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
(email@example.com). After an intensive investigation, Magoun
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
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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
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