Farnsworth, Philo T.

views updated

Philo T. Farnsworth

BORN: August 19, 1906 • Beaver Creek, Utah

DIED: March 11, 1971 • Salt Lake City, Utah

American inventor

Some of the most important contributions to the development of modern television technology came from a most unlikely source: a brilliant farm boy named Philo T. Farnsworth. Although he was raised in a log cabin with no electricity, Farnsworth thought up some of the key technical concepts for electronic television systems during his teen years. He used these ideas to create the first working all-electronic television camera and receiver set in 1927. Throughout the 1930s, Farnsworth successfully defended his invention against a long legal challenge by the powerful Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Nevertheless, RCA ended up taking most of the credit for the invention of television.

"There you are, electronic television."

Growing up on a farm

Philo Taylor Farnsworth was born in Beaver Creek, Utah, on August 19, 1906. He was the first of five children born to Lewis Edwin Farnsworth, a farmer, and his wife Serena (Bastian) Farnsworth. Philo was named after his paternal grandfather, a Mormon pioneer who had helped settle Utah fifty years earlier. Farnsworth spent his boyhood living in a log cabin with no electricity. Despite his simple lifestyle, however, he became fascinated at an early age with all kinds of technology. He loved to take things apart and use the pieces to build new gadgets.

In 1917, when Farnsworth was eleven, his family moved to Rigby, Idaho. The boy gained an interest in the science of electronics when he discovered a stash of old technical magazines, such as Popular Science and Science and Invention, in the attic of his new home. He began experimenting with electricity around this time, often fixing the power generator on the farm and finding ways to use it to help with his chores. At the age of thirteen, Farnsworth won a national invention contest with his design for an anti-theft device for automobiles.

Around 1920, Farnsworth read about some of the early attempts to transmit live, moving pictures across a distance using radio waves. Up to this time, most scientists and engineers had tried to solve the problem by creating mechanical television systems. These systems used spinning metal disks with holes in them to continuously measure the amount of light reflected off a moving image. The holes sent electrical signals, which varied in strength depending on the amount of light hitting them, across a wire to a similar device at the other end. The second device reversed the process and turned the electrical signals back into light, creating a crude representation of the moving image at the other end of the wire. From the first time he read about mechanical television, Farnsworth was convinced that the system would never be able to scan an image fast enough to make a good picture. He grew determined to use electronics to create a faster and better television system.

Inventing electronic television

Farnsworth was an excellent student at Rigby High School. As a freshman, he was so far ahead of his classmates that he begged the principal for permission to sit in on senior-level science courses. Radio broadcasting was just beginning to spread across the country at this time, so most of his classmates—and even his teachers—had never heard of television. Nevertheless, Farnsworth continued working on the problem of television during his high school years. He had a breakthrough one day while he was plowing a field on his family's farm. As he drove his horse-drawn plow back and forth in straight rows, he envisioned a television camera scanning a moving image in that same pattern, line by line.

A short time later, Farnsworth showed his high school science teacher, Justin Tolman, an original drawing of an electronic television system. Unlike the mechanical systems that had been developed so far, Farnsworth's electronic system did not have any moving parts. Instead, the early television camera he called an Image Dissector captured the light reflected off a moving image with a glass lens. The lens focused the light onto a special plate that was coated with the element cesium, which responded to the light by giving off electrons (tiny, negatively charged particles). Farnsworth used an electrical circuit inside the camera to detect the electrons. He then amplified (increased the power of) the electronic signal and transmitted it to a television receiver set, which displayed the image.

Farnsworth's TV receiver used a picture tube he invented called a Cathode Oscillite Tube. A cathode is a filament inside a sealed glass tube, similar to those found in lightbulbs. When the filament is heated, it forms a vacuum, or an empty space that does not contain any matter. A cathode ray is a stream of electrons that pour off the cathode into the vacuum. Farnsworth's system used electrical circuits to focus these electrons into a beam and shoot them toward a flat screen at one end of the tube. The inside of the screen was coated in phosphor, a substance that emits light, or glows, when struck by a beam of radiation. The beam reproduced moving images by "painting" them onto the screen, line by line.

After completing his sophomore year of high school, Farnsworth gained early admission to Brigham Young University. In 1924, his father died, and he was forced to interrupt his education in order to help support his family. Farnsworth moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he got a job as a radio installer and repairman. While there, he met a group of investors who agreed to provide financial support for his television ideas. In 1926, he married Elma "Pem" Gardner. Shortly after the wedding, the young couple moved to San Francisco, California, where Farnsworth opened a research laboratory and began working to build his television system.

On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth successfully transmitted the first all-electronic television picture. His assistants held a picture of a straight line in front of the Image Dissector camera and moved it from side to side. The Cathode Oscillite Tube receiver, located in another room, picked up the signal and displayed the image. According to Time, when the twenty-one-year-old inventor saw the line moving on the television screen, he said simply, "There you are, electronic television."

By the end of that year, Farnsworth had applied to the U.S. government for patents (a form of legal protection that gives an inventor the exclusive right to use or make money from an invention for a period of seventeen years) on his electronic television camera and receiver. In 1928, Farnsworth demonstrated his television system to the public for the first time. He received a great deal of media attention, including a feature article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Newspapers across the country picked up the story of the "boy genius" who had solved the problem of electronic television.

Going to battle against RCA

One of the people who read about Farnsworth's inventions was David Sarnoff (1891–1971; see entry), an ambitious businessman who had recently become acting president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). RCA was the leading producer of radios in the United States. It also held a strong position in radio broadcasting through its ownership of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Sarnoff had been interested in television since the earliest mention of the potential new technology. As the head of RCA, he was also concerned that the development of television might cause people to stop buying radios. Once it appeared that TV would become a reality, Sarnoff became determined to make RCA a leader in the television industry as well.

In 1929, Sarnoff held a meeting with a Russian engineer named Vladimir Zworykin (1889–1982; see entry). Several years earlier, Zworykin had applied for patents on a television camera he called the Iconoscope and a television display screen he called the Kinescope. The basic idea of Zworykin's TV system was similar to Farnsworth's. Unlike Farnsworth, however, Zworykin had been unable to turn his idea into a working model. Still, Sarnoff was impressed with Zworykin's work and hired the engineer to develop an electronic television system for RCA.

In 1930, Farnsworth's application for a U.S. patent on his electronic TV system was approved. A short time later, Sarnoff sent Zworykin to San Francisco to visit Farnsworth's laboratory and check out his inventions. Farnsworth gladly gave the prominent engineer a tour and let Zworykin examine a model of the Image Dissector camera. According to Evan I. Schwartz in Wired, Zworykin said, "This is a beautiful instrument. I wish I had invented it myself." In 1931, Sarnoff himself visited Farnsworth's laboratory in San Francisco. Before he left, he offered to give Farnsworth a job at RCA and pay $100,000 for Farnsworth's television patents and all of his working models. But the young inventor and his business partners felt that the offer was much too low and rejected it.

At this point, RCA filed a legal challenge against Farnsworth's patents. The giant company claimed that Zworykin had invented his electronic television system first. They asked the court to throw out Farnsworth's TV patents and award the rights to the invention to Zworykin instead. The patent battles between Farnsworth and RCA continued throughout the 1930s. "They slowed the development of television, delayed its introduction to the public, squandered [wasted] Farnsworth's already thin resources, drove him to drink, and contributed to his development of a bleeding ulcer [a painful stomach problem that is often related to stress]," Schwartz wrote.

Continuing TV development

In 1931, shortly after the legal battle started, Farnsworth accepted a job with Philco—one of RCA's competitors in the manufacture of radios and electronic equipment—and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like RCA, Philco wanted to enter the emerging field of television, so the company hired Farnsworth to establish a TV research division. Farnsworth continued to improve upon his television system during this time. The inventor could often be found tinkering in his laboratory late at night, and he sometimes became so focused on pursuing a new idea that he forgot to eat.

In 1936, the U.S. Patent Office issued a ruling in Farnsworth's favor. After hearing testimony from his high school science teacher and seeing his early television drawings, the patent inspectors concluded that Farnsworth had indeed invented electronic television before Zworykin. But RCA appealed the decision and continued working to develop its own TV system.

In the meantime, Farnsworth built a television studio at his Philco laboratory. He and his team of engineers created a special TV transmitter and constructed a hundred-foot-tall tower that could send experimental television signals across Philadelphia. They also designed and built the world's first electronic video switcher in the studio, which allowed them to cut back and forth between the views provided by two TV cameras while a program was being broadcast. In 1937, Farnsworth received a broadcast license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating television, and began making regular television broadcasts.

In 1939, RCA lost the final appeal in its long legal challenge and was forced to pay Farnsworth one million dollars for a license to use his television patents. This marked the first time in the history of RCA—a company known for its pioneering research and development—that it had paid for the right to use technology created by an independent inventor. But licensing his patents to RCA was only a small victory for Farnsworth. The legal battle cost him a great deal of money and took a serious toll on his health. In the end, David Sarnoff and RCA received most of the credit for inventing television.

Struggling for recognition

World War II (1939–45) temporarily halted the development of TV technology, especially after the United States entered the conflict in 1941. Farnsworth left Philco before the start of the war and formed his own company, the Farnsworth Radio and Television Corporation. During the war years, Farnsworth won government contracts to develop new technologies for military use, including radar tracking devices and electronic surveillance equipment. His business took a downturn when the war ended, however, and he was forced to sell it to the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT) in 1949.

Around this time, Farnsworth's already poor health began to get worse. He became depressed, drank too much alcohol, and had to be hospitalized for treatment. When commercial television broadcasting took off after the war, Farnsworth was no longer involved in the industry. His long-contested television patents expired in 1947, just before the number of TV sets sold nationwide exploded from a few thousand to several million. RCA produced around 80 percent of the units sold.

As the television industry continued to grow throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Farnsworth became upset about the poor quality of programming and refused to allow his children to watch TV. "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," his son Kent recalled in Time. Late in his life, Farnsworth turned his attention to other sorts of inventions. He was awarded over 150 U.S. patents for devices ranging from an incubator for premature babies to an early air traffic control system. He also did important research in the field of atomic energy (the controlled use of nuclear reactions to create electricity).

Farnsworth died of emphysema (a disease of the lungs) on March 11, 1971, near Salt Lake City. At the time of his death, few people remembered his contributions to the development of television. But thanks to the efforts of his family and various historians of technology, his importance increasingly has been recognized in the years since then. In 1983, for instance, his image was featured on a U.S. postage stamp honoring American inventors. The following year he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1990, following a successful campaign by Utah schoolchildren, a statue of Farnsworth—with the words "Father of Television" at its base—was placed in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. In 2003, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences named an Emmy Award (an annual honor recognizing excellence in television programming) in his honor: the Philo T. Farnsworth Award for Technical Achievement. A number of books published in the 1990s and 2000s have also told the story of Farnsworth's inventions and his long patent battle with RCA, and there was some talk of making a movie about his life. In the 2000s, it appeared that the forgotten inventor of television might finally be recognized for his contributions.

For More Information

BOOKS

Farnsworth, Elma G. Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier. Salt Lake City, UT: Pemberly Kent, 1989.

Fisher, David E., and Marshall J. Fisher. Tube: The Invention of Television. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996.

Godfrey, Donald G., and Christopher H. Sterling. Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television. Provo: University of Utah Press, 2001.

McPherson, Stephanie S. TV's Forgotten Hero: The Story of Philo Farnsworth. New York: Carolrhoda Books, 1996.

Schwartz, Evan I. The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television. Perennial, 2003.

Stashower, Daniel. The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

PERIODICALS

Hofer, Stephen F. "Philo Farnsworth: Television's Pioneer." Journal of Broadcasting, Spring 1979.

Postman, Neil. "Time 100 Most Important Scientists and Thinkers of the Century: Philo Farnsworth." Time, March 29, 1999.

Schwartz, Evan I. "Televisionary." Wired, April 2002.

WEB SITES

Arrington, Leonard J. "Philo T. Farnsworth." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/F/htmlF/farnsworthp/farnsworthp.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Elma Farnsworth Passes at 98: Widow of TV Pioneer." Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, April 28, 2006. http://www.emmys.org/news/2006/april/farnsworth.php (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Farnsworth's Image Dissector" and "Electronic Television." IEEE Virtual Museum. http://www.ieee-virtual-museum.org/collection/tech.php?id=2345850&lid=1 (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Schatzkin, Paul. "The Farnsworth Chronicles." Farnovision. http://www.farnovision.com/chronicles (accessed on June 5, 2006).

About this article

Farnsworth, Philo T.

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article