Sir Isaac Shoenberg: Television Pioneer

By Alexandra Palace

There is no one 'inventor of television', claimants include John Logie Baird, Vladimir Zworykin, and Philo Farnsworth, however one lesser known innovator played a pivotal role in its creation - Sir Isaac Shoenberg. In truth television was the culmination of a number of inventions, by different people, in different countries. It was Shoenberg’s scientific confidence and commitment to his exceptional team which created an environment where television as we know it was born. 

British Television's 2nd Birthday (1938-11) by Modern WonderAlexandra Palace

Shoenberg, as Director of Research at Marconi-EMI, assembled and led the team of gifted scientists and engineers there in developing the world’s first electronic high-definition television system. Demonstrated at Alexandra Palace in 1936, it was then adopted by the BBC as the basis for the world’s first public television service.

Sir Isaac Shoenberg portrait (1956/1960)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Shoenberg received public recognition in 1962 with a knighthood for his services to television and to sound recording. However the details of his personal history remain relatively unknown.

Shoenberg Family PortraitOriginal Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Early Life

Isaac Shoenberg (far left) was born in Pinsk, in the Russian Empire (now Belarus), on 1 March 1880. His family was Jewish and he was the oldest of six children.

Boats at Pinsk Waterfront (c.1920)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Isaac's father, Julius, was a successful timber merchant.

Shoenberg Family Home (c.1920)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

The family home in Pinsk.

Realschule Note of Commendation, 1897, Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family
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Isaac performed well at school and received this commendation. However as a Jewish student, he faced various forms of discrimination, which were common at the time.

Isaac Shoenberg Numerus Clausus Higher Education Document Isaac Shoenberg Numerus Clausus Higher Education Document, 1899, Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family
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He required this document to enter higher education, where there were restrictions on the number of Jewish students allowed entry.

Isaac Shoenberg School Report 1898 Isaac Shoenberg School Report 1898, 1898, Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family
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Isaac had a scientific mind and at school he excelled in mathematics. He gained a full ‘5’ (the highest mark) in most subjects, faltering only in drawing and gymnastics.

Isaac Shoenberg School Report 1899, 1899, Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family
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The following year he had sensibly dropped gymnastics and raised his grades in drawing.

Isaac and Esther Shoenberg (1902)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Life in Russia and Emigration to UK

Isaac met his future wife Esther at a political rally while both were students in Kiev. After graduating in mathematics and engineering from Kiev Polytechnic Institute, Isaac joined the Russian Wireless and Telegraph Company in St Petersburg.

Sir Isaac Shoenberg in workshop (1900/1917)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Here he was responsible for the research, design and installation of the earliest radio stations in Russia.

Alec and David Shoenberg (1914)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

In July 1914 the family left St Petersburg for London, where Isaac had a place on a doctoral degree course at Imperial College.

Isaac Shoenberg Certificate of Naturalization Isaac Shoenberg Certificate of Naturalization (1922-10-13)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

However following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Isaac was cut off from access to his Russian savings and so was unable to proceed with his university course. Instead he found work in the patent office of the London Marconi Company. He and the rest of the family were granted British citizenship in 1922.

Sir Isaac Shoenberg - Russian Immigrant working in UK (2017-07-10)Alexandra Palace

Interview with Peter Shoenberg, grandson of Sir Isaac Shoenberg

Sir Isaac Shoenberg greeting unknown man (1934/1939)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

EMI Central Research Laboratories

Isaac Shoenberg became a Director at Columbia (Graphophone Company), which merged with the Gramophone Company, including HMV, to form EMI. There, as Director of Research, he brought together the greatest engineering minds of the day to work on audio, and then visual testing in the EMI Labs at Hayes.

Isaac Shoenberg with Edward VIII (1936)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Among the team was Alan Blumlein who invented binaural sound and the first films with a stereo soundtrack. The team found great success and Shoenberg was able to raise substantial project funds.

Marconi Trade BrochureOriginal Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

The team had been experimenting with electro-mechanical television, as demonstrated by John Logie Baird, but were convinced by the possibilities of a complete electronic system.

Television, Bbc, Alexandra Palace (1939-02) by William VandivertLIFE Photo Collection

When the BBC announced a competition to deliver the first television service, EMI partnered with Marconi to challenge the Baird Company. The EMI system could transmit films but was unproven live.

Television, Bbc, Alexandra Palace (1939-02) by William VandivertLIFE Photo Collection

Shoenberg convinced EMI to invest £100,000, a huge sum for the time, into research and his team was able to overcome issues with the system, developing the Emitron camera using a vacuum electron tube.

Marconi Trade BrochureOriginal Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Shoenberg was confident in his team's ability to deliver. He gambled, committing to delivery of image quality almost double that requested by the BBC, 405 lines against 240 from the Baird Company

Sir Isaac Shoenberg - Recognising Scientific Innovation (2017-07-10)Alexandra Palace

Marconi-EMI Emitron brochure Marconi-EMI Emitron brochure (c.1937)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Winning the Race for Television

Within months of launching the television service from Alexandra Palace, the BBC recognised the superiority and potential for further growth from EMI's Emitron camera. The Baird Company ended trials and Marconi-EMI were declared the successful team in February 1937.

Marconi Trade BrochureOriginal Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

The lightweight camera allowed greater flexibility to move around the studio and cut between shots, creating more visually dramatic programming.

Marconi-EMI Emitron brochureOriginal Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

In addition the camera’s ability to capture images outside the studio revolutionised the potential to relay live events to the public.

Letter from Douglas Birkenshaw to David Shoenberg (1979-05-01)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Despite a strong professional rivalry the two competing teams had the greatest respect for each other, as shown in this later letter from Douglas Birkenshaw, who had started out with Baird.

Sir Isaac Shoenberg meeting Queen Elizabeth and King George VI (1939/1945)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Recognition

Following the success of the Marconi-EMI team, many of the members were reallocated to work on radar after the outbreak of war in 1939. Shoenberg emphasised the importance of the team dynamic in solving technical hurdles. Tragically key team members Blumlein and White were killed in an air crash during a secret test of airborne radar technology in 1942.

Eminews No. 76: The Life and Works of Sir Isaac Shoenberg (1971) by EMIOriginal Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Shoenberg had a long career at EMI continuing to push innovation. Much later in life his achievements were recognised. He was granted the Faraday medal in 1954, and was knighted in 1962.

Sir Isaac Shoenberg - Inventor of Television (2017-07-10)Alexandra Palace

Sir Isaac Shoenberg portrait (1956/1960)Original Source: Courtesy of the Sir Isaac Shoenberg family

Sir Isaac Shoenberg’s scientific ability, his tenacity in navigating technical challenges and the courage and determination he showed in taking decisions that presented considerable risk all played a major role in the success of the Marconi-EMI team. Equally important, however, were Shoenberg’s leadership and the confidence he placed in his fellow team members, as well as his ability to win the trust of his board of directors to support the huge financial and scientific risks he was prepared to take in developing an as yet unproven technology. It was above all this combination of Shoenberg’s own remarkable skills together with his ability to recognise the value of team work and of collaboration with others that defines his unique place in the history of one of the most important inventions of modern times.

Credits: Story

Exhibition by James White, Curator and Jane Gatrell

Thanks to the Shoenberg family who kindly allowed Alexandra Palace to scan their private papers for this exhibition.

With thanks to:

Helen Shoenberg
Peter Shoenberg
Lesley Urbach
Simon Vaughan, Archivist - Alexandra Palace Television Society
Kirsten Forrest, Collections and Interpretation Manager - Alexandra Palace
Anna Arca - Photographer

http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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