Vladimir Kosma Zworykin

The Russian-American physicist and radio engineer Vladimir Kosma Zworykin (1889-1982) made important contributions to the development of television, as well as to the newer field of electronics.

Vladimir Zworykin was born in Mourom, Russia, on July 30, 1889. He is best known for his pioneering work in the development of television.

Early Education and Career

Zworykin received a degree in electrical engineering from the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology in 1912 and a doctorate in physics in 1926 from the University of Pittsburgh. Like many European intellectuals of the 20th century, Zworykin was driven to the United States by the recurrent religious persecution and political repression which rocked Europe and Russia. He came to America in 1920, 3 years after the Russian Revolution, and joined the research staff of Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh. In 1930 he went to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), where he was made director of the electronics research laboratory.

The Race for Television

Zworykin was one of the earliest pioneers in the development of television. Before he left the St. Petersburg laboratory of Boris Rosing in 1919, he had the germ of an idea for an improved television system. When he joined Westinghouse in 1920, he hoped to be able to continue his work but soon discovered that firm was interested only in radio research. He left Pittsburgh to join a small development company in Kansas but returned to Westinghouse in 1923, this time with the agreement that he could continue work on television. According to an interview conducted for the RCA Engineers Collection, July 4, 1975, Zworykin details early developments with primitive geometric pictures generated as early as 1923. In that year he applied for a patent on his "Iconoscope," a device which transmitted television images quickly and sharply. It was perhaps the single most important breakthrough in the history of television development. When Westinghouse transferred most of its radio research work to RCA in 1930, he moved over too and continued its development. A PBS documentary series, The American Experience titled "Who is Philo T. Farnsworth?" (researched by Alison Trinkl and David Dugan and based partly on the book Tube: The Invention of Television by David E. Fisher and Marshal John Fisher) details the race to create a working television. According to the documentary, at the time of Zworykin's transfer to RCA, he met with fellow television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth. Under the guise of a fellow-researcher, Zworykin spent three days in Farnsworth's lab, and was given almost total access to Farnsworth's technology. After his return to New York, Zworykin's work incorporated many of the innovations that he'd seen at Farnsworth's lab. Zworykin and Farnsworth battled in court for many years before patents were awarded to both men in the 1930's. But RCA had the marketing might and money to prevail. In 1929, David Sarnoff, Chairman of RCA asked Zworykin how much he thought it would cost to develop a workable system, and Zworykin estimated "$100,000." It ended up costing RCA $40,000,000 before they began turning a profit. Television broadcasts were available in limited areas, at limited times in Berlin, London, Russia and the US prior to World War II. Commercial television was authorized in the United States in 1940, but its growth was held up by World War II. Ironically, Zworykin was unimpressed by the television programming available, terming it in a 1981 interview as "awful."

After Television

During the war Zworykin, like many scientists who specialized in electronics, played an important role in developing new weapons for the military. He served on the Scientific Advisory Board to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Force, as well as on the Ordnance Advisory Committee on Guided Missiles. At the same time he personally directed important research work and served on three subcommittees of the National Defense Research Committee.

After the war Zworykin continued his electronics work and made important contributions to the development of the electron microscope. He was also instrumental in the development of the electric eye used in security systems and automatic door openers, a device to read print to the blind, and electronically controlled missiles and automobiles. In 1952 he was awarded the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers for "outstanding contributions to the concept and development of electronic components and systems."

In 1947 he became a vice president of RCA and technical consultant to the RCA Laboratories Division, positions he held until 1954. While most of his career was spent developing television and its electrical components, Zworykin spent his time after retirement from RCA in 1954 as Director of Medical Research at the Medical Electronics Center at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) until 1962.

Personal Information

Zworykin married Tatiana Vasilieff around 1915 and had two children. He emigrated with his family to the United States in 1919, becoming a US citizen in 1924. He was divorced from Vasilieff and married Katherine Polevitsky in 1951. He died on July 29, 1982, one day short of his 93rd birthday.

Further Reading on Vladimir Kosma Zworykin

There is no biography of Zworykin. Some of his work on television is described in John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman's, The Sources of Invention (1958; 2d ed. 1969). The standard book on radio development is W. Rupert MacLaurin's, Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry (1949). The Zworykin interview noted above, a part of the RCA Engineers Collection is available on the World Wide Web (circa 1997) at http://www.ieee.org/history_center/oral_histories/abstracts/zworykin21_abstract.html and http://www.ieee.org/history_center/oral_histories/transcripts/zworykin21.html. Additional World Wide Web sites to visit (circa 1997) http://trfn.clpgh.org/nmb/nmbzwkn.htm, and http://www.invent.org/book/book-text/111.html.