Corrections or additions?

This article by Alex Magoun was prepared for the April 14, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Who Really Invented Color TV?

Our cover story on the invention of color television (U.S. 1, November

14, 2001) has evoked several E-mails over the years. Our

correspondents – some from eastern Europe, some from California – read

the story on our website and wrote to protest that General David

Sarnoff was not, after all, the inventor of color television. We

referred this controversy to Alex Magoun, executive director of the

David Sarnoff Library at the Sarnoff Corporation

(amagoun@davidsarnoff.org). After an intensive investigation, Magoun

replies:

You raised the issue of credit for invention of color television,

particularly as it related to a former member of the RCA Laboratories’

technical staff, George Sziklai. It will soon become clear why I took

so long to answer, as research is time-intensive. With the publicity

surrounding release of my Arcadia photo history of the David Sarnoff

Research Center last fall, I responded to John Schick, who contacted

you, and Mr. Sziklai’s daughter, who sent me a number of articles from

west coast newspapers about her father, the inventor of color

television.

To repeat what I wrote them, assigning priority to an individual for

the invention of a system is always a dubious proposition. For the

IEEE Milestone for the invention of "Monochrome-Compatible, Electronic

Color Television, 1946-1953," I included George Sziklai with the other

writers of the 1947 Labs’ report laying out the parameters and

standards that were essentially adopted by the FCC on December 17,

1953. Sziklai was among those who refined RCA’s approach in 1949. RCA

never patented the format it proposed, perhaps because the parameters

would be government-approved or some aspects had already been patented

by an AT&T engineer in 1929. As a matter of policy, however, RCA’s

Patent Department filed on any approach to making color television

work (along with other technologies in which it had a strategic

interest). This enabled the company to cover the unpredictable future

path of technical development and deter competitors from investing in

their own R&D or inventing an approach that forced RCA to

cross-license rights.

It would be a disservice to Sziklai’s actual accomplishments, as well

as to those of the men around him, to give him a greater credit for

developing the components or techniques that enabled compatibility and

compression within the monochrome bandwidth. Through the United States

Patent and Trademark Office website (www.uspto.gov), I reviewed 20 of

Sziklai’s patents referring to color television systems, television

systems, and color television reception systems applied for between

November 1943 and April 1952, a list of which I’d be happy to make

available to anyone who asks.

The earliest ones, those applied for before November 1947, deal with

methods of field sequential transmission. At the time, RCA was

exploring approaches to the system CBS had proposed, and it developed

perhaps the best demonstration of the technology before concluding

that it was a technological and commercial dead end.

The next set overlaps with the first in Sziklai’s approaches to color

reproduction on a home receiver, between November 1946 and April 1947.

These represent various arrangements for 3-tube displays, one each for

the three primary colors. It’s not clear to me whether one of these

was used in the "trinoscope" receiver system led by Ray Kell. This

3-CRT display technique died in October 1949 at the FCC color TV

hearings as impractical for home color.

From November 1947 to August 1949, Sziklai filed for color display

tubes, as did a host of other RCA staff. None of his proposals was

among the four finalists within RCA Laboratories. I don’t think he

would dispute Alfred Schroeder and Harold Law’s honor as inventors of

the shadow-mask CRT that made RCA’s system a practical one for home

viewing.

The remaining patents from February 1950 to April 1952 relate to

circuitry for television sets, and I’m in no position to state whether

any of these were adopted by RCA Victor and the rest of the industry.

Testimony from two of Sziklai’s colleagues is less relevant since

neither of them worked with George between 1942 and 1954. Neither,

therefore, was directly involved with color TV as were four of the

engineers with whom I’ve spoken or whose memoirs I’ve read. The

general sense I gain from their recollections is that George was a

wonderfully versatile and imaginative engineer who spread himself too

thinly across too many fields. Some of his patented ideas worked, as

with the complementary symmetry transistors (a precursor to the

low-power CMOS transistors used in virtually all electronics today).

Some of his ideas were well ahead of their time, like the discussion

of digital video that appears in his mid-1950s notebooks. But some

were simply unworkable or too complex for a practical application, an

observation that seems manifest in some of the patents I reviewed.

One also gets the sense that some of his peers appreciated his style

of engineering, and some did not. Perhaps one can generalize about

Hungarian emigre engineers the way the Hungarian physicists of the era

have been described affectionately and respectfully, as "Martians."

Sziklai’s unconventional thinking reminds me of CBS’s Peter Goldmark,

who advocated the field-sequential color TV system, spearheaded

development of the LP record, and championed an electronic

video-recording system that CBS failed to commercialize in the 1960s.

This is perhaps more articulation than you wanted, but defining

invention is like nailing jelly to the wall. It’s very hard to pin

down and it’s only fair to all those involved to lay out the record of

contribution and accomplishment from the record of patents, articles,

and recollections. Needless to say, there were many individual

contributors to the world’s first electronic color television system.

Of those I have met or whose memoirs I’ve read, none tries to take

credit for inventing the whole technology, from standards to cameras

to circuitry to transmitters to antennas to receivers. George Sziklai

was one of the leading contributors, but he doesn’t deserve credit for

inventing something greater than the sum of its parts.


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