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[Inventions That Changed the World] TV Lowered the Curtains on the Inventor Age

[Inventions That Changed the World] TV Lowered the Curtains on the Inventor Age

KIM Jae-Yun

Sept. 30, 2011


Welcome to our video program. I'm Jae-Yun Kim from the Industry and Strategy Department I.

Televisions and radios have become so ubiquitous worldwide that most people take them for granted. Many of the familiar features of TVs and radios, however, are actually artifacts of their early past, when they emerged in a great age of individual inventors.

One of the hallmarks of this age was the competition over frequency allocation during the advent of broadcasting. This time period marked a shift in the R&D paradigm brought on by the invention of television.

Today, I'll touch upon the competition over frequency allocation which began with the advent of broadcasting, as well as the shift in the R&D paradigm caused by the invention of television.

One of the most hallowed names in the early days of radio was RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. As suggested by its name, the company was established by large conglomerates in the US like General Electric, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and AT&T, who all put their radio-related patents into the joint venture. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), two of the three major television networks in the US, also grew out of RCA. Behind the success that RCA enjoyed for many years was David Sarnoff, the executive officer of the company. Sarnoff regularly used his broad influence on the standards for TV and radio to promote his company, a matter for which he has received both criticism and praise.

As Sarnoff enhanced RCA's research and development capabilities, the era of independent inventors, which began in the late 19th century and reached its peak at the time of Thomas Edison, slowly came to an end. The paradigm of invention had shifted to corporate R&D.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the 1930s was an era of rivalry between brilliant inventors and businessmen over leadership in broadcasting.

The first round of the contest was fought between Edwin Howard Armstrong, who created frequency modulation radio (FM) in 1933, and Sarnoff at RCA. As requested by Sarnoff, Armstrong, a mathematics professor at Columbia University, developed a technology that enabled him to deliver much clearer sound over radio, marking the birth of FM broadcasting. Unlike the existing method of varying the amplitude of a radio wave to create sound (AM), Armstrong's method varied the frequency of the wave.

This meant that FM radio could deliver sound with much less noise, even for signals that were interrupted by weather or geographic obstacles, which was not possible with AM radio.

Subsequently, FM became essential in radio, television, and other communications technologies. The much-hailed spread of FM radio, however, was aborted by Sarnoff who worried that RCA's dominance in AM could be eroded by the advent of FM in 1936.

Originally, FM radio used the 42-50 MHz band. Sarnoff pushed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate the 88-108 MHz range to FM, saying radios using the 42-50 MHz spectrum would interfere with television broadcasts, which would undermine the industry's development. He also insisted the spectrum be allocated to television broadcasts instead of FM radios. The FCC accepted Sarnoff's claims, making all FM radios useless at one stroke. FM than had to wait until the 1960s to become widespread. This is why frequency bands are allocated to television, and why FM radio channels are the way they are today.

The original FM spectrum used by Armstrong turned out to be susceptible to dispersion later when sunspot levels reached their peak. This led to the abolition of television channel 1 from the spectrum. When allocating frequency bands, Korea followed the suit of the US, but Japan placed FM radios in the 76-90 MHz range.

The second round of the match was between Philo Taylor Farnsworth and Sarnoff.

Farnsworth, another great inventor, developed an all-electronic television in 1934, but failed to win fame or success in business. Behind his failure in commercializing the invention was RCA and Sarnoff. By the time Farnsworth designed an all-electronic television in his mind, Sarnoff came to believe television would open a whole new chapter, overshadowing the era of radio.

In 1928, Sarnoff opted to fund research by Westinghouse engineer Vladimir Zworykin, who claimed he could develop an all-electronic television system in two years with only $100,000 in investment. In the end, the system was realized in 1936 with a $50 million investment. Sarnoff maintained his support for Zworykin and his research even after the promised two-year duration ended and investment exceeded $100,000.

Even during the Great Depression, when costs were reduced across the board, he protected Zworykin's R&D team, showing perseverance over a project costing 500 times more than initially expected. Moreover, as a CEO, he avoided the impatience that often thwarts long-term research projects with unwavering confidence. Finally in 1939, Sarnoff himself opened the New York World's Fair in the first live television show aired at the fair, ushering in the era of television. In the meantime, Farnsworth founded a TV manufacturing company, the Philco Corporation, and won some patent claims, but could not defeat RCA. Two outstanding inventors lost commercial battles against RCA although they were ahead of the company in developing technologies.

These two stories seem to show that it was becoming increasingly difficult for inventors to launch businesses based on their own inventions, as technologies grew more complicated and required much larger investments of capital to succeed. This explains the end of the era begun in the late 19th century by inventors like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, Reginald Fessenden, Edwin Howard Armstrong, and Philo Taylor Farnsworth.

After this era, corporate research arms rather than individuals rose as the inventors of innovative products. At the center of this shift was David Sarnoff. By stymieing FM radio's birth in favor of his immediate interests, the verdict of history has given Sarnoff both criticism and praise. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that he built an organization that could leverage the skills of teams of average researchers, rather than rely solely on one or two star players, to pioneer the era of corporate invention.

Thank you for watching. I'm Jae-Yun Kim.

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