Philo T. Farnsworth (1906–1971)

Philo Taylor Farnsworth has been called “the last lone inventor,” someone who worked outside the increasingly corporatized structure of 20th-century research and development and pioneered technologies that created an industry and transformed modern life in multiple ways. While this is somewhat of an exaggeration on a number of counts (some of the pioneers in computer technology made their breakthroughs in their garages), his accomplishment in developing the technology that underlies the whole system of television transmission and reception is nonetheless a major one (some argue it is the major achievement; others believe it was more of group effort). His subsequent failure in the competition to bring his invention to market and his falling into obscurity are often seen as a morality tale of genius defeated by capitalist machinations (at the hand of David Sarnoff) or as the tragic consequence of a genius ruined by his own demons. Or it simply could be a tale of unpropitious circumstances. There is a little truth in all these interpretations.

The quest to develop television technology was much in the air when Philo Farnsworth was a boy growing up in rural Utah and Idaho. As early as 1877, just a year after Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the means to transmit voice over wires and almost 20 years before Marconi successfully demonstrated the means to transmit wireless signals, the first television-like systems were envisaged in popular books and magazines. The term “television” first appeared in print in 1900, at the time that Marconi’s wireless telegraphy was just beginning to be introduced to the public. Through the early decades of the 20th century, as wireless telegraphy morphed into radio, scientists and inventors around the world were seeking means to take the next logical step—transmitting visual images over the ether (as it was called then). The work of these scientists—forgotten names such as Paul Nipkow, Georges Rignoux and A. Fournier (French), Boris Rosing (Russia), and A. A. Campbell Swinton and John Logie Baird (United Kingdom)—were being written about in technical and popular magazines. When Philo Farnsworth’s father, Lewis, moved his large Mormon family to Idaho from Utah, young Philo simultaneously began using electricity extensively for the first time in his life and discovered the nascent science of radio and television in some old magazines left in the attic of the house they occupied. He became obsessively interested in this newfound subject, rising hours before his normal 5:00 a.m. chores to read and think about electricity and television. He learned all he could about electric motors and the theories of electricity, and by the time he began high school, he probably knew more about the subject than even his teachers (he was discovered by one of his teachers expatiating on Einstein’s theory of relativity to his classmates in study hall).

Inventor Philo Farnsworth developed the technology that underlies the whole system of television transmission and reception.

Inventor Philo Farnsworth developed the technology that underlies the whole system of television transmission and reception. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

The story of young Philo’s discovery of the fundamental principle that led to the development of a successful all-electronic television system has become legend. While guiding his plow over his father’s potato field, he saw the neat rows of the plowed field as the model for how an image might be scanned, line by line, by using an electron beam as the scanning device rather than a spinning mechanical disc, which was the main means being explored for transmitting images by others since Paul Nipkow’s work in 1884 (some researchers in Europe came to conclusions similar to young Philo’s). Farnsworth was just 14 years old and the means to put his insight into an actual working model were considerably beyond his knowledge and skill (not to mention financial ability) to effectuate. Somewhat later, he excitedly drew a diagram for his high school chemistry teacher of how the system might operate; his teacher reportedly said that “it might just work” and kept the sketch, producing it years later in the heat of the patent battle over whether Farnsworth had the priority of invention.

Farnsworth’s chief rival for precedence in developing an all-electronic television system was Vladimir Zworykin, who arrived in the United States in 1919 after fleeing from revolutionary Russia. In the laboratories of the Westinghouse Company, Zworykin continued some experiments he had begun with his teacher Boris Rosing using cathode ray tubes as possible means for transmitting and receiving images. Through most of the 1920s, Zworykin pursued his television re-search at Westinghouse but ran into the stonewall of bureaucracy and the skeptical appraisal of his managers, one of whom said “Put this guy to work on something useful” after seeing an early demonstration of what he was working on. Nonetheless, Zworykin filed a patent application in 1923; the application remained pending for the next 14 years. (At the same time, demonstrations of mechanical scanning systems were being conducted by Charles Francis Jenkins in Washington, D.C., and in London by James Logie Baird.)

Farnsworth, in the meantime, was struggling in his life, helping to support his family while furthering his education following his father’s death from pneumonia. After dropping out of high school, a brief enlistment in the navy, and a year at Brigham Young University, Farnsworth (now calling himself Phil) secured the financial support of two fund-raisers at a local charity in Salt Lake City, where he was working part-time. With their pledge of $6,000 in research expenses and $200 a month in salary, Farnsworth and his new wife moved to Los Angeles and began work in an apartment where the delivery of suspicious-looking equipment and comings and goings at odd hours led to a police raid looking for illegal liquor production. Later he and his partners secured financial backing from a San Francisco bank and were able to open a real (although small-scale) laboratory in that city and hire a staff, including Farnsworth’s brother-in-law Cliff Gardner, who became an expert producer of cathode ray tubes. (Farnsworth was not yet 21, and George Everson, his chief backer, had to become his legal guardian to sign the contracts.) For the next two years, Farnsworth and his small team faced and solved myriad technical problems both large and small, figuring out how to control the electronic scanning process and how to project the scanned image, making their own equipment or modifying what was available for radio. They filed for a patent in January 1927 but their first successful transmission of an image, of a single line, took place the following September, according to David E. Fisher’s account (“The damn thing works,” Everson wrote to his partner). It was another two years before they had developed their system sufficiently to transmit a two-dimensional image—a triangle and then, by chance, brother-in-law Cliff’s cigarette smoke. In a later demonstration for their bankers, they projected the image of a dollar sign. According to historian Albert Abramson, this was the “first all electric television system in the world.” (The patent was granted in 1930.) The bankers supporting their efforts were anxious to see a return on their investment (the stock market crash of 1929 added pressure to the situation) and sought possible buyers for the nascent firm among the larger corporations, chief among them Westinghouse and RCA. Farnsworth and his colleagues resisted, feeling that they were not yet advanced enough in their work and wanting to maintain their independence. (They also almost lost their work in a fire that destroyed much of their laboratory.)

In 1928, Zworykin, frustrated at Westinghouse, approached David Sarnoff, who as early as 1923 had told his superiors at the relatively new Radio Corporation of America that television was the next logical step in technology after radio (just as radio itself was beginning its ascent as a mass medium). Sarnoff, now in a position of greater authority in RCA and determined to see RCA the dominant power in television as it was already in radio, threw his support behind Zworykin’s plan to produce a working system in a few years at a projected cost of $100,000 (RCA eventually spent $50 million on the nearly 10-year effort). At this point, Zworykin had succeeded in developing a cathode ray tube as a receiving device but had not yet succeeded in developing an electronic camera tube. As he began his work for Sarnoff, he visited Farnsworth’s laboratory and the younger inventor graciously showed him all he had developed. Zworykin graciously conceded that the tubes Cliff Gardner turned out were better than his own in some respects (“I wish I had invented it myself,” he reportedly said; he later claimed that he was just being polite). Based on what he saw in Farnsworth’s laboratory and on some breakthroughs he learned about while visiting some laboratories in Europe, Zworykin was able to solve his camera tube problems (Farnsworth devotees believe he stole Farnsworth’s ideas), and in 1933 his system was complete although not publicly demonstrated. On the other hand, Farnsworth demonstrated a fully working system at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1934. (Farnsworth had moved his laboratory to Philadelphia a few years previously when the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company—later Philco, a major equipment manufacturer—agreed to support his research; they later withdrew their support, under pressure, some speculate, from Sarnoff and RCA.)

Ultimately, the rivalry between Farnsworth and Zworykin reached a climax in Farnsworth’s initiating a patent interference action against RCA and Zworykin, the result of which, after a protracted review by the patent examiners, was Farn-sworth’s being granted the priority of invention. Nonetheless, RCA, under Sarnoff, forged ahead planning for the launching of commercial television, using legal maneuvers to support Zworykin’s claims (his patent was finally granted on appeal in 1938) and to subvert Farnsworth’s patent position. Sarnoff had a policy of never paying royalties for technologies developed outside of RCA; he wanted to own them outright. Farnsworth refused to sell his patents at the low price Sarnoff had offered in the early 1930s, when he claimed that there was nothing of Farnsworth’s work RCA needed. However, Sarnoff did need Farn-sworth’s patents if television was to be launched as a commercial service following its introduction at the World’s Fair of 1939, and he eventually came to accept a settlement with Farnsworth to avoid a protracted legal battle; the settlement terms gave Farnsworth $1 million and royalties on every set RCA produced (this was the first time in RCA history that the company agreed to such a deal; on the other hand, Farnsworth’s original patent was scheduled to expire in 1947, only eight years away). Farnsworth and his backers succeeded in licensing their technology to others (although they failed to receive payment from one major client in Germany as war approached), and they went into business manufacturing television equipment on their own, taking over a radio equipment company in Indiana. The United States’ entry into World War II suspended the development of commercial television for the duration for both RCA and Farnsworth, both firms shifting to war production.

By this time, Farnsworth was plagued by personal illness and alcoholism (he may have begun to drink following the death of his first child from an infection; his alcoholism was compounded by addiction to narcotics prescribed to help him relax), and he sat out the war in rural Maine selling lumber to the government and recovering his health (Sarnoff played a major role in the D-Day invasion and became an honorary Brigadier General). Following the war, Farnsworth returned to his company, but facing RCA’s dominance in the long-deferred launching of the new television industry, his smaller firm failed (again, some speculate that RCA maneuvered to undermine the business) and was bought out eventually by International Telephone and Telegraph (IT&T), which eventually terminated production of television equipment. The former boy genius, now just a little over 40 years old, remained with IT&T as vice president for research, devoting himself to his next project, producing nuclear fusion by electronic means, and generally fading into obscurity. The Radio and Television Manufacturers Association gave Sarnoff the title of “Father of Television” and named Zworykin “Inventor of Television” in 1950, while Farnsworth and his accomplishment were unidentifiable to a panel on the television show “I’ve Got a Secret” when he appeared in 1957 as “Dr. X” (the title “doctor” was based on an honorary degree). Farnsworth’s health deteriorated again in the late1960s, perhaps in response to the frustration of his failure to be recognized and his failed (some might say obsessive or quixotic) quest for nuclear fusion, and he died at the age of 65.

Both Farnsworth and Zworykin were engaged by the technological challenge of television research and both had visions of television leading to the enlightenment of human society through the spread of knowledge. But neither Farnsworth nor Zworykin cared much for what television became as a commercial mass medium, and neither allowed their children to watch television in their homes. Farnsworth’s role in making television possible has generally been recognized more fully in recent years as a result of a number of books devoted to him, although there are many scholars who believe, like Albert Abramson, that its invention was the result of “the efforts of hundreds of individuals.” His battle with Zworykin and Sarnoff was the subject of a short-lived Broadway play (December 2007–March 2008) by writer Aaron Sorkin that attempted to frame the struggle as a David and Goliath battle in which Goliath (Sarnoff) won. While Sorkin’s interpretation has some basis in the eventual triumph of RCA over Farnsworth in the marketplace, the play was heavily criticized for making Farnsworth the loser in the patent suit, reversing the actual result.

—Martin Green


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