Oral-History:Vladimir Zworykin

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About Vladimir Zworykin

Vladimir Zworykin photo (IEEE -1184 - copyright listed as 'unknown').jpg
Dr. Vladimir Zworykin’s collegiate career at the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology in Russia paved the way for his career in electronics. Zworykin received his electrical engineering degree from the Institute in 1912, studying under Professor Boris Rosing, who had built an early cathode ray television in 1908. He began graduate study at the College de France, engaging in X-ray research under Professor Paul Langevin, but returned to Russia at the outbreak of World War I to serve in the Russian Signal Corps. After the war, he emigrated to the United States, and began work at the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1920. He obtained his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh in 1926. He patented his first television camera tube in 1923 and his Kinescope television receiver in 1924. In 1929, he went to work at RCA’s Camden, New Jersey laboratory as the director of electronic research. He improved his television camera tube and then patented the Iconoscope in 1931. In 1941 he oversaw James Hillier’s invention of the electron microscope. During World War II, he directed military research on aircraft fire control, television-guided missiles, storage tubes, an radar systems. In 1954, upon his retirement from RCA, he was named honorary vice president of the company. He served as director of the Medical Electronics Center of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research from 1954 to 1962. Zworykin died in Princeton, New Jersey in July 1982.

This interview briefly traces Zworykin’s career, concentrating upon his Iconoscope development for RCA, the first television broadcasts, and his later research in medical electronics. Zworykin discusses television broadcasting’s impact, reminisces about his relationship with RCA’s CEO David Sarnoff, and assesses television programming for popular entertainment. He also explains his research on an electronic system to control automobiles and on electronic methods of administering anesthesia and acupuncture. The interview concludes with discussing Zworykin’s role as founder of the International Federation of Medical Electronics.

About the Interview

Vladimir Zworykin: An Interview Conducted by Mark Heyer, IEEE History Center, July 4, 1975

Interview # 021 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., andRutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA.  It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Vladimir Zworykin, Electrical Engineer, an oral history conducted in 1975 by Mark Heyer, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Heyer: We're going to talk a little about the past, and a little about the future, and see what happens. Why don't we just start off with some basic information? How long have you been at RCA, for example?
Zworykin: I was transferred from Westinghouse in 1929 or so. I moved either in late 1929 or early 1930 - to Camden first and then here when this building was completed in 1941, I think it was.
Heyer: So, you went to the Camden Lab in 1929. What were you working on? What was your first project?
Zworykin: I came from Westinghouse according to the government decree of changing the field of interest between RCA, General Electric and Westinghouse. I was working with Westinghouse since 1920 and at least half of the time I was working on television.
Heyer: What were the first television projects?
Zworykin: After Westinghouse, I was making an amplifying tube for radio broadcast, the WD11, if you remember?
Heyer: WD11?
Zworykin: Yes. It starts at the research; I mean the production even started in the research.
Heyer: So, then from Westinghouse you came here to Camden?
Zworykin: I was working on television practically full-time until my retirement, which was about ten years ago. Then I shifted to medical electronic sensors.
Heyer: In the first television work, what were the first problems that you worked on when you came to Camden? You started working on television? Were you working on developing a picture tube?
Zworykin: Yes. The first fall, it was to find out why the mechanical television seemed like the Nipkow disk, where they were unable to satisfy the transmission of the Lebin curve, I think, by radio or by wire. Then we found out an old mechanical pick-up was not sufficient because they were transmitting the light only when the probe, whatever it is, the aperture for instance, was transmitting the light from the point of the image during the time that the system coincided with this point. Since we have to transmit the whole picture thirty times at least per second, and divide the picture many hundred thousand times, the light becomes in the millionth of the seconds. Therefore, the signal was very weak and we were unable to transmit a satisfactory picture, even under the kliegs, the most powerful light at that time. So, I found out that solution can be done if the time of receiving this pulse is for one-thirtieth of a second instead of one-millionth second and therefore theoretically gain a million times without changing sensitivity in the receiving curve. Just the time element changed. For that we constructed at Westinghouse a mosaic where the image was focused with regular optics like in a movie and the picture information in this mosaic was all in one-thirtieth of a second. It means a theoretical gain by the number of picture elements, of several hundred thousand times. Of course, we never got a complete hundred percent efficiency but you do get tremendous amplification and sensitivity. Starting from the first tube constructed when we were at Westinghouse, we were able to start to transmit the picture under normal light, under conditions without artificial light.
Heyer: So that was...?
Zworykin: Then I called this tube the Iconoscope.
Heyer: How was the kinescope different from the Iconoscope?
Zworykin: The Kinescope of course has its origin in the Braun tube. Braun about ten years before us constructed a cathode-ray tube for the recording of very fast events by using the electron beam and applying to the deflection of the electron beam magnetic or electrostatic fields. Well, we used a cathode-ray tube and a fluorescent screen with the respondent [?] amplitude of the cathode-ray tube intensity in the light, and deflected the beam magnetically or electrostatically by the signals we received from an Iconoscope through the proper amplifier. This type of combination of the Iconoscope and receiving tube we called Kinescope from two Greek words. Kine is movement, and scope is target. The first demonstration was in the fall or beginning of the winter of 1923 at Westinghouse Research Laboratory.
Heyer: The first demonstration of a complete system?
Zworykin: Yes, of the laboratory prototype. Of course the picture was very primitive. We were able to transmit some geometrical figures and move them before the photographic camera and receive them on the kinescope. One of the witnesses who remembers this demonstration is Walter Schirer, who is still alive and lives here in [?]. He was head of the patent department.
Heyer: If you have any questions please ask.
Int. 2: You might go back a little bit to where you went to school and tell us about Professor Rosing.
Zworykin: I came to Westinghouse from Russia in 1918. Before that I was in France working with Paul Langevin, [ . . . ] a Nobel Prize winner in theoretical physics. Before that I graduated from the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg. When I was there I came under the influence of Professor Boris Rosing, who I consider one of the earlier pioneers of realizing the difficulty with mechanical television and starting to use electronic television. Of course, his system and the system I was helping him with during my spare time from earning my degree was hybrid. The transmitter was similar to Nipkow's, by a series of rotating mirrors. But for receiving he used a cathode-ray tube. Since for receiving it is essential to get the light only at the moment when the system coincides with this point of the picture, the picture was very unsatisfactory
Heyer: Sounds like the holograms that I've seen.
Zworykin: Well, it's always [like that] when you start with something.
Heyer: So you were actually working on it as early as the early 1920s?
Zworykin: First I worked with the WB11 tube. From there I went to the transmission of the picture by facsimile. From there I went to the development of the more sensitive photocell. I have quite a number of patents there. From there I went to the sound movie and from sound then to television. That was some time in 1925. When I came to this country, I didn't find [anyone] very receptive here [for a while].
Heyer: What had you been interested in before you left Russia. Could I ask you about that?
Zworykin: Well, I was in college, of course, getting my engineering degree and working with Rosing in my spare time on Saturdays and Sundays. [ . . . ] I graduated in 1912 and went to study with Langevin in the same year. [ . . . ] I then worked with Langevin in France until the war. After the war [began] I was [brought into the military] and put in radio communications. For the rest of the war I was in radio communications.
Heyer: Do you mind telling us about the first time you talked about television with David Sarnoff?
Zworykin: That was in 1929, I think. We already started...we already had the practical assembly. There was the picture, you remember, showing the girl, in 1928, I think. In that year it was this transition of and changing of the patent situation, so the whole communication went from General Electric to Westinghouse and to RCA for a while - now it's all mixed up again. But at that time it was a completely original area of research. All my group, which was at that time occupied completely with television, was moved from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Camden, and then from Camden to here.
Heyer: Who was in your group?
Zworykin: The ones that I remember were Arthur Vance, Harley Iams, and Sanford Essig. [Humboldt] Leverenz came very soon after, but I think he wasn't there at first. Gregory Oglobinsky, but he was killed in an automobile accident just before we moved. I think together we had five people, but I already begin to mix them up. I am sure of M.C. Banca, Iams, and Vance. Yes, that I am sure.
Heyer: We might get the names of some of the people who joined you soon after you came to Camden.
Zworykin: Well, after Camden then came Leverenz (in 1944). The group was building from 1940 to 1941. In 1941 came this fellow who is sick, Harold Law. You know Law, he got the high prize this year. [ . . . ] Who else? I think that's about all.
Heyer: Now tell us about your talk with David Sarnoff.
Zworykin: That was in 1929 in connection with this transfer of television. I got an invitation to come to New York and talk to Sarnoff and I told him what we can do (of course what we did) and how much we accomplished. This [what follows] has been mentioned in his speech many times. He asked me how much it would cost to make it practical. Well, how can you tell? I figured it out and I had three men already working with me - they were the ones which I mentioned. I thought I needed about two more men and two rooms and without knowing much about the financial end, I estimated $100,000. So Sarnoff always says "See how he cheated me!" because RCA cost $40,000,000 before they got a dollar out of television. [chuckling]
Heyer: But when the dollars started coming up they really gained. That was in 1929, right?
Zworykin: Well, in 1930 we first started broadcasting first from [?], then from the City Hall in Camden, and then when we came here in 1941 from [the] Empire State Building.
Heyer: I understand David Sarnoff opened the World’s Fair in 1939 with a television broadcast.
Zworykin: That was not exactly a broadcast. That was short-wave television. Short-distance television.
Int. 2: Were you there?
Zworykin: Yes. That was in San Francisco and then later on we had a demonstration here in New York.
Heyer: What was the reaction of people that saw these demonstrations?
Zworykin: Well, in the first measure usually someone made a speech and showed equipment.
Heyer: Had people heard about television? Did they have an idea what it was? Was it a big surprise?
Zworykin: Not much. It was very little known of at that time.
Heyer: It was novel at that time.
Zworykin: But then as the Second World War started, all the efforts were very concentrated on military applications, including television. The small tubes which were developed for the bombers came out of - I don’t think we need to record that. One of the oldest sons of Kennedy was killed when carrying this secret.
Heyer: I know he was killed.
Zworykin: Over Germany.
Heyer: Carrying the equipment.
Zworykin: I mentioned it because actually television broadcasts started in Europe ahead of us. We traveled at that time quite a deal from RCA because we had connections with the laboratory, but in 1934 I also went to Russia and succeeded to sell them the idea that they were realizing the importance of television for propaganda. Therefore, they were very interested in getting the equipment. I came back again and reported to Sarnoff about their interest. They wanted to pay cash for that. I think after quite a long discussion with the State Department and so on I was sent back again. The next year, in 1937, we sent their equipment and it was all installed in Moscow. A hundred receivers and television transmitters -
Heyer: Did they then start manufacturing their own equipment?
Zworykin: Yes. But what they transmitted was trash.
Heyer: That’s interesting. Apparently they haven’t changed much. I haven’t seen any Russian programs recently but ...
Zworykin: Well, I can say it’s worse than here. I don’t like these programs here, but there it is much worse.
Heyer: Okay, so in our chronology here we’ve gotten up to about the end of the war and the beginning of commercial broadcasting.
Zworykin: That started really good because that was not entirely connected to the commercial aspect. They charged for the reception. You have to pay the monthly fee for that. There was very good programming but then commercial television began to be so successful here that they started second channel on same basis and I think they are about equal now.
Heyer: ABC is supposed to be putting out good programs. So what were you working on at RCA after the war?
Zworykin: Mostly, for quite a long time, on television, but in general producing electronic devices for [other purposes]. We developed many things.
Heyer: For automobiles?
Zworykin: For medical electronics we developed for instance a radio and a small transmitter. It’s usual now but an expensive thing because sometimes you lose the transmitter. Then we researched infrared image tubes, electron multipliers, which are used for everything in physics now, the use of television for microscopy, and from that came the development of the electron microscope. That’s from Canada. That was in probably ‘41.
Heyer: 1941?
Zworykin: Yes. We were in the United States the very first to practically introduce the electron microscope. And then gradually I got moved to the medical electronics.
Heyer: Which is where you are now.
Zworykin: Well, I am supposed to be retired now, but I don’t play golf, therefore [I] have to do something.
Int. 2: You might tell them about the international institute you founded for medical electronics. The international work you did.
Zworykin: But the whole interview is to tell of television...
Int. 2: No, the whole interview is about you!
Zworykin: Oh. Well, first of all, about in the middle ‘50s I was wanted by RCA in essentially an agreement between Sarnoff and the Rockefeller brothers to go to the Rockefeller Institute, which was moved from here to New York at that time, and organize there the electronic laboratory for medical applications. I spent about two years half-time, half the year, and there we developed quite a number of things. Electronics were applied, particularly when transistors were available. At that time, they had the idea and tested the importance of movement for electric potential over the skin of human beings, and proposed research on this line and building some equipment. Some of them are built already. We built, for instance, a big matrix - about a hundred separate transistor elements. And an amplifier which transmitted and the reception television tube, and you can see the movement potential. But very little can be done of significance in connection of the sequence and so on for many reasons. First of all, we were not medical people. Second, medical people were not always cooperative. Third, transistors were in infancy and it was very difficult to assemble a hundred transistors that were alike. Therefore I proposed that they build a big group consisting of quite a number of specialists, including medical people if he insists but if they would assist. [inaudible passage] This would be people in anesthesia. That was assigned [?] for the large budget from the institute of the NIH, which condemned it, saying it was not a scientific approach. That idea was condemned until Nixon went to China. Then there were so many newspaper reports about his entourage that everyone went crazy with new ideas. Several years ago some of the people who were scheduled to go to China reported eye witnessing a miracle. Others who were more skeptical reported it was hogwash. There’s a very big spread between a miracle and hogwash, so there must be something to using acupuncture instead of chemical anesthetic. It’s been developed for about five thousand years in China.
It also traveled to Japan several times and investigated their procedures and so on. I was surprised that they were changing acupuncture. Before, it was with needles. Then they used a flashlight battery. They found out when they use an acupuncture needle for local anesthesia for the operation how long the effect of the needle was present. Therefore surgeons were reluctant to start the operations unsure about these things. They didn’t want to have the patient wake up during the surgery, so they started twisting the needle. That prolonged the test, but that required medical personnel not only to the needle, a specialist, but also someone to twist it during the operation, since they use great numbers of people. So somebody decided to change the twisting procedure by putting electrical potential in the needle.
The first attempt at this was taking the flashlight battery and connecting the positive potential to the body and the negative touching the needle. That produced an effect like twisting it. That was my second time in Japan, about three years ago. The first was before Nixon’s first visit to China. When we began trying acupuncture in this country we wanted to try it without the needle. If the needle worked better than the current then we’d forget it, but the current worked. So we organized some private financial backing at a medical center which had acupuncture. Some initial tests were successful.
When the excitement was over, the needle operators began to realize they had to make more using the equipment because they were anxious to find out the effect of this. We expect eventually to use that in a computer, transmitting that to the tape and comparing that with the results of the straight acupuncture. From that we can find out more how the needles work. The medical profession lost interest because they said they cannot treat many patients this way without this record, and they have plenty of patients who insist on having needles. I had an interview with someone in Japan, doing acupuncture quite successfully, and he was using the process too. I asked about the electrical process and he said they weren’t trying that at all. He asked my opinion and I said it means one doesn’t need the needle. He said we should use both because the patients have difficulty getting such an orthodox procedure accepted [by insurance], and when they get that, they want everything! I think the situation is not much different here. They have plenty of patients, some of them paying up to $100 a session and use about forty needles instead of only one!
Heyer: Are the electrical instruments applied to points on the skin?
Zworykin: Yes, and the instruments tell whether you are moving closer or farther from the particular point. Of course, you start with where you feel the pain, not just with charts and then looking. Findings have confirmed my statements and ideas how needles work. Changing the condition of this field you change the current and get amplifying current in the integrated circuit. It looks like this can have a significant biological effect on the cell. We should change the transmission of the ion(?) according to the information received. The film of the cell works like the thin film on the transistor.
Heyer: So the cell wall will be changing its permeability?
Zworykin: Yes, that’s what we found. Billions of cells were all working overtime.
Heyer: So, twisting the needle then, if that was true, would be just continually adding information to the cell.
Zworykin: Maybe agitation. [inaudible passage]
Int. 2: You talked with one of the mathematicians at Princeton about the control and study of weather.
Zworykin: I think the contact was mostly on an information basis. We are good friends and have been together quite often. We were trying to find a way to control weather, how to separate the layers and cells and so on. [inaudible passage]
Int. 2: Did you ever talk to Einstein?
Zworykin: Einstein was living very close to me.
Int. 2: Did you ever meet with him?
Zworykin: Oh, yes. He was abstract. At that time he still didn’t understand basic [fundamental] formulas. [inaudible passage]
Heyer: Did you have contact with any of the other people involved in the Manhattan Project during the war?
Zworykin: At first the project was not classified and we had the electron microscope at that time. I shouldn’t say more. They sent us samples for the microplectographs without telling us what it was about, but we knew.
Heyer: Samples of what?
Zworykin: The film that separated the molecules. [inaudible passage] I don’t want to say more than you could find out now by reading newspapers.
Int. 2: Tell him a little more about the system you devised for controlling automobiles.
Zworykin: That is sort of different.
Int. 2: We’re going back and forth.
Zworykin: This growing number of automobiles and people killed in accidents meant something should be done. My idea was that control of automobiles should be done by the road. The cars should receive information from the equipment we could install and leave it up to the driver. Does he want this information or not? But it would always be available if you had the equipment, however, no one could enforce use of it. [inaudible passage]
Int. 2: Tell him about the cables.
Zworykin: Well, the system was very simple. You put the cable, theoretically, in the distance between the approximate size of the automobile and a place of outside controls. When the automobile rolled over the cable it changed the cable impedance so that it produced a signal. That indicated speed and location and gave information for traffic lights and counting automobiles, and so forth. In the road itself was encased the cable. So using it was optional.
Heyer: When was that work done?
Zworykin: The 1950s. Right after the war.
Heyer: Is a system like that becoming more practical now?
Zworykin: Well, they have some good modifications of this thing - a good transmitter emitting short waves. All that you need to get information from another automobile or from traffic lights or obstacles is a reflector, like licenses can be made into reflectors. So when you send this pulse you get the reflection, a secondary wavelength and multiply it. You get this information showing you the car ahead, and so forth.
Int. 2: I think you were the first person to predict that man would see the moon via television.
Zworykin: I didn’t know it for certain. I spoke of that in self-defense because the great concern about television was what to put on it and why put in so much work on it. I had to defend myself by saying, “You can see the opposite side of the moon if someone sends a rocket there with a television camera. You will maybe have to wait for fifty years.” But I didn’t know that.
Heyer: All the astronauts mentioned how it changed their view of the trip.
Zworykin: Yes, when they came back here and saw themselves on television walking on the moon. One time the picture was very clear. You see yourself, you know, at that particular important moment.
Heyer: Have you seen a lot of the pictures the satellites have been sending back?
Zworykin: Yes. That was the most interesting contribution from broadcasting, to my mind.
Heyer: Did you want to talk a little bit about the future?
Zworykin: Yes. I am not presently satisfied with the programs. Of course, I think everybody is doing what they think they have to do. Our programs are commercial, and therefore the income from broadcasting depends upon the number of people viewing. By taking surveys of this, right or wrong, they conclude that lower quality programs appeal to more people. Therefore, they put in a lot of broadcasted violence and murder. They sometimes teach youngsters to them in actuality. They can repeat them exactly. Rating systems are not good for the population, the younger generation in general. It also makes us look bad abroad. They see the ugly face of America. I think it partially produces our current unpopularity abroad. Only twenty to thirty years ago we were heroes in Soviet Russia, for example. [inaudible passage] Westinghouse and Edison were heroes from an engineering point of view, also. That was not true just for Russia, but also for Europe when I was a student. That was the general impression - America was very admired from the outside.
Then all the actors in Hollywood were using the Rolls Royce. Therefore, Europe’s impression of America was that everyone was a multimillionaire. Everybody used Rolls Royce’s. About ten years ago I was in a Moscow taxi, and the driver found out that I was an American who could speak Russian. He said I must be breeding cattle. I asked him why and he said he got that from films. Now you see the vision of America. Of course that is only part of it. Television from satellites go everywhere; pictures from satellites can hit Africa in seconds. If we continue to transmit these kinds of programs it will not improve our image.
Heyer: Do you think that having this satellite transmission and more communication will bring pressure?
Zworykin: Certainly they are already talking about installing low power transmission, which was good for receiving on television receivers. We can receive broadcasts from and send them to any part of the world. I feel very guilty for [sending such bad programming] even indirectly, having a part in it.
Heyer: Do you think the same kind of programming we are doing now will be sent then?
Zworykin: That’s what I tried to stop. We need to start thinking about this aspect.
Int. 2: Also on videodisk.
Zworykin: That’s another thing that will send our image abroad. In a couple of years the market will have cheap discs very similar to the sound discs. That will be different from the broadcasts because it doesn’t depend on being sent by some group who has big equipment. It will be done by anybody who wants to record like they record music now. So, you can collect a library of whatever you want. We can make programs of our books that way, which will be easier to read than regular books. But at the same time, it can be used for bad things. You can use it for pornographic pictures and violent pictures and selling them around the world.
Heyer: So we’ll have the same old problems with new technology.
Zworykin: It is not controllable.
Heyer: The classic dilemma - free enterprise and all the problems, or censorship.
Zworykin: All technology can be used for bad or good [purposes]. It’s up to you how to use it.
Heyer: The bad and the good really seem to be coming home to us now more than in the past. I hope that engineers now are putting more thought into the implications.
Zworykin: We can talk about pornographic pictures, but I saw a man on the bicycle here in Trenton recently. He was completely naked!
Heyer: Would you like to talk a little about the future of medical electronics?
Zworykin: That’s much more complicated. From an engineering point of view I always look, and I think more and more people look, on the human beings as very complicated, very exciting, a very beautiful machine. An electrical machine. We work with that idea and put the electrodiagram on the heart to get the heartbeat, for example. Everything you do with muscles and so on are working on electricity like signals. They are different because you don’t have wires, but it’s very similar. If you look from that point of view, you see how much the knowledge and training of a few years in complex circuitry are useful for diagnostics, curing, pain relief, and all kinds of information.
Heyer: Would you like to prognosticate a bit about some devices that might come of this?
Zworykin: Sure. Finding and curing pain in the shoulder, for example. Some of the rheumatic things I think are curable. We tested equipment on alleving common pain between the neck and shoulders as the doctors suggested first. That was fairly difficult.
Heyer: Do you find that doctors are resistant to new ideas?
Zworykin: Doctors who work in research accept them, but they don’t have as many patients.
Heyer: I see.
Int. 2: You founded an international institute on Medical Electronics. What was the name of that?
Zworykin: The International Federation of Medical Electronics. Now it’s “Biomedical.”
Int. 2: You were its first president?
Zworykin: Yes.
Int. 2: Are you still active in it?
Zworykin: No - I’m on the letterhead, but that’s about all now.
Int. 2: What was the last big trip you took?
Zworykin: Last year to Japan. I also went to Bulgaria and Moscow.
Int. 2: Do you have other trips planned?
Zworykin: No.
Int. 2: Are you going back to Florida?
Zworykin: I have connections with the University of Florida working on electronics for biological work.
Heyer: I think that’s all our questions. Thank you very much.