If we have a television in 2021 the chances are that it will be a large LCD model, flat and widescreen, able to display HD images in stunning clarity. Before that we’d have had a CRT colour TV, them maybe our parents grew up with a monochrome model. Before those though came the first TVs of all, which were mechanical devices that relied on a spinning disk to both acquire and display the image. The BBC Archive recently shared a vintage clip from 1970 in which two of the assistants of [John Logie Baird], the inventor of the first demonstrable television system, demonstrated its various parts and revealed its inner workings.
We’ve covered the Nipkow scanning disk in a previous article, with its characteristic spiral of holes. We see the original Baird Televisor, but the interesting part comes as we move to the studio. Using the original equipment they show a dot of light traversing the presenter’s face to scan a picture before taking us to a mock-up of the original studio. Here there’s a surprise, because instead of the camera we’d expect today there is a Nipkow disk projector which traverses the subject sitting in the dark. A bank of photocells above the projector senses the reflected light, and returns a video signal.
The resulting low-resolution pictures had a low enough bandwidth to be broadcast over an AM radio transmitter, and for a tiny 30-line picture in the glowing pink of a neon light they provide a surprising amount of detail. With such a straightforward principle it’s not surprising that they’ve appeared in a few projects on these pages, including an Arduino driven colour video monitor, and a POV clock. Take a look at the video below the break.
The earliest televisions used a spinning disk technology called the Nipkow disk, which is exactly what [Science ‘n’ Stuff] recreated with their Arduino-based mechanical color television (video link, also embedded below.) The device reads video and audio from an SD card, and displays the video using a precisely-timed RGB LED visible through a perforated spinning disk. The persistence of vision effect results in a video that is small, relative to the size of the disk, but perfectly watchable. A twist is that the video is in color!
A Nipkow disk is a fairly simple and electromechanical device that relies on timing; something a modern microcontroller and RGB LED is perfectly capable of delivering. In this device, the holes in the disk create 32 vertical scanlines with 96 “pixels” making up each of those lines. Spinning disk technology was always limited to being monochromatic, but in this implementation, each “pixel” is given its own unique color by adjusting the RGB LED accordingly.
The first video shows off the device and demonstrates it working; note that it may look like there are multiple little screens, but the center one can be thought of as the “true” display with the others essentially being artifacts due to light leakage. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of exactly how a Nipkow disk works, then the second video is what you’ll be more interested in, because it goes through all the details of exactly how everything functions.
If you mis-spent your teenage years fishing broken televisions from dumpsters and either robbing them for parts or fixing them for the ability to watch The A Team upstairs rather than in the living room as I did, then it’s possible that you too will have developed a keen interest in analogue television technology. You’ll know your front porch from your blanking interval and your colour burst, you might say.
There was one piece of television technology that evaded a 1980s dumpster-diver, no 625-line PAL set from the 1970s was ever going to come close to the fascination of the earliest TV sets. Because instead of a CRT and its associated electronics, they featured a spinning disk with a spiral pattern of holes. These mechanical TV systems were quickly superseded in the 1930s by all-electronic systems, so of the very few sets manufactured only a fraction have survived the intervening decades.
The spinning disk in a mechanical TV is referred to as a Nipkow disk, after its inventor, [Paul Gottlieb Nipkow]. [Nipkow] conceived and patented the idea of a spinning disk with a spiral of holes to dissect an image sequentially into a series of lines in the 1880s, but without the benefit of the electronic amplification that would come a few decades later was unable to produce a viable system to demonstrate it. It would be in the 1920s before [John Logie Baird] would develop the first working television system using [Nipkow]’s invention.