‘If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.’
The posts of scientific discoveries are dedicated to some of the people whose brilliant minds and perseverance have helped shape the modern world. They are by no means the only geniuses in history, nor are they only inventors, but those whose biographies feature here are icons in the history of technology. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology underpinned most of the other important advances of the nineteenth century, including the electric motor and generator, photography and antiseptic surgery, and later on, the telephone, the motor car, electrification, television, radio, sound recording, cinema, the aeroplane, the helicopter and artificial fertilisers. But innovations have not faltered then: the second half of the twentieth century saw rockets reach the Moon, the rise of electronic computers, tremendous advances in medicine and the invention of the World Wide Web. And so without delay, let’s continue our stroll through the ‘Second Industrial Revolution.’
30 July 1889 – 29 July 1982
Television changed the way of life of hundreds of millions of people in the twentieth century, but the history of this far-reaching invention is far from simple: dozens of inventive people contributed to its development, one of the most significant pioneers was Russian-born inventor Vladimir Zworykin, who also made important contributions to the development of the electron microscope.
Below is Murom, Russia
Vladimir Zworykin was born in the town of Murom, in what was then the Russian Empire. As a child, he spent time installing and repairing electric doorbells in family-owned passenger steamships. In 1912, he obtained a degree in engineering from the Saint Petersburg Institute of Technology. At the Institute, one of Zworykin’s Professors, Boris Rosing (1869-1933) showed him a project he had been working on in secret. Rosing called it ‘electric telescopy’ – one of the early names for television; several other people in other countries were working on the same idea.
Below is the Saint Petersburg Institute of Technology
Below are Boris Rosing and a drawing of his design for a television system
Indeed, as early as 1908, the Scottish engineer A A Cambell Swinton (1863 – 1930) had published a letter in which he outlined his concept for ‘distant electric vision’ using the cathode-ray tube, invented in 1897 by German physicist Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850-1918). A cathode-ray tube is a glass tube, from which the air has been removed, in which a beam of electrons strikes a flat screen. The inside of the screen is coated with chemical compounds called phosphors, which glow wherever electrons collide with them. Electromagnets positioned around the tube control the direction of the beam, and the television signal fed to the magnets causes the beam to scan in horizontal lines across the screen.
By scanning the whole screen in this way several times every second, while also varying the intensity of the electron beam, it is possible to display a moving image. Swinton never attempted to build the system he has conceived, and while Rosing was a pioneer, his system was crude and unwieldy and never worked.
In 1919, after the Bolshevik Revolution during the Russian Civil War, Zworykin emigrated to the USA. Within a year he began working at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh. In 1923, after spending a considerable amount of his spare time working on television, he applied for a patent.
Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company
Zworykin’s system used one cathode-ray tube to display pictures and another one in the camera. Inside his television camera, the light fell on the screen of the cathode-ray tube. Instead of phosphors, this screen was coated with light-sensitive dots made of potassium hydride. An electron beam scanned the screen, as in the picture tube, and each light-sensitive dot produced a signal that depended on the brightness of the image at that point. After submitting an improved patent application in 1925, Zworykin demonstrated his television system to his employers at Westinghouse. The images were dim and stationary, and his employers were not impressed.
Below is Radio Corporation of America and its symbol Nipper in His Master’s Voice
He had a more favourable response when he showed it to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1929. Zworykin’s camera, later dubbed the Iconoscope, would become the standard way of producing television pictures. Zworykin developed the technology further at the RCA. In 1939, the company demonstrated it at the New York World Fair, and, in 1941, the RCA began regular commercial television broadcasts in the USA.
Zworykin’s work on the electron microscope stemmed from his wealth of experience working with images and electrons. In 1938, he employed a Canadian electronics engineer James Hillier (1915-2007), and worked with him to improve upon the electron microscope, which had been invented in the early 1930s in Germany. In particular, the team developed the scanning electron microscope, in which a beam of electrons scans a sample – not unlike what happens inside a cathode-ray tube. In 1940, Zworykin’s team achieved the first magnification greater than 100,000x – a huge improvement in the technology.
Below Vladimir Zworykin demonstrates the first electron microscope in the US in 1940
In addition to his work in television and electron microscopy, Zworykin developed infrared ‘night vision’, missile guidance system, and security systems that used ‘electric eyes’. He received a total of 120 US patents. The night-time vision device, the Snooperscope, was sensitive to infrared radiation – or ‘heat rays’ – which warm-blooded animals (including humans) emit with greater intensity than non-living things, by virtue of their warm bodies. Zworykin’s device helped soldiers in night-time conflicts during World War II.
I would like to end with my only slightly exaggerated view of the television, as I do watch the news, nature, and science documentaries, and I am grateful to Mr. Zworykin, with the famous Groucho Marx quote:
“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
WERNHER VON BRAUN
23 March 1912 – 16 June 1977
The German-American rocket engineer Wernher von Braun designed the first rocket-powered long-range ballistic missiles – but his real achievement was in spaceflight. His determination in following his boyhood dream of sending people to the moon, together with his excellent technical and leadership skills, made him the ultimate spaceflight pioneer of the twentieth century.
Wernher von Braun was born a baron, to an aristocratic family in the town of Wirsitz, in the then German Empire (now Wyrzysk in Poland). After the First World War, his family moved to Berlin, Germany. Young Wernher became interested in space when his mother, a serious amateur astronomer, gave him a telescope – and he was mesmerised by stories of journeys into outer space. Von Braun studied mechanical engineering at the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology, in Berlin. While there, he joined the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VfR) – the Society for Spaceship Travel – and became involved in building and firing early liquid-fuel rockets.
Charlottenburg Institute of Technology in Berlin
Von Braun joined the German army’s Ordnance Division in October 1932, developing and testing rockets at an artillery range in Kummersdorf, near Berlin. He became technical head of the ‘Aggregate’ programme, whose main aim was to design rockets for use as long-range ballistic missiles. In 1935, the von Braun team moved to Peenemunde, on the Baltic coast, where the programme continued until the end of the Second World War, in 1945. Each rocket in the proposed Aggregate series was bigger and more ambitious than the last.
The A9/10, had it ever been launched, would have been a 100-tonne, two-staged rocket aimed at New York, United States. The A12 would have been a true orbital launch vehicle, able to place satellites into orbit. The only Aggregate rocket to see service was the A-4, better known as the V-2. Designed by the von Braun team, this was the world’s first reliable liquid-fuel rocket. By the end of the war, more than 3,000 had been launched; these terrible weapons, built by prisoners-of-war, rained destruction upon England, Belgium, and France from 1944 onwards. Von Braun’s involvement in the weapon’s developments and his membership of the Nazi party remains controversial, but he was always preoccupied with his real goal of sending rockets into space.
Launch of V2 rocket at Pennemunde
When the war ended, the US Army took von Braun and his team of workers to the United States. In 1950, von Braun settled in Huntsville, Alabama, where he headed the US Army rocket team.
The von Braun family
At that time, the Cold War was intensifying, and the United States was worried that the Soviet Union might dominate the new territory of space. Throughout the 1950s, von Braun became something of a celebrity, promoting the idea of space travel in books, magazines, on television, and in films – inspiring the American people with his dreams of space stations and the journeys to the Moon and Mars.
Wernher von Braun and John F Kennedy below
The Space Age officially began on 4 October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit.
The news prompted the United States Government to form NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
In 1958, a Redstone rocket, designed by von Braun, put America’s first satellite into orbit. Two years later NASA opened its Marshall Spaceflight Center, in Huntsville, and von Braun became its director.
The Soviet Union got the upper hand again in 1961 when it launched a human into space for the first time. The United States retaliated by launching Alan Shepherd into space less than a month later, again with a von Braun Redstone rocket.
A Redstone rocket
In May 1961, to von Braun’s delight, the United States president John F Kennedy (1917-1963) announced the country’s intention of ‘landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the Earth’. The United States succeeded – and the astronauts of the ‘Apollo’ programme travelled to the Moon in modules launched into space atop huge Saturn V rockets, designed by von Braun’s team at the Marshall Space Center.
Wernher von Braun died in June 1977 at age 65, after two years of suffering from cancer.
Von Braun had finally achieved his goal of interplanetary travel and NASA called him ‘without doubt, the greatest rocket engineer in history.’