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Beginning with an 1872 experiment on selenium rods that made British engineer Willoughby Smith imagine a system of "visual telegraphy," Scientist David Fisher (Univ. of Miami; The Scariest Place on Earth 1994, etc.) and son, freelance writer Marshall Fisher, chart the scientific progression that culminated with the debut of commercial television programming in 1941. Throughout, they stress the linked discoveries that made it possible: British inventor John Logie Baird's 1923 electrified hatbox with Nipkow disks, which constituted the world's first working television set; the cathode-ray Image Dissector of young American inventor Philo Farnsworth; Russian-American scientist Vladimir Zworykin's Kinescope; and many others. Simultaneously they tell the story of big business and its equally fierce race to control the as-yet imperfect invention. AT&T made claims on TV in the 1920s, but RCA and its leader, David Sarnoff, prevailed, hiring top scientists and using the government to moderate progress when his creations (like the early RCA color TV) were not ready for prime time. In a crowd of businessmen/speculators and scientists/tinkerers, Sarnoff and Farnsworth stand out: Both triumph with their vision of television, but only one succeeds in accumulating the corporate muscle needed in the modern age to make a lasting mark. Tapped out and underappreciated, Farnsworth and many other television pioneers faced sad ends—alcoholism, suicide, oblivion.
Though most useful as a record of scientific apparatus and exploration of the modern symbiosis of technology and commerce, this volume is most memorable for its views of quixotic men who, when down to their last dollar, proclaim, "I must invent something."