Paramout "Poupular Science" Newsreel

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Paramout "Poupular Science" Newsreel

From the Paramout Eyes and Ears of the World Newsreel Series, 1937

Available online at Farnovision,

Although a number of prominent scientists, engineers, and inventors contributed to the development of television technology, some of the most significant contributions came from an unlikely source: an Idaho farm boy named Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was born in 1906 in Utah, and his family moved to Idaho when he was eleven years old. Despite the fact that his family's farm did not have electricity, Farnsworth became interested in the concept at an early age. He learned about developments in the field by reading library books and issues of Popular Science magazine that he found in the attic of his house.

In 1920, at the age of fourteen, Farnsworth showed his high school science teacher an original drawing of an electronic television system—something that had not been invented yet. He later claimed that the idea had come to him while he was plowing his family's potato field. 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.

"The most fanciful dream of mankind is today a startling reality, destined to become the world's most popular science."

By this time, scientists had been dreaming about the possibility of transmitting live, moving pictures across a distance for many years. But most researchers working on the problem had developed 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.

Farnsworth's electronic television system, in contrast, 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 would display 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 in nature 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.

At the age of nineteen, Farnsworth started raising money to build his television system. He convinced enough people to invest in his ideas to enable him to open his own research laboratory in San Francisco. In 1927, he successfully transmitted the first all-electronic television picture. Farnsworth also 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 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 Chapter 1), 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 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 an engineer named Vladimir Zworykin (1889–1982; see Chapter 9). 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 The Last Lone Inventor, 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.

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. In 1936, the U.S. Patent Office issued its first ruling in his favor. After hearing testimony from Farnsworth's 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. Sarnoff also bought the patents for TV-related technologies from several other inventors during this time.

Following the 1936 ruling, 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.

Sharing the excitement of TV technology

Shortly after Farnsworth launched his experimental TV broadcasts, the Paramount Eyes and Ears of the World newsreel series sent a camera crew to his studio to cover the latest developments in television technology. Newsreels were an important source of news and information for Americans in the 1930s. These short news films were commonly shown at movie theaters before the feature presentation. They covered the latest developments in such areas as world events, politics, sports, fashion, and science. Several major film companies produced newsreels. Each reel typically lasted about five minutes and included four or five stories. Theaters usually changed newsreels a couple of times each week so that movie audiences could receive the most up-to-date information.

As television developed during the 1930s, the new technology created a great deal of excitement. The Paramount newsreel series recognized the public interest in television and decided to do a feature story on Farnsworth's broadcasts for its "Popular Science" segment. The Paramount crew visited Farnsworth's laboratory and TV studio in Philadelphia and filmed the inventor at work. A transcript of the newsreel, which is excerpted below, describes the basic scientific concepts behind television technology and also demonstrates the level of excitement surrounding the first TV broadcasts.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt of the Paramount "Popular Science" Newsreel:

  • Television sets were not available to the public in 1937, so very few people could actually receive Farnsworth's experimental broadcasts. In fact, there were only around fifty TV sets within the range of his signal. Most of these sets belonged to people who dabbled in electronics as a hobby, or to engineers and executives of manufacturers like Philco and RCA.
  • The Paramount "Popular Science" newsreel feature marked the high point in publicity for Farnsworth and his TV system. Two years later, David Sarnoff and RCA grabbed the headlines by holding a historic public demonstration of television broadcasting at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. Although RCAs TV system used many parts invented by Farnsworth, Sarnoff made no mention of the independent inventor and instead gave the credit to RCAs engineers.
  • Ironically, the increasing popularity of television as a source of news and information led to the end of newsreels in the 1950s.

Excerpt of the Paramount "Popular Science" Newsreel

[Voice of announcer.] Popular Science: A backstage look at television, the newest miracle of modern engineering.

[Images of television production in a laboratory setting.] Technicians in the Farnsworth-Philco laboratories have helped to make television—the dazzling dream of a decade—a practical reality today. Mr. Philo T. Farnsworth, shown at the right, is working on the Image Dissector Tube —a photoelectric camera tube of his own invention that distinguishes his system of television from others. It is said to be responsible for the most clearly defined television pictures.

[Images of the assembly of a television receiver set.] Placed in the circuit of this receiving system is a funnel-shaped cathode tube. The round, flat surface of its bulb becomes the picture screen in studio monitor sets, as well as in home receiving sets. The Image Dissector Tube and the Cathode Oscillite Tube are the heart and brain of the Farnsworth system.

[Images of equipment in a television broadcasting studio.] Television engineers are now adjusting studio equipment to demonstrate the technical routine of broadcasting a television program …

In this camera is an Image Dissector Tube. [Images of a woman dancing.] The camera lens picks up the artist as an image of light, causing electrodes within the Dissector Tube to emit electrons. Passing through [TV] station equipment, the electrons become radio impulses to be broadcast and picked up by receiving sets, where the routine is reversed—the radio impulses becoming points of light that appear on the screen as pictures. Thirty pictures are completed every second. These pictures are composed of 200,000 light points that strike the screen one at a time at the rate of 6 million points per second. Music and sound accompany the performer's action, both visual and audible elements going on the air in perfect synchronization

[Images of studio engineers adjusting equipment] As the action is photographed from various angles, engineers at control boards select long shots-and close-ups, editing the show as it passes instantly through the station's facility. [Images of viewers watching television at home.] Traveling with the speed of light through a maze of tubes and equipment, the show leaves the station's sending towers, to be viewed by the television public, an audience as yet small and comparatively ignorant of the enormous research and experiment that makes it possible for us to see and hear people many miles away….

[Images of a magician performing his act.] Silent, invisible, instantly—human speech, music, and appearance pervade the airwaves together, to be received in magic boxes for distant reproduction. [Images of viewers watching television at home.] It may not be long before our news events and current world happenings will be witnessed in thousands of homes. Television may picture for those at home the work of far-off explorers, or it may reveal to military officials the details of distant maneuvers. The most fanciful dream of mankind is today a startling reality, destined to become the world's most popular science.

What happened next …

After losing the final appeal in its long legal challenge, RCA was forced to pay Farnsworth one million dollars for a license to use his television patents in 1939. 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. And in the end, David Sarnoff and RCA received most of the credit for inventing television.

World War II (1939–45) temporarily halted the development of TV technology, especially after the United States entered the conflict in 1941. By the time commercial television broadcasting got started after the war, Farnsworth was no longer involved in the industry. His TV 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.

When Farnsworth died in 1971, few people remembered his contributions to the development of television. But his importance increasingly has been recognized in the years since then. In 1984, for instance, 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 at the U.S. Capitol. In 2003, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences named an Emmy Award in his honor: the Philo T Farnsworth Award for Technical Achievement. A number of books published in the 1990s and early 2000s have also tried to set the record straight about the invention of television.

Did you know …

  • When Philo Farnsworth and his associates started making experimental television broadcasts from the Philco-Farnsworth studios in 1937, they discovered that the Image Dissector camera was extremely sensitive to infrared light. This caused the color red, which normally appears dark in black-and-white pictures, to televise as white. In order to make the performers in his early TV broadcasts appear normal, Farnsworth turned to makeup artists from the Max Factor Company. Based on their experience in doing makeup for actors in early color movies, the Max Factor artists applied blue makeup on the TV performers' lips and eyes. This made them look normal on a TV screen. In person, however, they appeared to be wearing scary makeup for Halloween.
  • Farnsworth received over 150 U.S. patents during his lifetime. Besides some of the first electronic television systems, his inventions included an air traffic control system, an incubator for premature babies, and an early electron microscope.
  • When Farnsworth died in 1971, the average television set sold in the United States still included about 100 parts originally patented by him.
  • By the time of his death, Farnsworth was deeply disappointed with the programming available on commercial television. In fact, he would not 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 told Time.
  • The creators of the modern animated TV series Futurama named a character Professor Farnsworth after the inventor of television.

Consider the following …

  • It seems hard to believe that an Idaho farm boy who did not even have electricity at home invented the first working electronic television system. Can you think of any modern examples of young people who came up with brilliant ideas (hint: think about the world of computers and the Internet)? What kinds of things do these young inventors have in common with Philo Farnsworth?
  • The U.S. government issues patents to provide a form of legal proection for inventions. A patent gives an inventor the exclusive right to use, sell, and profit from an invention for a period of seventeen years. Did the U.S. patent system work for Philo Farnsworth? How did RCA use the system in its favor? What kinds of changes could be made to the system to ensure that it protects independent inventors?
  • The 1937 Paramount newsreel says that television "is destined to become the world's most popular science." Do you think this statement came true? Is it still true in the twenty-first century or have new technologies emerged to take its place?

For More Information


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. TVs 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. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

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


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

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


Arrington, Leonard J. "Philo T Farnsworth." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

"Elma Farnsworth Passes at 98: Widow of TV Pioneer." Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, April 28, 2006. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

"Farnsworth's Image Dissector" and "Electronic Television." IEEE Virtual Museum. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

Schatzkin, Paul. "The Farnsworth Chronicles." Farnovision. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

Image Dissector Tube: A television camera patented by Philo Farnsworth in 1930 that reproduced moving images by turning light into electrons (tiny, negatively charged particles).

Photoelectric: A technology involving the interaction of light and physical material.

Circuit: The path of an electric current.

Cathode tube: The vacuum tube inside a TV set that creates the picture.

Studio monitor sets: Screens in a television studio that producers use to select the scenes viewers see at home.

Cathode Oscillite Tube: A type of cathode tube invented by Farnsworth.

Electrodes: Pieces that conduct electricity within a circuit.

Electrons: Tiny, negatively charged particles.

Impulses: Electromagnetic signals.

Audible: Able to be heard.

Synchronization: Occurring at the same time.

Control boards: Banks of technical equipment.

Sending towers: Antennas for transmitting TV signals.

Pervade: Spread throughout.

Maneuvers: Troop movements.