The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Philo Farnsworth



The key to the television picture tube came to him at 14, when he was still a farm boy, and he had a working device at 21. Yet he died in obscurity

By NEIL POSTMAN for Time Magazine

For those inclined to think of our fading century as an era of the common man, let it be noted that the inventor of one of the century's greatest machines was a man called Phil. Even more, he was actually born in a log cabin, rode to high school on horseback and, without benefit of a university degree (indeed, at age 14), conceived the idea of electronic television — the moment of inspiration coming, according to legend, while he was tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way, line by line, just as you read a book. To cap it off, he spent much of his adult life in a struggle with one of America's largest and most powerful corporations. Our kind of guy.

I refer, of course, to Philo Taylor Farnsworth. The "of course" is meant as a joke, since almost no one outside the industry has ever heard of him. But we ought not to let the century expire without attempting to make amends.

Farnsworth was born in 1906 near Beaver City, Utah, a community settled by his grandfather (in 1856) under instructions from Brigham Young himself. When Farnsworth was 12, his family moved to a ranch in Rigby, Idaho, which was four miles from the nearest high school, thus necessitating his daily horseback rides. Because he was intrigued with the electron and electricity, he persuaded his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, to give him special instruction and to allow him to audit a senior course. You could read about great scientists from now until the 22nd century and not find another instance where one of them celebrates a high school teacher. But Farnsworth did, crediting Tolman with providing inspiration and essential knowledge.

Tolman returned the compliment. Many years later, testifying at a patent interference case, Tolman said Farnsworth's explanation of the theory of relativity was the clearest and most concise he had ever heard. Remember, this would have been in 1921, and Farnsworth would have been all of 15. And Tolman was not the only one who recognized the young student's genius. With only two years of high school behind him, and buttressed by an intense auto-didacticism, Farnsworth gained admission to Brigham Young University.

The death of his father forced him to leave at the end of his second year, but, as it turned out, at no great intellectual cost. There were, at the time, no more than a handful of men on the planet who could have understood Farnsworth's ideas for building an electronic-television system, and it's unlikely that any of them were at Brigham Young. One such man was Vladimir Zworykin, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He went to work for Westinghouse with a dream of building an all-electronic television system. But he wasn't able to do so. Farnsworth was. But not at once.

He didn't do it until he was 21. By then, he had found investors, a few assistants and a loving wife ("Pem") who assisted him in his research. He moved to San Francisco and set up a laboratory in an empty loft. On Sept. 7, 1927, Farnsworth painted a square of glass black and scratched a straight line on the center. In another room, Pem's brother, Cliff Gardner, dropped the slide between the Image Dissector (the camera tube that Farnsworth had invented earlier that year) and a hot, bright, carbon arc lamp. Farnsworth, Pem and one of the investors, George Everson, watched the receiver. They saw the straight-line image and then, as Cliff turned the slide 90[degrees], they saw it move--which is to say they saw the first all-electronic television picture ever transmitted.

History should take note of Farnsworth's reaction. After all, we learn in school that Samuel Morse's first telegraph message was "What hath God wrought?" Edison spoke into his phonograph, "Mary had a little lamb." And Don Ameche — I mean, Alexander Graham Bell — shouted for assistance: "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you!" What did Farnsworth exclaim? "There you are," said Phil, "electronic television." Later that evening, he wrote in his laboratory journal: "The received line picture was evident this time." Not very catchy for a climactic scene in a movie. Perhaps we could use the telegram George Everson sent to another investor: "The damned thing works!"

At this point in the story, things turn ugly. Physics, engineering and scientific inspiration begin to recede in importance as lawyers take center stage. As it happens, Zworykin had made a patent application in 1923, and by 1933 had developed a camera tube he called an Iconoscope. It also happens that Zworykin was by then connected with the Radio Corporation of America, whose chief, David Sarnoff, had no intention of paying royalties to Farnsworth for the right to manufacture television sets. "RCA doesn't pay royalties," he is alleged to have said, "we collect them."

And so there ensued a legal battle over who invented television. RCA's lawyers contended that Zworykin's 1923 patent had priority over any of Farnsworth's patents, including the one for his Image Dissector. RCA's case was not strong, since it could produce no evidence that in 1923 Zworykin had produced an operable television transmitter. Moreover, Farnsworth's old teacher, Tolman, not only testified that Farnsworth had conceived the idea when he was a high school student, but also produced the original sketch of an electronic tube that Farnsworth had drawn for him at that time. The sketch was almost an exact replica of an Image Dissector.

In 1934 the U.S. Patent Office rendered its decision, awarding priority of invention to Farnsworth. RCA appealed and lost, but litigation about various matters continued for many years until Sarnoff finally agreed to pay Farnsworth royalties.

But he didn't have to for very long. During World War II, the government suspended sales of TV sets, and by the war's end, Farnsworth's key patents were close to expiring. When they did, RCA was quick to take charge of the production and sales of TV sets, and in a vigorous public-relations campaign, promoted both Zworykin and Sarnoff as the fathers of television. Farnsworth withdrew to a house in Maine, suffering from depression, which was made worse by excessive drinking. He had a nervous breakdown, spent time in hospitals and had to submit to shock therapy. And in 1947, as if he were being punished for having invented television, his house in Maine burned to the ground.

One wishes it could be said that this was the final indignity Farnsworth had to suffer, but it was not. Ten years later, he appeared as a mystery guest on the television program What's My Line? Farnsworth was referred to as Dr. X and the panel had the task of discovering what he had done to merit his appearance on the show. One of the panelists asked Dr. X if he had invented some kind of a machine that might be painful when used. Farnsworth answered, "Yes. Sometimes it's most painful."

He was just being characteristically polite. His attitude toward the uses that had been made of his invention was more ferocious. His son Kent was once asked what that attitude was. He said, "I suppose you could say that he felt he had created kind of a monster, a way for people to waste a lot of their lives."

He added, "Throughout my childhood his reaction to television was 'There's nothing on it worthwhile, and we're not going to watch it in this household, and I don't want it in your intellectual diet.' "

So we may end Farnsworth's story by saying that he was not only the inventor of television but also one of its earliest and most perceptive critics.



Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971) is known as the father of television by proving, as a young man, that pictures could be televised electronically.

On the statue erected in his honor in the U. S. Capitol Statuary Hall, Philo T. Farnsworth is called the Father of Television. He was the first person to propose that pictures could be televised electronically, which he did when he was 14 years old. By the time he was 21, Farnsworth had proved his ideas by televising the world's first electronically-produced image. From the day he sketched out for his high school chemistry teacher his ideas for harnessing electricity to transmit images, until his death in 1971, Farnsworth amassed a portfolio of over 100 television-related patents, some of which are still in use today.

Farnsworth was born in Indian Creek, Utah, on August 19, 1906. The first of five children born to Serena Bastian and Lewis Edwin Farnsworth, he was named after his grandfather, Philo Taylor Farnsworth I, the leader of the Mormon pioneers who settled that area of southwestern Utah. Although there was no electricity where he lived, Farnsworth learned as much as he could about it from his father and from technical and radio magazines. Lewis Farnsworth was a farmer and regaled his son with technical discussions about the telephone, gramophone, locomotives, and anything else the younger Farnsworth was curious about. When the family moved to a farm in Idaho with its own power plant, he poked and probed and mastered the lighting system and was soon put in charge of maintaining it. It had never run so smoothly. Farnsworth was adept at inventing gadgets even before he went to high school, and he won a national invention contest when he was 13 years old.

Dreaming of Television

In 1920, he read that some inventors were attempting to transmit visual images by mechanical means. For the next two years, he worked on an electronic alternative that he was convinced would be faster and better; he came up with the basic design for an apparatus in 1922. Farnsworth discussed his ideas and showed sketches of the apparatus to his high school chemistry teacher Justin Tolman. Little did they know that this discussion would later be critical in settling a patent dispute between Farnsworth and his competitor at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Vladimir Zworykin.

Farnsworth took physics courses by correspondence from the University of Utah and later enrolled at Brigham Young University. He was largely self-taught but so impressed two of his chemistry professors at BYU with his ideas about television that they gave him the run of the chemistry and glass labs to start work on his theories.

In 1924, Farnsworth's father died and he was left with the responsibility of supporting the family. After a short time in the navy, he moved to Salt Lake City to work as a canvasser for the Community Chest. There Farnsworth made friends with George Everson, the businessman who was organizing the fund-raising effort, and his associate Leslie Gorrell. Farnsworth told Everson and Gorrell about his ideas for a television, and they invested $6,000 in his venture. With additional backing from a group of bankers in San Francisco, Farnsworth was given a research lab and a year to prove his concepts.

Building the First Television System

Farnsworth was married to his college sweetheart Elma Pem Gardner on May 27, 1926, and the next day they left for California, where Farnsworth would set up his lab in San Francisco. With assistance from his wife, Elma, better known as Pem, and her brother Cliff, Farnsworth designed and built all the components - from the vacuum transmitter tubes to the image scanner and the receiver - that made up his first television system. The key invention was his Image Dissector camera, which scanned relatively slowly in one direction and relatively quickly in the opposite direction, making possible much greater scanning speeds than had been achieved earlier. All television receivers use this basic system of scanning.

On September 7, 1927, three weeks before the deadline, Farnsworth gathered his friends and engineering colleagues in a room adjoining the lab and amazed them with the first two-dimensional image ever transmitted by television - the image of his wife and assistant, Pem. His backers continued their support for a year and in September 1928, the first television system was unveiled to the world. In 1929, some of the bankers who invested in the research formed a company called Television Laboratories Inc., of which Farnsworth was named vice president and director of research.

The Challenge of the Marketplace

At the same time, RCA began aggressively competing with Farnsworth for control of the emerging television market and challenged the patent on his invention. With the testimony of Farnsworth's high school teacher, Justin Tollman, it was determined that Farnsworth had indeed documented his ideas one year before RCA's Vladimir Zworykin. This was but the first of many challenges from RCA, but in the end the corporate giant was forced to work out a cross-licensing arrangement with Farnsworth.

The victor in dozens of legal challenges by RCA, Farnsworth eventually licensed his television patents to the growing industry and let others refine and develop his basic inventions. His patents were first licensed in Germany and Great Britain, and only later did the Federal Communications Commission allocate broadcast channels in the United States. During his early years in San Francisco, Farnsworth did other important work as well. He made the first cold cathode-ray tube, the first simple electron microscope, and a means for using radio waves to sense direction - an innovation now known as radar. He received more than 300 patents worldwide during his career.

Farnsworth eventually set up his own company, which boomed during World War II with government contracts to develop electronic surveillance and other equipment. The Farnsworth Radio and Television Corp. took a downturn after the war and was sold to the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) in 1949. Farnsworth remained with the company for some time as a research consultant. Late in his life he turned his attention to the field of atomic energy. Farnsworth died of emphysema on March 11, 1971, in Holladay, a suburb of Salt Lake City.

For his pioneering work, Farnsworth received the First Gold Medal awarded by the National Television Broadcasters Association in 1944. During his lifetime he also was presented with honorary doctorates in science from Indiana Technical College (1951) and Brigham Young University (1968). Posthumously, the inventor was remembered with a twenty-cent stamp with his likeness, issued in 1983, and his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1984. The Philo T. Farnsworth Memorial Museum was dedicated in his honor in Rigby, Idaho, in 1988.











This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008