Guillermo González Camarena: Colors on the TV

28/06/2020

Like all inventions, the television responds to the curiosity of various characters, to the collective work in which a Mexican, a native of Guadalajara, stands out among them. His name - Guillermo González Camarena.

Guillermo González Camarena. Photo: Wikipedia
Guillermo González Camarena. Photo: Wikipedia

Television is the realm of grandiloquent figures, of opposite extremes: we love it or hate it, but no one is indifferent to the seductive succession of its images.

Contradictory, television organizes our memories, orders our opinions, dictates our convictions; paradoxical, television is also the scene of semantic imprecision: we say television to refer to the "television receiver", the television, which receives the "transmission of images at a distance by means of Hertzian waves". 

Playing with electricity

Philo Farnsworth was able to find in electricity a much more complex application than Edison's incandescent lamp, Tesla and Marconi's telegraph, or the Lumière brothers' cinematograph. Perhaps because he grew up on a farm in Rigby, Idaho, where he soon began to play with electricity and electronics. He repaired motors and generators, drew new gadgets.

Lacking a job, he enrolled in the naval academy. There, too, he stood out for his expertise in technological matters, while an obsessive idea overflowed his mind: creating "flying images" that could be transmitted anywhere in the world through electricity. All it took was for someone to make him understand that the government of his country would retain the rights to any invention he made - because he was a member of the Navy - for him to leave the army immediately (thanks to a special permit). He returned to the family home and enrolled at Brigham Young University, but soon after his father died. So Farnsworth had to leave the university.

With more effort than precision, he enrolled in a correspondence course to decipher the workings of radio devices. He didn't like working alone; with his brother-in-law, he set up a radio installation and repair business, which failed miserably. In the spring of 1926 - unexpectedly - he got a loan from someone who, not understanding what Farnsworth had tried to explain to him, decided to risk his capital in a "daring guess". They started a small company located in the city of San Francisco and eighty years ago, in January 1927, they completed the design plans for the first television set.

David Sarnoff tried to trick Farnsworth into stealing his inventions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
David Sarnoff tried to trick Farnsworth into stealing his inventions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While all this was going on, a Russian immigrant named David Sarnoff took very seriously the news about this new device that seemed to break the barrier of sending images over long distances, invisibly, by using electricity. Vice President and CEO of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), foreseeing the expiration of his company's patents, he saw a possibility in television.

RCA offered a substantial sum of money to Farnsworth's partners to buy the company. It was not successful. It was just the beginning of a big battle: David Sarnoff, with the help of a greyish Russian engineer named Vladimir Zworykin, docile, obedient, tried to trick Farnsworth into stealing his inventions. Sarnoff and RCA launched a marketing campaign to win the first contracts for television broadcasts, but the Patent Office ruled in Farnsworth's favor.

The struggle was not over when World War II began and many industries had to stop or modify their production. By the end of the war, Farnsworth's patents had expired. RCA quickly took over the market and introduced two anonymous characters as the true inventors of television. Although he remained active (he started a series of innovative researches on nuclear fusion and received an honorary doctorate from Brigham Young University), Farnsworth ended his days somewhat saddened, forgotten, watching his flying images take over the whole world.

Life in Color

At the same time that television signals were spreading across the planet, some characters carried out experiments to significantly improve the capacity of television sets, trying to fill them with color. As had happened with photography, and later with the cinematograph, television had been presented to mankind in black and white. The astonishment of watching and listening to a musical ensemble within the rectangular margin of the television left not a few people motionless, unmoved.

Guillermo González Camarena - Mexican engineer who was a pioneer of Mexican television and inventor of three color television systems.
Guillermo González Camarena - Mexican engineer who was a pioneer of Mexican television and inventor of three color television systems.

Others, very few, thought it was still not enough: Guillermo González Camarena, for example, who was born on February 17, 1917, a hundred years ago, in a building located on the streets of Donato Guerra and Juárez, in downtown Guadalajara, to a family from the town of Arandas, Jalisco. But when he was still very young, his father fell ill with cancer and the whole family moved to Mexico City, where -like Farnsworth- he soon became fond of playing with electricity: he fitted out the basements of his house at 74 Abreth Street to fix engines, modify radio transmitters, build prototypes; at the age of 15 he manufactured his own television camera and started making his own broadcasts.

He enrolled in the Escuela Superior de Ingeniería Mecánica y Eléctrica of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, but then left it to follow an original, unheard of the path. Combining his interests in optics, electronics, and radio wave transmission, he obtained his first patent related to color television at the age of twenty-three. Trichromatic sequential field system, he called it, and managed to patent his invention in Mexico and in the United States, with the registration number 2,296,019, in September 1942 as Chromoscopic Adapter for Television Equipment.

Color television. Image: CyD
Color television. Image: CyD

Unstoppable, of insatiable genius, Gonzalez Camarena perfected his equipment, which he exported to different countries; he proposed solutions seeking that television serves for medical teaching and the education of children and young people. But, death overtook him in a car accident while he was returning from work, on April 18, 1965, in Las Lajas, Veracruz. 

He was 48 years old and irreplaceable: after his death, Mexico was plunged into a vacuum of creativity. Nobody knew how to continue his visionary work; technological innovation gave way to comfort, scientific ingenuity was replaced by economic interest, that is, by the administration of the economic empires that Guillermo González Camarena had unwittingly helped to build.

By Juan Nepote, Source CyD