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Revisionist History
by Andrew Emmerson
(article originally published in Electronics & Wireless World)

Discovering the unsuspected truth can be a shocking experience, whether it’s learning for the first time that Father Christmas does not really exist or else that concentration camps were an all-British invention of the Boer War period.

It comes as no less shock when you hear that the established history you learned many years ago as a fact is a sham, indeed a fiction created to enhance the reputation of an individual or of a large manufacturing corporation.

Perhaps we should not be surprised after all. It would be delightful to imagine that all historians record nothing but fully corroborated facts in a completely objective and unbiased fashion. In fact most history is written for a purpose and frequently for money (this article most certainly is), and as they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune. As the American author Eric Barbour wrote recently when discussing the true inventors of the digital computer, every age tries to re-write history to suit its leading personages. People with power and money manage to uncreate the past, even while they feed upon its very foundations, whilst the populace at large accepts the official version as fact.

One organisation that falsified history for its own ends is the late lamented Radio Corporation of America, now reduced to a mere brand name or trading title of General Electric in America and assigned in the consumer electronics field to Thomson of France and in sound recordings to the (German) Bertelsmann Music Group. Once an organisation of far greater status, it was created by American anti-trust legislation out of the U.S. subsidiary of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. The RCA corporation had much to be proud of... and sadly, plenty to be ashamed of too, for example the way it harassed worthy inventors such as television pioneer Farnsworth and Armstrong, the inventor of the frequency modulation technique for broadcasting.

But what is now coming to light, thanks to the efforts of a number of investigative historians, is the fact that RCA deliberately distorted history in order to portray the company in a more favourable light. Loyal and decent American citizens brought up on the gospel according to RCA may wish to skip the rest of this article; everyone else should read on.

The world’s first successful all-electronic television system has long been ascribed to Vladimir Zworykin, from 1911-12 a pupil of television pioneer Boris Rosing in St Petersburg and from 1930-1932 leader of RCA’s television development laboratory. It was he who in 1935 turned the Iconoscope image pickup tube into a working product suitable for series production.

Tihanyi in his true light

It is now clear, however, that the Iconoscope  was not RCA’s unaided work. In fact it fell to a Hungarian, Kálmán (Coloman) Tihanyi, to first patent the concept of a light-sensitive image storage tube in 1928, at a time when Zworykin had already abandoned electronic pickup tubes and returned to mechanical scanning.

Thanks to diligent work lasting two decades by Tihanyi’s daughter, Katalin Tihanyi Glass and publicity by German researcher Antje Grabenhorst, Tihanyi is now belatedly acknowledged as the forgotten inventor of the Iconoscope. Records indicate that RCA dealt with him over the period 1930-1935 in connection with the purchase of his patents (see panel below), although the company never acknowledged that Zworykin was unable to make his camera work without external assistance.

Tainted hero

Another commonplace of RCA history is that the powerhouse behind the company (David Sarnoff, another Russian émigré) had begun his career as  a wireless operator at the time of the sinking of the Titanic and received its final transmissions. Safely located on dry land throughout the disaster, he relayed the information to the press and became something of a hero at the time.

Or so the story goes. But not if you listen to Michael Biel, Ph.D., professor of radio and television at Morehead State University,  Kentucky in the USA.

“There is no contemporary evidence that David Sarnoff ever had anything to do with the Titanic story,” he states emphatically.  “It was a myth that he promoted and his name is not mentioned in any of the news accounts at the time. Accordingly it is highly doubtful that he was ‘something of a hero at the time’.   He was a Marconi operator of a low-powered station at the New York branch of the John Wanamaker store which only had the duty to communicate with the home office in Philadelphia.  The station was  operating only during the hours the store was open.  Therefore, he was not on duty when the ship sank in the middle of the night, therefore he did not ‘receive the transmissions from the Titanic’.   It is probable that he listened in on the relays of the reports from other stations once he got to work the next morning.  He might have put up bulletins inside the Wanamaker store but that is probably as far as his influence was.”

Biel continues: “The fairy-tale some books report that the President ordered all other stations off the air so that Sarnoff's station could be in the clear is pure egotistical fabrication.  So is just about all of the story.  He probably told someone that he had stayed up 72 hours to hear the Titanic reports, and the story just grew from there – and he loved it and never corrected it.  The story that has been reported all these years makes just about as much sense as the story above that he had jumped ship and became a hero.”

War secret that never was

Yet another historical myth accepted as fact is that that the Allies had no knowledge of the magnetic tape recorder until American troops over-ran Radio Luxembourg and found German Magnetophon machines playing out propaganda tapes. Apparently the development of tape had been a war secret, developed by the Germans so they could play Hitler speeches at all odd hours to deceive the Allies from finding out his true whereabouts.  A charming story but without any basis in fact!

In reality, the Magnetophon had already been on public display at the 1935 Radio Show in Germany and an improved version of the machine was sent to the American General Electric organisation in Schenectady in 1938. A report describing the same machine was published in this magazine (then called  Wireless World) on 1st June 1939 concerning broadcasting arrangements for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Finland (subsequently cancelled).

As it is estimated that at least 25 simultaneous commentaries will have to be radiated each day, it has been necessary to resort to recording  on a large scale. An order has therefore been placed for 40 AEG Magnetophon iron-powder film recorders. It has also been decided to provide a fleet of seven vans, several of which will be equipped for handling two different recordings at once.

Admittedly the expression 'iron-powder film recorders' as applied to recording tape looks strange but how else would you describe a technology too new to have a handy name? This report would have been taken from a Finnish or German press release using such strange language that it's obvious that the editorial staff at Wireless World had no idea what it was about and just printed it verbatim. Consequently, no-one took much notice!

Yet more revisionism

In each of these examples of corrected history, the fictionalised ‘fact’ has finally been replaced by an authenticated version. Unfortunately there are also  revisionists at work trying to achieve the converse, embroidering existing and long-established fact with new, unsubstantiated speculation.  One such ‘victim’ of this reassessment is television pioneer, John Logie Baird, whose memory is sufficiently notable that no false embellishments are needed.  Nonetheless one writer is now alleging all manner of secret achievement during World War II by  John Logie Baird,

Among other things, the protagonist  cites that BBC television transmissions before the war were in fact a cover for radar research, aerial reconnaissance and secret signalling systems. He also alleges that Baird developed components for the Colossus computer which helped break enemy codes at Bletchley Park during the second world war. This is all based on supposition and so far he has not offered any demonstrable evidence to support these claims.

In fact Baird’s own autobiography states unequivocally that he sent his name to the authorities and expected to be approached with some kind of government work, but no such offer materialised. Likewise, in her own book, his wife Margaret writes: “John expected to be called on, but as in World War I but with less excuse, his country passed him over. This hurt him deeply.” Sydney Moseley, a close friend of Baird who was much involved in the wartime Ministry of Information, has written: “To this day I am baffled as to why the British authorities did not seek him out and harness his magnificent inventive genius to the war effort.” If people are to contradict this irrefutable evidence 50 years later, they must produce cast-iron proof capable of independent verification.

It has been said that Baird's refusal to move to the USA at the outbreak of World War II may well have been due to his involvement in secret work. During the war he received a fee of  £1,000 per year from the crown corporation Cable and Wireless. According to Baird’s son, Dr Malcolm Baird, the services performed for this fee are still not known exactly, but his work is believed to have been on the use of television methods for high-speed coded signalling. On the other hand, Cable & Wireless has copies of Baird’s letters and reports of wartime meetings but there is no evidence at all that Baird produced anything other than a laboratory demonstration of high-speed signalling using intermediate film techniques. Minutes of a meeting held at the company during the summer of 1944 indicate that Baird had produced nothing of technical advantage to the company.

As Malcolm Baird says, research is continuing on this aspect of Baird's life but until something more substantial turns up, the secret life of John Logie Baird must remain no more than unsubstantiated supposition.

The irony, as one of the surviving employees of the Baird company  points out,  is that Baird’s real life was so singular and his achievement quite sufficient that it should not now require adornment; authors who allege information which cannot be corroborated detract not only  from the credibility of their own research but that of others. He declares: “When some people are endeavouring to ensure that the history of television is being accurately recorded for posterity, it is absolutely deplorable that a few others deliberately distort information given to them in good faith in order to support some fanciful theory of their own.”

KÁLMÁN TIHANYI (1897 - 1947)

The Hungarian Kálmán Tihanyi was a prolific inventor, who following studies in electrical engineering and physics sold several designs to RCA and the German companies Loewe and Fernseh AG. His fully electronic television system was patented in 1926 and though superficially similar to other  proposals, it represented a radical departure. Like the final, improved version he patented two years later in 1928, it embodied a new concept in design and operation, building upon a phenomenon that would become known as the "storage principle".

The invention was received with enthusiasm by Telefunken and Siemens, but in the end they opted for continued development of mechanical television.

RCA approached Tihanyi in 1930, after the publication of his patents in England and France. Negotiations continued until 1934, when RCA, ready to unveil its new television system based on Tihanyi's design, purchased his patents. These covered key design features that caused the U.S. patent examiners, citing Tihanyi's prior publications, to deny Zworykin's 1930-31 applications. U. S. patents assigned to RCA were issued to Tihanyi in 1938-39 with 1928 priority. Now it is becoming increasingly obvious that the originator of this pivotal invention was Kalman Tihanyi.

A detailed article in English setting out Tihanyi’s contribution to television as well as the various patent documents can be found on the Hungarian Patent Office website at

Copyright © by Andrew Emmerson

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