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135 years ago: A poor student becomes a pioneer of television

For more than half a century, television was mankind's most important medium. Today, when its importance is declining in the face of the digital revolution, it is worth taking a look at its roots. It all began with the idea of a lonely student.

Paul Nipkow was born in 1860 as the son of a baker in Lauenburg in Pomerania (today: Lębork, Poland). An incisive experience was the installation of the first telephone in the post office in Neustadt (West Prussia), where Nipkow attended grammar school. He borrowed this telephone from a friend of his who was an apprentice at the post office. In just one night, he is said to have managed to analyze the device in such a way that he could recreate it. The post office got his phone back on time the next morning.

After graduating from high school in 1882, he moved to Berlin, where he began his scientific studies with the great physicist Hermann Helmholtz. Later he moved to the Technical University in Charlottenburg to study electrical engineering with Professor Adolf Slaby.

Christmas flash of inspiration in the student flat

Paul Nipkow as a young student

Paul Nipkow as a young student

Nipkow lived as a very poor student and is said to have earned his living by playing the piano in restaurants in the evenings. At Christmas 1883 he didn't have enough money to travel home and sat alone in his little room in Philippstraße 13a, left courtyard, 3rd floor. Probably he thought how nice it would be to at least somehow be able to see his family when he couldn't be with them. And then he was struck by the flash of inspiration that was to make his name immortal.

On that Christmas night he designed an apparatus that was able to make an object visible in another place. He sketched a scanning disk with spirally arranged holes, which was turned quickly and evenly around its axis by a clockwork. The scanning disc rotated over an image surface and scanned it line by line. The different brightness values of the individual pixels were converted into electrical signals in connection with a light-sensitive selenium cell and thus transmitted to a receiving station. In the receiving station, a second disk running synchronously to the scanning disk ensured the correct reconstruction of the image. The basic principle of television!

Far ahead of its time

Detail from patent document DE30105

Detail from patent document DE30105

Nipkov did not have the money for a patent application. But his study friend Sophia Colonius stepped in and paid the fee for him. With effect from January 6, 1884, Paul Nipkow was granted patent pdf-Datei DE 30105 under the name "Electric Telescope".

Unfortunately, he lacked the money to actually build his invention or even to pursue or promote it technically and commercially. In addition, his idea was so far ahead of the state of the art of technology that not much happened in the following decades. It is assumed that Nipkow never attempted to build or test his "Electric Telescope". According to experts, it probably could not have worked at all in 1884 (e.g. selenium resistance too slow to convert pixel brightness; light relays would have needed more current than can be generated with selenium resistance; self-induction of the coil would not have allowed the necessary rapid current changes; problem of synchronisation of the two disk drives not solved).

Bizarre designs for flying machines

Drawing from DE 116287A

Nipkow´s patent "Rad mit beweglichen Schaufeln für Luft- und Wasserfahrzeuge" (DE 116287A)

Nipkow therefore could not make much out of his patent, but he , however, was lucky with his sponsor: Nipkow and Colonius married in 1885, shortly after he had dropped out of his studies – he had run out of money. He found work as an engineer at the Zimmermann & Buchloh railway signal construction company in Borsigwalde near Berlin.

Besides, he occasionally devoted himself to further inventions. For example, he designed flying machines using insect flying as a model. In 1897 he received a patent for a "wheel with movable blades for aircraft and watercrafts"( pdf-Datei DE 112506); ; one year later an additional patent for an "insect aircraft", a kind of helicopter with two lateral propellers ( pdf-Datei DE 116287). Both inventions could not be realized at that time due to the lack of an engine with a sufficiently low power-to-weight ratio.

Discovered after decades as a pioneer

Drawing from DE112506A

Nipkow´s "Luftrad" (DE112506A)

For decades, little happened in electronic image transmission. It was not until the 1920s that his ideas on image transmission were taken up again. Then many great pioneers of television technology such as Max Dieckmann, John Logie Baird or Kenjiro Takayanagi returned to Nipkow's ideas.

The first attempts at television transmissions were all based on optical-mechanical image scanning, most of them with a Nipkow disc. This also inspired the by now gray-haired inventor to return to this subject and to apply for some more patents. Among other things, he found solutions for the synchronisation of image transmission( pdf-Datei DE498415A, pdf-Datei DE577553) and a new "rotating image decomposer or assembly arrangement for television purposes" ( pdf-Datei DE685917A).

The Hungarian physicist Dénes von Mihály managed to transmit an image using the Nipkow method for the first time with a 2.5 km long cable. In 1928 he presented the first 4 x 4 cm television pictures to the public at the 5th Great German Radio Exhibition in Berlin.

The breakthrough of Television

Early image Transmission apparatus following Nipkow´s invention at Tekniska Museet Stockholm

Early image Transmission apparatus following Nipkow´s invention at Tekniska Museet Stockholm

Further improvements of the picture quality (and from 1931 also accompanying sound recordings) further advanced the development of television. In 1931 Manfred von Ardenne showed the first experimental arrangement for the transmission of moving images with electronic image scanning. He used the cathode ray tube developed by Ferdinand Braun. Fully electronically, he achieved a higher quality than with the electronic-mechanical Nipkow disc, which was soon technically obsolete.

Television experienced its breakthrough in 1936 with direct transmissions of the Olympic Games from Berlin. The picture quality was initially miserable: 180 lines per picture and 25 frames per second were transmitted, which flickered strongly and were so low in contrast that the pictures had to be continuously explained by a radio announcer. Nipkow is said to have been disappointed when he first saw television pictures - that was not (yet) what he had had in mind on Christmas Eve 1883.

Late honor for the pioneer

But with the first successes of television the pioneer Nipkow was remembered again. In his old days he became a celebrated personality; for example, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Frankfurt on his 75th birthday. After 1933, the new National Socialist rulers stylized him for propaganda purposes as the "inventor of television" and named the world's first regular television station after him.

From Berlin-Witzleben, the television station "Paul Nipkow", which broadcast about 70 kilometers, reached about 500 private television sets in Berlin in 1939; in addition there were several public "television rooms". The home receivers cost between 2500 and 3600 Reichsmark (for comparison: the "KdF-Wagen", predecessor of the VW Beetle, was sold for 990 Mark).

Paul Nipkow received an honorary pension in his last years and a state funeral after his death in 1940 - accompanied by television cameras.

Bilder: DEPATISnet, via Wikimedia Commons, gemeinfrei via Wikimedia Commons, Foto by Holger.Ellgaard CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Last updated: 26/03/19 


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