One Hundred Years of All-Electronic Television

By Paul Marshall

As one grows older, anniversaries seem to come around ever more frequently. Perhaps in an uncertain and ever faster moving world we crave stability, points of reference and solid ground. 2008 is, as is any year, an anniversary for many things and many people, but to anyone who professes an interest in the history of television it is a significant date.

For the quiz programme generation of the UK the answer to the question, ‘Who invented television?’ the answer is always the same; John Logie Baird. It is not the purpose of this article to denigrate the huge and important activities of that famous Scotsman, but to remember his less well-known countryman who had far reaching effects on the technology of television and indirectly its cultural development.

Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton is not a name that the public associates with the invention of television, or indeed anything else. Engineers and scientists stand a better chance of recognising the name as he is occasionally mentioned in technical books. This is a shame as Campbell Swinton is arguably one of the most influential figures in the history of television, but even in recognised texts devoted to the study of the history of television his contribution is often covered in a few scant paragraphs. Most of these works acknowledge the importance of his ideas and of his advocacy of them, but it is an unfortunate fact for us that he was a most self-effacing man and perhaps as a consequence has left little detail of his life and work. For those that know of his activities the importance is clear, for those that have only just about heard of him the importance is a hazy construct.

Alan-Archibald-Campbell-Swinton
Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton

1908 was the year that Campbell Swinton published his ideas for television and that makes it the 100th anniversary, but were they that important? I believe that they were, as too did one of the key members of the Marconi-EMI team that developed the British all-electronic television system in the 1930s, Professor J D McGee who wrote in a 1977 paper celebrating Campbell Swinton: ‘It is felt that his crucial role in this important technological development should not go unrecorded.’1

Defining Days

Campbell Swinton, as might be guessed from the double-barrelled surname construction, came from an illustrious family that to this day still produces people of note, though now without the ‘Campbell’.2 Tilda Swinton, the film and television actress is his great, great niece. The Swintons are one of the oldest families with a recorded lineage in the whole of the UK, tracing their ancestry back to 886, well before the Norman Conquest.3 Members of the family have had a knack of popping up throughout British history mainly in the field of military service and administration, but apart from Ernest Swinton, one of the progenitors of the tank, the only other Swinton to have made their mark in the field of science and engineering has been Campbell Swinton.

Born in 1863 in Edinburgh to able parents who encouraged his interests, Campbell Swinton was brought up in the family country seat at Kimmerghame in the Scottish borders, close to the village bearing the family name of Swinton. As a young boy he exhibited traits that might be familiar to many engineers; an overwhelming curiosity about how things work and a disdain for anything involving sport! Two interests dominated his world, photography and electricity, both being encouraged by his parents and by teachers at his first school at Cargilfield in Edinburgh. This happy period was not to last as he was sent up to public school which he truly hated. Leaving his unhappy association with the minor Edinburgh public school of Fettes without being entered for or having passed any exam, he was apprenticed to the firm of Armstrong, the shipbuilding and military armament manufacturers. His interests and abilities in electrical engineering were duly noted by senior managers leading to him becoming the electrical specialist at Armstrong’s, even before his apprenticeship was completed. Realising his own abilities and seeing the demand for such expertise in this new activity in late Victorian Great Britain, Campbell Swinton set up his own electrical consulting company based in London making good money in a rapidly developing field.

Making good money was not enough for him and his curiosity took him deeper into the scientific basis of electricity and the many new electrical phenomena that so fascinated the ‘gentlemen scientists’ of the period. Experiments with high voltages and discharge tubes took him further into the science of electrical curiosities, especially those involving any of the new ‘rays’ that were being investigated. X rays (then known as the ‘new photography’) were discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in January 1896 and a week later Campbell Swinton had managed to replicate the work with an electrical discharge tube and a photographic plate. This ‘new photography’ occupied his interest for several years, developing better X ray tubes and investigating the properties of the X rays and of electron beams. This was alongside establishing a commercial X ray facility for medical and other purposes creating another business opportunity for him.

X rays had meshed his fascination with electrical phenomena and photography together. Perhaps this same fusing of ideas also led sometime in 1903 or 1904 to an idea for a practical method of television. So strong was the idea that he began experiments to reduce it to practice. We only have his word for this date as no laboratory notes or records survive.4 Not surprisingly, even to him, he was not successful in his endeavours but the idea remained, his mind returning to it frequently. For the ‘official’ date of the concept we must move forward four years.

First Publication

The discovery of the electrical properties of selenium in the presence of light by telegraph engineers Willoughby Smith and Joseph May in 1873 probably stimulated ideas for achieving ‘distant vision’ as an adjunct to the Victorian reality of ‘distant hearing’ (the telephone). Numerous proposals and ideas appeared but none were practical, at least with the electrical techniques of the time. For some years the dream lay dormant, but the Edwardian period experienced renewed activity in the quest for the newly named ‘television’.5 New technologies, fresh ideas and new proposals for applications inspired inventors to think again about the concept. Speculation about how television could be done surfaced in the correspondence columns of the famous scientific journal, Nature. Intrigued by statements written by the well known experimenter and inventor Shelford Bidwell about how ‘photographic telegraphy’ might be achieved, published in the June 4th 1908 issue, Campbell Swinton was moved to reply with his own opinion and suggestions for ‘distant electric vision’. This letter, published in the June 18th 1908 issue of Nature has become the reference for the start of CRT based electronic television.6 It is reproduced in Figure 2. Even though it has been published many times in texts on the history of television, it never fails to impress engineers in terms of its ingenuity and prophecy in a few well written lines. He never patented the idea, much to the regret of the current occupant of Kimmerghame, his great nephew Sir John Swinton.

Campbell-Swinton-Nature-Letter
Figure 2: Campbell Swinton’s Letter to Nature June 1908

Campbell Swinton continued to work on his idea and in a lecture to the Röntgen Society he presented a diagram of his proposals that was published in their journal in 1912 and this is reproduced in Figure 3. Surely we can baulk at the impracticability of it, the slip rings on generators that would have created sine wave deflections instead of sawtooths, the lack of amplification and a host of other practical points. The suggested operating voltage of 100 kV would not have seemed strange to someone used to working with X ray tubes and given the ‘hard’ form of CRTs at the time this would have been the order of the voltage required.7 However, the main elements of all electronic television are there and Campbell Swinton’s own explanations complete the scheme that could still be used today to describe the concept of television. It must be appreciated that in 1911 the thermionic valve was still a new idea and that wireless was still largely accomplished using spark gaps and coherers. There were no ‘electronic’ techniques to oscillate, process or amplify. Campbell Swinton realised that this was only an idea and that to make it practical the resources of a large industrial research laboratory would be required. The era of the lone inventor was almost over and something of this complexity could not be accomplished by one man.

Campbell-Swinton-Television-1912
Figure 3: Campbell Swinton’s Television System January 1912

There is a competing claim to precedence. In 1911, scientist Boris Rosing in St Petersburg, Russia, had achieved some limited success with a display CRT able to scan four lines connected to a mechanical image scanner. It worked, up to a point, but it was hardly an image, being described at the time as simply ‘four luminous bands’. Rosing had patented his device in Great Britain in 1907 but he never made the leap in proposing the use of a CRT as an imaging device. Even in Russian texts on the history of television Campbell Swinton is credited for the idea of using a CRT based device for imaging.8 Rosing is another forgotten figure, dying after incarceration by Stalin in 1933 because of his intellectual ability, a talent so hated by the communist dictator.

After two decades of publications and practical results in fields ranging from steam turbines to television, Campbell Swinton was recognised by the British scientific fraternity in 1915 by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, a high honour and one that he was very proud of. He had ‘arrived’ in the world of science, despite his classical education at Fettes and his failure to enter or pass any exams.

The Idea Matures

Campbell Swinton’s ideas for television were published around the world, appearing in many magazines and journals including the influential Electrical Experimenter in the United States, but little or no practical work was attempted by anyone until after the Great War. The war prompted a massive stimulus to the development of wireless technology creating a major new industry that sought out new applications and ideas. Anything ‘new’ in the burgeoning field of wireless in its widest sense was always of interest to the new industry. The idea of television was still on Campbell Swinton’s mind and an article was published in 1924 in Wireless World that presented an updated view of the concepts (Figure 4). The scheme now sported valve amplification and wireless transmission of the signals.9 Others had by now seen the ideas and the embellishments. A number of patents began to appear adding ever more detail to the proposals yet still no real practical work was being carried out. The patents of Vladimir Zworykin (1923) and Kálmán Tihanyi (1928) are probably the most important of the period. Both patents bear a close resemblance to Campbell Swinton’s original concept. Only the scanned phototube image dissector of Philo Farnsworth (patented 1929), can be described as different, but even this has common ground.

Figure 4: Campbell Swinton’s Television System April 1924

By the mid 1920s the infant world of television development had been gripped by the ‘new’ idea of mechanical television as defined and developed by Baird in Great Britain and Charles F Jenkins in the United States all based on an 1884 idea by Paul Nipkow. Campbell Swinton was horrified to see money being wasted on what he knew was likely to be a blind alley. He wrote strident criticisms to The Times, to professional journals and especially to BBC management which was being pressured by Baird for transmission facilities for his mechanical television.10

Despite the concentration on mechanical television in the late 1920s some of the wireless companies such as RCA realised that Campbell Swinton was right, that mechanical television could never offer a worthwhile picture quality for any really useful purpose. According to Campbell Swinton, only the ‘. . . extreme tenuity [thinness] and weightlessness of cathode rays’11 could offer fast enough operation. In the United States, RCA, the Philco Storage Battery Company and Farnsworth’s Television Company were all working on all-electronic television by 1930 and in the USSR crude results had already been achieved by a team led by scientist Boris Grabovsky in Tashkent but this was not known of in the west at the time.12 Great Britain had some catching up to do, having led with Campbell Swinton’s scheme.

There is controversy over whether Campbell Swinton had anticipated the need for storage, the integration effect of a camera tube that multiplies its effective sensitivity by as much as four orders of magnitude. Farnsworth’s image dissector had no such storage and was consequently very insensitive, despite his invention of the electron multiplier in an attempt to offset the problem.13 Patent wars raged throughout the 1930s over whether Zworykin of RCA had anticipated this concept in his 1923 patent. Some historians imply that Campbell Swinton had indeed appreciated this, others not. The origin of the storage principle was a key issue for over a decade but the legal wrangling did not stop development work.

It was another three years before the technology was taken up in Great Britain. For Campbell Swinton that was too late for he died of pneumonia at the age of 66 in 1930. He never married, saying that he ‘didn’t have time’. The only television that he ever saw was mechanical, the work of Baird.

There is a real lack of detailed information about Campbell Swinton, the only work of any consequence so far published has been a short monograph published by the Royal Television Society in the early 1980s.14 Excellent as this work is in drawing together everything that could be found on Campbell Swinton it is still relatively little. No laboratory notebooks have survived, no significant amounts of equipment remain and little or no correspondence has come to light. Despite him being an important member of a dozen or so institutions ranging from the Royal Society to the IEE, none has little more than brief records.15 In his will it appears that the books and notes from his work passed to the son of a close friend and ex-assistant. So far, the whereabouts of these documents has not been found. They should have passed to one Alan Robert Houston, but despite my many enquiries, no trace can be found of anyone of this name, or indeed of his father.

In this short article it has only been possible to run through as concisely as possible the most important work and contributions to science and engineering of Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton. There is much more to tell and perhaps even more yet to be found.

Further reading

For those interested I can recommend the late Tony Bridgewater’s, ex Chief Engineer, BBC Television, (1982) A A Campbell Swinton, London, Royal Television Society. This is the fullest account to date of Campbell Swinton and his work, but it only fills 33 pages of A5. Bridgewater’s conclusion is the same as mine; a lot more needs to be researched.

The most definitive written portrait is his own, Swinton, A. A. C. (1930) Autobiographical and Other Writings, London, Longmans. This is only available on inter-library loan as it is very rare.

There are a number of other papers, readings and articles that he published. I would be happy to furnish details to anybody who might be interested, but just where are his laboratory notes and books?

© Paul Marshall

  1. McGee J D ‘The Contribution of A A Campbell Swinton, F.R.S., to Television’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 32, No. 1 July 1977 pp 91-105. p. 104
  2. The Campbell Swinton branch of the Swinton family is an offshoot from the main lineage, the full story and explanation can be found at http://www.swintonfamilysociety.org (accessed 25th Jan 2008)
  3. Bridgewater, T. H. (1982) A A Campbell Swinton, London, Royal Television Society. p. 3
  4. Swinton, A. A. C. (1926) ‘Electric Television’, Nature v118 p. 590
  5. Television, or ‘distant vision’ was coined by a Russian scientist Constantin Perskyi and first used at a conference in Paris in 1900. For this reason it is sometimes wrongly supposed to be French in origin.
  6. Swinton, A. A. C. (1908) ‘Distant Electric Vision.’ Nature v78 p. 151
  7. ‘Hard’ in this instance does not refer to the vacuum but to the fact that there is no heated cathode – electrons had to be dragged from the cathode by the sheer force of the anode voltage.
  8. Uralov, V. A. (1990) Ocherki Istorii Televideniia Essays on the History of Television, Moscow, Nauka. p. 69
  9. Swinton, A. A. C. (1924) ‘The Possibilities of Television with Wire and Wireless.’ The Wireless World and Radio Review. April 16th p. 83
  10. Swinton, A. A. C. (1929) Television: Past, Present and Future. Unpublished article written for the BBC. Swinton private archives.
  11. Swinton, A. A. C. (1930) Autobiographical and Other Writings, London, Longmans. p. 137
  12. Uralov, V. A. (1990) Ocherki Istorii Televideniia Essays on the History of Television, Moscow, Nauka. pp 98 – 105
  13. Burns R W (1998) Television: an International History of the Formative Years London, IEE pp 618-620 examines the controversy in detail.
  14. Bridgewater, T. H. (1982) A A Campbell Swinton, London, Royal Television Society.
  15. Campbell Swinton (amateur callsign 2HK) was elected the first President of the Radio Society of Great Britain (then the London Wireless Society) in 1913, remaining in office until 1920.