Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton

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Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton
Alan Campbell-Swinton
Born(1863-10-18)18 October 1863
Albyn Place, Edinburgh, Scotland
Died19 February 1930(1930-02-19) (aged 66)
EducationFettes College, Edinburgh
OccupationElectrical engineer
Known forThe first man to provide the theoretical basis for a completely electronic television system
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1915

9 Albyn Place, Edinburgh, Campbell-Swinton's Edinburgh home has a plaque to his memory

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton FRS (18 October 1863 – 19 February 1930) was a Scottish consulting electrical engineer, who provided the theoretical basis for the electronic television, two decades before the technology existed to implement it.[1] He began experimenting around 1903 with the use of cathode ray tubes for the electronic transmission and reception of images.[2] Campbell described the theoretical basis for an all electronic method of producing television in a 1908 letter to Nature. Campbell-Swinton's concept was central to the cathode ray television because of his proposed modification of the cathode ray tube that allowed its use as both a transmitter and receiver of light.[1] The cathode-ray tube was the system of electronic television that was subsequently developed in later years, as technology caught up with Campbell-Swinton's initial ideas. Other inventors would use Campbell-Swinton's ideas as a starting-point to realise the cathode ray tube television as the standard, workable form of all electronic television that it became for decades after his death. It is generally considered that the original credit for the successful theoretical conception of using a cathode ray tube device for imaging should belong to Campbell-Swinton.[1][3]


Memorial to Alan Campbell-Swinton, Albyn Place, Edinburgh

He was born in Edinburgh the son of advocate Archibald Campbell Swinton.[4]

Campbell-Swinton was educated at Cargilfield Trinity School and Fettes College (1878–1881).[5]

He was one of the first to explore the medical applications of radiography, opening the first radiographic laboratory in the United Kingdom in 1896. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1915. He is better known by his work on the electronic television. He discovered the phenomenon known as magnetic focusing in 1896, he found that a longitudinal magnetic field generated by an axial coil can focus an electron beam.[6]

Campbell-Swinton wrote a letter in response to an article in the 4 June 1908 issue of Nature by Shelford Bidwell entitled "Telegraphic Photography and Electric Vision". Even as early as 1908, it was recognised that "The final, insurmountable problems with any form of mechanical scanning were the limited number of scans per second, which produced a flickering image, and the relatively large size of each hole in the disk, which resulted in poor resolution".

Campbell-Swinton's letter[7] was published in the 18 June 1908 issue of Nature. The name of the article is "Distant Electric Vision". He wrote: "This part of the problem of obtaining distant electric vision can probably be solved by the employment of two beams of cathode rays (one at the transmitting and one at the receiving station) synchronously deflected by the varying fields of two electromagnets placed at right angles to one another and energised by two alternating electric currents of widely different frequencies, so that the moving extremities of the two beams are caused to sweep simultaneously over the whole of the required surface within the one-tenth of a second necessary to take advantage of visual persistence. Indeed, so far as the receiving apparatus is concerned, the moving cathode beam has only to be arranged to impinge on a suitably sensitive fluorescent screen, and given suitable variations in its intensity, to obtain the desired result."[8]

He gave a speech in London in 1911 where he described in great detail how distant electric vision could be achieved. This was to be done by using cathode ray tubes (CRTs) at both the transmitting and receiving ends. The photoelectric screen in the proposed transmitting device was a mosaic of isolated rubidium cubes.[9][10] This was the first iteration of the electronic television which is still in use today. When Swinton gave his speech others had already been experimenting with the use of cathode ray tubes as a receiver, but the use of the technology as a transmitter was unheard of. His concept for a fully electronic television system was later popularised by Hugo Gernsback as the "Campbell-Swinton Electronic Scanning System" in the August 1915 issue of the popular magazine Electrical Experimenter.[11][12]

In 1914 he once again described his system in his presidential address to the Roentgen Ray Society and in 1921 a book was published describing it in some detail.[13] He himself described his system seven years later in the June 1928 issue of Modern Wireless, "Television by Cathode Rays".[14][15]

"Surely it would be better policy if those who can afford the time and money would abandon mechanical devices and expend their labours in what appears likely to prove the ultimately more promising method in which the only moving parts are imponderable electrons."

In a letter to Nature published in October 1926, Campbell-Swinton also announced the results of some "not very successful experiments" he had conducted with G. M. Minchin and J. C. M. Stanton. They had attempted to generate an electrical signal by projecting an image onto a selenium-coated metal plate that was simultaneously scanned by a cathode ray beam.[2][16] These experiments were conducted before March 1914, when Minchin died,[17] but they were later repeated by two different teams in 1937, by his students H. Miller and J. W. Strange from EMI,[18] and by H. Iams and A. Rose from RCA.[19] Both teams succeeded in transmitting "very faint" images with the original Campbell-Swinton's selenium-coated plate, but much better images were obtained when the metal plate was covered with zinc sulphide or selenide,[18] or with aluminium or zirconium oxide treated with caesium.[19] These experiments are the base of the future vidicon.

Alongside his research into the electrical transmission of images, Campbell-Swinton also worked in voice telephony, founding the short-lived Equitable Telephone Association in the 1880s.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Oakes, Elizabeth (2009), A to Z of STS Scientists. Infobase publishing, pp. 51.
  2. ^ a b Burns, R. W. (1998). Television: An International History of the Formative Years. The Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) (History of Technology Series 22) in association with The Science Museum (UK). p. 123. ISBN 978-0-85296-914-4.
  3. ^ "David Sarnoff Library - Television". Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  4. ^ "Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton - Graces Guide". Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  5. ^ Lance Day; Ian McNeil (2003). Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology. Routledge. p. 217. ISBN 9780203028292.
  6. ^ Campbell-Swinton, A. A. (18 June 1896). "The Effects of a Strong Magnetic Field upon Electric Discharges in Vacuo". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. 60 (359–367): 179–182. doi:10.1098/rspl.1896.0032. JSTOR 115833.
  7. ^ Campbell-Swinton, A. A. (18 June 1908). "Distant Electric Vision (first paragraph)". Nature. 78 (2016): 151. Bibcode:1908Natur..78..151S. doi:10.1038/078151a0. S2CID 3956737.
  8. ^ Campbell-Swinton, A. A. (18 June 1908). "Distant Electric Vision". Nature. 78 (2016): 151. Bibcode:1908Natur..78..151S. doi:10.1038/078151a0. S2CID 3956737.
  9. ^ Alexander B. Magoun (2007). Television: the life story of a technology. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-313-33128-2. rubidium cubes.
  10. ^ Albert Abramson (1955). Electronic Motion Pictures. University of California Press. p. 31.
  11. ^ H. Winfield Secor (August 1915). "Television, or the projection of pictures over a wire" (PDF). The Electrical Experimenter. III–28 (4): 131–132.
  12. ^ Bairdtelevision. "Alan Archivald Campbell-Swinton (1863–1930)". Biography. Retrieved 10 May 2010.
  13. ^ Marcus J. Martin (1921). The electrical transmission of photographs. Sir Issac Pitman & sons. pp. 102–106.
  14. ^ A. A. Campbell Swinton (June 1928). "Television by cathode rays" (PDF). Modern Wireless. IX (18): 595–598.
  15. ^ Hugo Gernsback and H. Winfield Secor (July 1928). "Vacuum cameras to speed up television and Campbell Swinton television system" (PDF). Television. I (2): 25–28.
  16. ^ Campbell-Swinton, A. A. (23 October 1926). "Electric Television (abstract)". Nature. 118 (2973): 590. doi:10.1038/118590a0. S2CID 4081053.
  17. ^ R. A. G. (April 1914). "Prof. G. M. Minchin, F.R.S." Nature. 93 (2318): 115–116. Bibcode:1914Natur..93..115R. doi:10.1038/093115a0.
  18. ^ a b Miller, H.; Strange. J. W. (2 May 1938). "The electrical reproduction of images by the photoconductive effect". Proceedings of the Physical Society. 50 (3): 374–384. Bibcode:1938PPS....50..374M. doi:10.1088/0959-5309/50/3/307.
  19. ^ a b Iams, H.; Rose, A. (August 1937). "Television Pickup Tubes with Cathode-Ray Beam Scanning". Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers. 25 (8): 1048–1070. doi:10.1109/JRPROC.1937.228423. S2CID 51668505.
  20. ^ F. G. C. Baldwin (1925). The History of the Telephone in the United Kingdom. Chapman and Hall. pp. 88–89.