Philo Farnsworth is perhaps the most influential unknown person of the 20th century. After all, just how many people know that this eccentric genius invented television and thus transformed the world into a modern, media-driven society?
Or that as a fourteen-year-old high school student, Farnsworth – inspired to tackle the idea from the reading of mechanical journals- first outlined his new invention on a chalkboard in the tiny potato fields of Rigby, Idaho?
Indeed, it was at Rigby High School, in 1921, where Farnsworth first explained the rudiments of electronic television to his science teacher, one Mr. Tolman. There, the young prodigy – a shy farm kid who grew up pondering Einstein and devouring any scientific materials he could get his hands on, and rode to school on horseback – discussed how his system would work and how it would bring images from a distance into people’s homes, just as radio was now transmitting sound.
“He explained his concept for scanning images and said that pictures needed to be encoded just as a plow traverses a field or the human eye reads a page of print – row by row, line by line,” explained Evan I. Schwartz in his 2002 book, The Last Lone Inventor, A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television.
Farnsworth’s epiphany took place in the early 1920s, an era dominated by the true radio monopoly of RCA, a capitalist juggernaut that controlled more than 2,000 patents and had no competition anywhere in sight. Because of David Sarnoff – a ruthless Russian-Jewish immigrant who worked his way up the company ladder, beginning as its patent approver and ending as its president – RCA refused to believe that anything other than radio could be the world’s greatest entertainment source.
While other great visionaries shared the basic, crude idea of creating television, these men were all trying to develop mechanical systems, using a spinning disk to scan images. Farnsworth believed that such a concoction would never work, and that television must be electronic.
He knew that scanning, transmitting, and re-creating a sharp moving picture on a screen requires speeds that are so fantastic that this can be done only by manipulating electrons in vacuum tubes. Investors and supporters were not immediately convinced that Farnsworth’s formula could actually succeed. However, the man’s intellect seemed to sway the faithless.
Driven by his obsession to demonstrate his idea, and bankrolled with the necessary funds to do it, by the age of twenty Farnsworth was operating his own laboratory above a garage in California and filing for patents.
By 1930, Farnsworth, working out of San Francisco, had perfected his genius little invention. To document the novelty of this device, all lab reports “would be dated, signed, and witnessed, then bound in leather.” There, he converted patterns of light into patterns of electrical energy and back into light again. These first steps in the creation of a great new industry did not go unnoticed.
In fact, multiple major newspaper headlines trumpeted the birth of a new age, one even describing how this “24-year-old youth of San Francisco unfolded a story of revolutionary claims that makes commercial television a reality. It lifts it boldly from the field of experimentation, in which it has so long wallowed, and makes it practicable.”
The resulting publicity caught the attention of Sarnoff – the increasingly domineering RCA tycoon who came to see television as a threat to the dominance of radio, as well as his own legacy. He was determined to control television in the same way he monopolized radio.
Sarnoff also believed that individual inventors such as Farnsworth did not deserve fame or glory and that “outsiders” (those who did not work for corporations) shouldn’t make it rich or have the right to earning vast sums of money off royalties and licensing arrangements. Power mad and publicity driven, Sarnoff saw scientists, engineers, and inventors as property whose minds could be systematically exploited for their ideas.
Brilliant Inventor Done Wrong
Under the pretense of a cooperative scientific mission, Sarnoff sent in an RCA employee, Vladimir Zworykin, to duplicate and then upgrade Farnsworth’s invention; Farnsworth believed the Russian scientist to be a friendly colleague. This bit of corporate espionage was a clear act of thievery and duplicity. Now, here’s where things get even sleazier. Using Farnsworth’s intellectual property, RCA began offering its own television system. Farnsworth soon took RCA to court for patent interference. Both Sarnoff and Zworykin claimed that the invention in question actually was conceived by Zworykin in 1917, while he was still in Russia.
Justin Tolman, Farnsworth’s high school science teacher, who had since left Rigby, Idaho, testified on his behalf. The man clearly recollected his experiences with the young prodigy. As described by Schwartz in his book The Lone Inventor:
“Under examination as to what Tolman remembered about his student’s blackboard drawing of the television system, Tolman was able to recall and sketch for the court only very basic details, but they matched key elements in Farnsworth’s 1927 patent application. Asked whether he could show written evidence, Tolman reached into his breast pocket and produced a folded-up, well-worn sheet of notebook paper. When he unfolded it, Tolman revealed a shockingly simple sketch of the Image Dissector. “This was made for me by Philo in early 1922,” he said. The teacher had saved the drawing all these years.”
Four witnesses came forward for Farnsworth. All told the same tale: during his visit, Zworykin held the Image Dissector in his hands and said: “This is a beautiful instrument. I wish I had invented it myself.” Zworykin said his compliment was just an attempt to be polite. Patent examiners, however, were not swayed by the Russian inventor’s apocryphalness, awarding priority of invention to Philo T. Farnsworth. RCA challenged and lost. Refusing to pay royalties or concede Farnsworth priority of invention, Sarnoff, ordered RCA to proceed with its own electronic television system. On April 20, 1939, David Sarnoff took patent violation and self-megalomania to unprecedented levels, when he introduced television to the public from a makeshift podium at the site of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. His speech was broadcast over network radio and transmitted to television sets placed in windows and showrooms of New York department stores. Creating an impression that could never be erased, Sarnoff took full credit for TV; Farnsworth’s entire existence seemed to be annulled in this moment.
The drawn-out standards process at the FCC along with the coming of World War II convinced Farnsworth that his controlling patents would expire before his vision of television would be realized. In 1947, Farnsworth’s seventeen-year patents on the television camera and television receiver lapsed. When these patents expired, all promises of royalty payments disintegrated. (Although, in 1939, RCA would pay Farnsworth Television & Radio Corporation a fee of $1 million, which it used to recoup some of its investment capital.)
Despite his patent-licensing victories and such a well-documented television legacy, a chronically depressed Philo Taylor Farnsworth died in 1971, at the age of sixty-four, all but totally forgotten. His vision for what television would become was always peaceful; he hoped it would become the “world’s greatest teaching tool” and that it would help wipe out illiteracy.
Later in life, Farnsworth expressed his unhappiness with what the medium had become: a constant advertising vehicle. Although, in 1957, Farnsworth did accept an invitation to appear as the mystery guest on a CBS game show called I’ve Got a Secret, in which the studio audience was let in on the “secret” that the guest invented electronic television when he was fourteen years old.
Similar to many great inventors, accolades and appreciation came posthumously for Farnsworth. In 1990, the U.S. Congress installed a bronze figure of Farnsworth – curious, confident, and gazing down at a tube in his hands – in the U.S. Capital. The ceremony was attended by his widow, Pem, and their three sons. Under his name on the statue’s base are the words “Father of Television.”