19 October 2016

Gregorio Zara: the Lipa, Batangas Born Inventor of the Videophone

Gregorio Y. Zara using a videophone.  Image credit:  from the Instagram account of the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

The next time you use a videophone application on your mobile such as Skype or FaceTime, if you are from Batangas, it may serve you in good stead to know that the principles for modern day videotelephony technology were developed and patented by one of your own.

In 1955, Gregorio Zara created and registered a patent for the first videophone, which he called the “Photo Phone Signal Separator Network.” Five years later, the American telecommunications giant AT&T began developing a commercial application of what was then called a “picture phone” based on the principles of Zara’s invention. The first working videophone was initially presented to the American public at the World Fair in New York City in 1964.1

The technology, suffice it to say, was way ahead of its time; and would not become practically ubiquitous until decades later when the Internet and wireless networks became easily accessible not just to the American public but also globally. While AT&T first rolled out a model of the videophone to the public as early as 1970, the company did not make viable sales until 1992-95. The new phones were particularly useful and popular among those who were hearing-impaired.2

But just who was Gregorio Zara, its inventor?

This Filipino genius was born in March 1902 to a poor family in the town of Lipa in the Province of Batangas.3 The year of his birth tells us that he must have been born in one of the “reconcentrado” or concentration camps that citizens of Batangas were forced to live in by the Americans during the so-called Fil-American War.

Despite his family’s poverty, in 1918, at the age of 16 Zara graduated as valedictorian of his elementary class at a school in Lipa. Four years later, he again graduated as valedictorian of his high school class at Batangas High School.

Doing so qualified him for a grant to study abroad, but intervention by a public official gave the privilege to another student. Zara, with the full support of his parents, had no recourse but to enroll at the University of the Philippines. As fate would have it, the student who originally received the grant to study abroad became ill and died. Thus, while in the middle of his first semester at UP, Zara learned that he would be able to study in the United States, after all.

He therefore left the Philippines and enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering program, graduating in 1926 with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. Later, he would earn a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan, graduating from the university as summa cum laude. In 1930, he graduated from the Sorbonne University in Paris with a PhD in Physics, in so doing also earning the highest honor of “Tres Honorable” given to graduate students.4

Developing the principles for the videophone was just one of Zara’s numerous achievements. Around 1930, Zara discovered what would become known as the “physical law of electrical kinetic resistance.” This law has become useful in the determination of materials for best use in modern day electrical appliances.5 This law is also known alternatively in the scientific world as the “Zara Effect.”

Among many others, Zara’s other achievements included: the development of an airplane engine that could run on alcohol; improvement of methods to harness solar energy; the invention of a propeller cutting machine; the design of a microphone with a collapsible stage; and helping to design a robot which would be called the Marex X-10.6

Upon returning to the Philippines, Zara served in various capacities in the Philippine government. He would work as technical assistant on aviation to the Secretary of Public Works and Communication and later become chief of the Aeronautical Division of the department. In 1936, he would become assistant director and chief aeronautical engineer in the Bureau of Aeronautics of the Department of National Defense. He would also serve as Director of the Aeronautical Board for 21 years.

Zara also somehow still found time to work as an educator. He taught Aeronautics at the Valeriano Aviation School of the American Far Eastern School of Aviation (1933) and at the Far Eastern University (1937–41). He became Vice-President of FEATI University in 1946, a position he would hold until 1962. In 1966, he was appointed Acting President of the same university.

Zara won numerous awards and accolades during his illustrious career as engineer, inventor, government servant and educator. The most prestigious of these was being conferred the Order of National Scientist in 1978 by then Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos.7

In October of the same year, Zara succumbed to heart failure, leaving behind a legacy that continues to be felt not just in the Philippines but the entire world. He rests at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, having been given a state funeral by the Philippine Government: an engineer, a scientist, public servant, educator, national treasure and most of all, BatangueƱo.

Notes and references:
1 “Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement: Gregorio Zara,” by Ibock, online at ScienceBlogs.
2 “Who Invented the Videophone?” by Rhonda Campbell, online at eHow.
3 National Scientists of the Philippines, 1978-1998, published in 2000 by the Department of Science and Technology, National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippine2s.
4 “Videophone Inventor: Gregorio Y. Zara,” online at Pinoy Achievers’ Blog.
5 “What is electrical resistance?” online at Answers.com. Thanks also to Engr. Luis Canlas for additional information.
6 “Gregorio Zara - Filipino Scientist” by Mary Bellis, online at Inventors.about.com.
7 “Gregorio Y. Zara,” Wikipedia.

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