasting multiple programs in the channel space now occupied by one program.
Despite this continuous technical evolution, modern television is best understood first by learning the history and principles of monochrome television and then by extending that learning to colour. The emphasis of this article, therefore, is on first principles and major developments—basic knowledge that is needed to understand and appreciate future technological developments and enhancements.
The development of television systems
The dream of seeing distant places is as old as the human imagination. Priests in ancient Greece studied the entrails of birds, trying to see in them what the birds had seen when they flew over the horizon. They believed that their gods, sitting in comfort on Mount Olympus, were gifted with the ability to watch human activity all over the world. And the opening scene of William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 1 introduces the character Rumour, upon whom the other characters rely for news of what is happening in the far corners of England.
Get unlimited access to all of Britannica’s trusted content.
For ages it remained a dream, and then television came along, beginning with an accidental discovery. In 1872, while investigating materials for use in the transatlantic cable, English telegraph worker Joseph May realized that a selenium wire was varying in its electrical conductivity. Further investigation showed that the change occurred when a beam of sunlight fell on the wire, which by chance had been placed on a table near the window. Although its importance was not realized at the time, this happenstance provided the basis for changing light into an electric signal.
In 1880 a French engineer, Maurice LeBlanc, published an article in the journal La Lumière électrique that formed the basis of all subsequent television. LeBlanc proposed a scanning mechanism that would take advantage of the retina’s temporary but finite retainment of a visual image. He envisaged a photoelectric cell that would look upon only one portion at a time of the picture to be transmitted. Starting at the upper left corner of the picture, the cell would proceed to the right-hand side and then jump back to the left-hand side, only one line lower. It would continue in this way, transmitting information on how much light was seen at each portion, until the entire picture was scanned, in a manner similar to the eye reading a page of text. A receiver would be synchronized with the transmitter, reconstructing the original image line by line.
The concept of scanning, which established the possibility of using only a single wire or channel for transmission of an entire image, became and remains to this day the basis of all television. LeBlanc, however, was never able to construct a working machine. Nor was the man who took television to the next stage: Paul Nipkow, a German engineer who invented the scanning disk. Nipkow’s 1884 patent for an Elektrisches Telescop was based on a simple rotating disk perforated with an inward-spiraling sequence of holes. It would be placed so that it blocked reflected light from the subject. As the disk rotated, the outermost hole would move across the scene, letting through light from the first “line” of the picture (see the animation). The next hole would do the same thing slightly lower, and so on. One complete revolution of the disk would provide a complete picture, or “scan,” of the subject.
This concept was eventually used by John Logie Baird in Britain (see the photograph) and Charles Francis Jenkins in the United States to build the world’s first successful televisions. The question of priority depends on one’s definition of television. In 1922 Jenkins sent a still picture by radio waves, but the first true television success, the transmission of a live human face, was achieved by Baird in 1925. (The word television itself had been coined by a Frenchman, Constantin Perskyi, at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.)
John Logie Baird standing next to his television transmitter of 1925–26To Baird’s left in the case is “Stookie Bill,” a ventriloquist’s dummy that was scanned by the spinning Nipkow disk in order to produce a picture signal.Courtesy of Malcolm Baird
The efforts of Jenkins and Baird were generally greeted with ridicule or apathy. As far back as 1880 an article in the British journal Nature had speculated that television was possible but not worthwhile: the cost of building a system would not be repaid, for there was no way to make money out of it. A later article in Scientific American thought there might be some uses for television, but entertainment was not one of them. Most people thought the concept was lunacy.
Nevertheless, the work went on and began to produce results and competitors. In 1927 the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) gave a public demonstration of the new technology, and by 1928 the General Electric Company (GE) had begun regular television broadcasts. GE used a system designed by Ernst F.W. Alexanderson that offered “the amateur, provided with such receivers as he may design or acquire, an opportunity to pick up the signals,” which were generally of smoke rising from a chimney or other such interesting subjects. That same year Jenkins began to sell television kits by mail and established his own television station, showing cartoon pantomime programs. In 1929 Baird convinced the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to allow him to produce half-hour shows at midnight three times a week. The following years saw the first “television boom,” with thousands of viewers buying or constructing primitive sets to watch primitive programs.
Not everyone was entranced. C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, warned: “Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it.” More important, the lure of a new technology soon paled. The pictures, formed of only 30 lines repeating approximately 12 times per second, flickered badly on dim receiver screens only a few inches high. Programs were simple, repetitive, and ultimately boring. Nevertheless, even while the boom collapsed a competing development was taking place in the realm of the electron.