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Vladimir Zworykin the gift to America

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Vladimir Zworykin the gift to America


Svetlana Smetanina

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Zworykin, outstanding Russian inventor and the pioneer of television technology. His name was unknown for a long time in Russia. But in the United States, where the inventor lived most of his life, at some point he was under supervision, as the FBI suspected him to be a Russian spy.

On October 7-8, the International Scientific Conference on Scientific Worlds of the Russian Émigré Community was held at the House of Russian Émigré Community. One of the reports was dedicated to Vladimir Zworykin, an inventor. The report’s author is Vasily Borisov, a doctor of technical sciences from S.I. Vavilov Institute for the History of Science and Technology, RAS. He studied the life path of the Russian American for many years and even wrote a book about him

While honouring Vladimir Zworykin, his colleagues from the Radio Corporation of America called him the gift to America. Indeed, the Russian inventors contribution to the development of the US industry is difficult to overestimate. His inventions formed the basis of a broadcast television system in nearly all countries. Moreover, he made a great contribution to development of electron microscopes, night vision devices, medical electronic devices and many more.

His life path began in the ancient city of Murom, where the famous father of the television age was born in the family of Kozma Alekseevich Zworykin, a merchant in the First Guild. He was a major bread merchant and owned a shipping company. All five children in the family received higher education. And although Vladimirdreamed of a university, his father insisted him to enter the Petersburg Technological Institute in 1906.

Vladimir Zworykin. Murom, 1906. Photo credit:

At the institute, the inventor-to-be met Boris Rosing, a teacher, who had just started developing devices for implementation of far-vision, as they were called then. Zworykin got enthusiastic over the idea, and, as it turned out, it became his occupation for life.

In 1912, he graduated with honors from the Technological Institute, which made him entitled for an internship in one of the foreign scientific laboratories. Following Rosings advice, he chose Paul Langevin's laboratory in Paris. There, a young Russian scientist quickly realized that his knowledge of physics was clearly not enough and went to Berlin to take a supplementary course in physics at a local university. But then the First World War began.

Vladimir Zworykin was able to get to Petersburg through Denmark and Finland. There he was immediately mobilized and sent to serve in a radio squadron in Grodno. Then he was sent to an officer school for training, after which he worked as a military inspector receiving radio valves at a factory in Petrograd.

In the meanwhile, the October Revolution took place in the country. According to Leo Trotskys order, all former officers had to register with military commissariats and join the Red Army. Zworykin did not want to go to the army, let alone to fight with his fellow citizens. But he wanted to pursue scientific experiments. There was only one way out - to leave the country. But how? After all, he would not be officially allowed to travel abroad as a military inspector. Fortuitously, he found out that a large radio station had to be equipped in Omsk, for which it was necessary to purchase equipment abroad.

Vladimir Zworykin reached Omsk with great difficulty: first by boat down the Kama River, then by train from Yekaterinburg, where he was sent to jail for several days to verify his identity. And in 1919 he managed to go on a business trip to the United States.

He quickly realized that without references and knowledge of English, nobody really needed him there. At that time, the United States had not yet recognized the Soviet regime, therefore, Bakhmetyev, the envoy of the Provisional Government, represented Russia in the US. Bakhmetyev got him a job at the embassy, ​​after which Zworykin himself began to send companies his offers as an expert in the field of radio.

Finally the answer came - he was invited to work for Westinghouse, where they produced radio valves. There, Vladimir Zworykin resumed his experiments with devices in the area of television systems. And he even applied for invention of an electronic television system. But the US Patent Office decided that such a system was not possible and refused the patent to the inventor. Only 15 years later - in 1938 – he was finally able to get the patent when many New Yorkers had already had televisions with image tubes of his design.

In 1925 Vladimir Zworykin made an attempt to demonstrate the companys manager a prototype of the television installation. But the managers verdict stated that nothing could come of such venture. And the Russian engineer was transferred to another position, so that "he would not waste time on nonsense." The age of television was just a decade afar…

In 1929, the scientist designed a kinescope - an electron-receiving tube for a television, which later became the main tool for transmitting images for many decades. The same year marked another life-defining event: he met David Sarnoff, the vice president of RCA Radio Company, who understood the prospects of television very well. Vladimir Zworykin joined this company, where he was able to focus on development of his most famous invention.

Vladimir Zworykin and television prototype. Photo credit:

In the mid-1930s, Zworykin created an electronic tube for transmitting television devices. He called it an iconoscope - from the Greek icon - see, image. And this tube became the basis for image transmission.

In 1939, David Sarnoff, the RCA President, announced beginning of the television age. A year earlier, RCA had delivered a set of a television broadcasting station to Moscow, where the famous studio on Shabolovka was opened. Thus, Zworykin was able to return to his homeland, at least through his inventions. However, it must be said that the doors to the USSR were always open for him. He came to Moscow and Leningrad four times since 1933, and also gave lectures in Kharkov and Kiev.

At some point, Vladimir Zworykin was seriously considering proposal of the Soviet government to return to his homeland. He received it in 1934. But before giving consent, he consulted with his relatives - Dmitry Nalivkin, a member of the Academy of Sciences, who was married to his sister. Academician Nalivkin warned the scientist that he could repeat the fate of specialists convicted in the Industrial Party Trial in 1930. And Zworykin decided to stay in the US.

After the outbreak of the World War II, the scientist had to switch to military field. In particular, he invented a remote-controlled aircraft bomb, created night vision devices for shooting in the dark. So American tanks and vehicles are able to move in the dark with infrared lighting because of development of the Russian inventor. Of course, this was a gift to America in every sense.

Vladimir Zworykin and his creation television. Photo credit:

Despite those facts, Vladimir Zworykin was nearly declared a persona non grata. The FBI was seriously interested in the inventor: they suspected him to be a Russian spy. And the cause behind such close attention was Vladimir Zworykins philanthropic activity. In 1943, he was approached by representatives of the Foundation for War Victims in the USSR. Zworykin had never joined any parties and movements and was not engaged in public work. But in this case he gave his consent and became chairman of the New York branch of the Foundation. At the same time, he agreed to join the scientific committee of the Council of American-Soviet Friendship.

That was enough to be closely watched by the FBI. Moreover, during the war Zworykin constantly traveled to the Pentagon and even was a consultant to General Arnold, who commanded the US Air Force. He was also a member of the Committee on development prospects for military aviation. They began to follow him and even installed "bugs" in his house, as well as in the country villa. His notebooks were photocopied. In 1945, Zworykin was supposed to go with a group of soldiers to Germany to find developments in the field of military aviation, but the FBI wrote a report on him. After that, Zworykin was subjected to a restriction of civil rights through ban to travel abroad.

According to the inventor, he felt like he was in a cage again and even was ready to resign from RCA. The McCarthyism, a campaign on searching for communists and Russian agents, commenced in the United States. So Vladimir Zworykin could face some very serious problems. But then David Sarnoff, the RCA President, also a native of Russia who had moved to the United States at the age of 9 and made tremendous career there, stepped in. He was friends with the FBI Director, since the company was engaged in military orders. Thanks to Sarnoffs guarantee, all restrictions on civil rights were removed from Zworykin. However he did not travel out of the United States until 1959, just in case.

At the same time, there were changes in his personal life. After a divorce in the late 1920s, he stayed as a bachelor for 23 years. But suddenly he fell in love with his compatriot - the former wife of the governor of Murmansk, who had also immigrated to the United States. Their honeymoon turned into a real world tour of the engineer-inventor known at that time in many countries, mainly within the scientific community. They traveled to Australia, Europe and everywhere he was asked to give lectures.

But in the USSR he was hardly known, and even there were no references to him in the scientific literature. When Vasily Borisov decided to write a book about the inventor, he found out that there had been a big article about Zworykin in Life magazine. He went to the Lenin Library, ordered a magazine and saw, to his surprise, that the required article was neatly cut out with scissors. Thus, Soviet censorship did not allow any detailed information about life of white emigrants to find its way into the USSR.

Monument to Vladimir Zworykin in Murom. Photo credit:

Nevertheless, in 1989, when Vladimir Zworykin turned 100, Vasily Borisov managed to hold a conference dedicated to memory of the outstanding Russian inventor in Murom. At that very time a memorial plate appeared on the house where Vladimir Zworykin had been born. Later, a museum of a talented compatriot was opened in the city, and the monument was erected next to it.

His life was a very long one - he lived to be 93 years old. And almost until the very end, he used to work as a consultant at RCA, and then the director of the Center for Medical Electronics at the Rockefeller Institute, where he took up development of medical equipment. He also lectured at the University of Miami. And he even drove a car until the age of 91.

According to Vladimir Zworykins will, he was cremated, and the ashes were scattered over the lake near his beloved country villa, where he had spent the second half of his life.

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