Farnsworth, Philo Taylor (1906-1971)

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Philo Taylor Farnsworth was born in Indian Creek, Utah, on August 19, 1906. When Philo was twelve years old, Lewis and Serena Farnsworth moved their family to Rigby, Idaho. Although isolated, this small town possessed one attribute that would forever change Farnsworth's life: electricity.

Farnsworth soon found many interesting uses for this invisible energy, including building a motor to run his mother's washing machine. Inspired by the stories he read about famous inventors, Farnsworth soon sought advanced tutoring from his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman. One day, while plowing back and forth through a potato field, Farnsworth conceived his greatest invention.

He had recently read a magazine article about mechanical television, but even his young mind knew that a whirling disk-based system would prove to be impractical. However, there in that Idaho potato field he realized that an electron beam, scanning an image line by line, might prove fast enough to create a quality image. Farnsworth surprised Tolman one day at school in 1922 by diagramming on a classroom blackboard his concept for electronic television. Farnsworth was just sixteen years old.

Although financially unable to pursue this vision on his own, Farnsworth was able to enter Brigham Young University in 1923 and begin some study of cathode ray and vacuum tubes. Unfortunately, his college career was cut short when he was forced to return home after his father died during his sophomore year. Farnsworth attempted to start a small business as a radio repairman, but that soon failed. After finding work with the Salt Lake City Community Chest, Farnsworth disclosed his idea for electronic television to the campaign's lead fundraisers, Leslie Gorrell and George Everson. In 1926, Everson agreed to finance Farnsworth's project with an initial investment of $5,000. In October 1926, after obtaining additional resources, they established a laboratory in a warehouse in San Francisco, California. Farnsworth's "team" consisted of his wife Elma (called "Pem") and his brother-in-law Cliff Gardner, as well as Gorrell and Everson. Over the next year, they set out to bring Farnsworth's dream into reality.

The first step was to apply for a patent for his design for electronic television. The patent application, along with detailed diagrams of the system, was submitted on January 7, 1927. However, in order for the patent to be awarded, the system had to be proven functional. On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth painted a straight line on a slide of glass and Gardner placed it between the "image dissector" (Farnsworth's camera tube) and a hot, bright carbon arc lamp. In another room Farnsworth, his wife, and Everson watched as the line appeared on a receiver and then moved as Gardner adjusted the slide in the other room. This seemingly simple display was actually the first all-electronic transmission of a television image. As noted by Neil Postman (1999), Farnsworth recorded the arrival of this new era with a simple scientific statement in his laboratory journal when he wrote, "The received line picture was evident this time" (p. 94). However, Everson was much more excited when he wrote to fellow investor Gorrell: "The damned thing works!" (p. 94).

News soon spread to the East Coast about this new innovation. In April 1930, Farnsworth was told to expect a visit from Vladimir Zworykin, a renowned engineer from Westinghouse who had also been working on an electronic television system. In fact, he had applied in 1923 for a patent for an electronic television system; however, he had yet to create an operational device. According to Mrs. Farnsworth (1990), Zworykin spent three days in the laboratory while Farnsworth was extremely generous in demonstrating all of his devices. Zworykin was impressed, even commenting about the image dissector, "This is a beautiful instrument. I wish I had invented it myself" (p. 130).

Farnsworth was so open with Zworykin because he hoped to entice Westinghouse into a patent deal where he would collect royalties on his invention. However, what was hidden from Farnsworth was the fact that just before visiting his laboratory, Zworykin had been hired by David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Sarnoff had requested that his new employee stop by the San Francisco laboratory before moving his operation to the RCA laboratory in Camden, New Jersey. After his visit to Farnsworth's laboratory, Zworykin did stop by Westinghouse, but only long enough for some of his former assistants to construct a copy of the image dissector. Zworykin took the device with him on his trip to meet his new employer.

Later in 1930, while Farnsworth was away on business, Sarnoff himself arrived at the San Francisco laboratory. At the insistence of Everson, some of Farnsworth's assistants demonstrated the television system for the RCA head. Despite saying that he thought there was nothing he saw that RCA would need, he soon offered to buy the company and the services of Farnsworth for $100,000. Farnsworth turned down the offer, noting that he was interested in collecting royalties for his invention that would support his independent operation. Sarnoff had no intention of meeting Farnsworth's demands. In fact, RCA owned the rights to nearly all of the major patents in radio and it was well known that company policy was to collect royalties and never pay them. This conflict sowed the seeds of a powerful battle to come.

In August 1930, Farnsworth received great news: he was issued patent number 1,773,980 for his "electronic television system." In 1931, the largest manufacturer of radio receivers, Philco, agreed to license Farnsworth's patent and pay him royalties. However, around this same time, RCA was touting Zworykin as the inventor of electronic television (based on his 1923 patent application) and promoting his new invention: the iconoscope. Because the iconoscope served nearly the same function as Farnsworth's image dissector, future licensing agreements for Farnsworth's devices hinged on proving that he was the inventor of electronic television. The issue was presented before the U.S. Patent Office, and in 1934, this body gave priority to Farnsworth on the grounds that RCA had failed to prove that Zworykin's 1923 tube was operational. In other words, RCA failed to support the premise that the 1923 patent application was actually describing the iconoscope. RCA appealed the ruling, but it was unsuccessful. During this time, Farnsworth publicly demonstrated his system for the first time in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute and gained worldwide attention. Farnsworth even traveled to Europe to sign a licensing agreement with Baird of England to start their electronic television operation. Finally, in October 1939, RCA agreed to license Farnsworth's patents. This was the first time that RCA ever agreed to pay royalties to another company. According to Mrs. Farnsworth (1990), the RCA representative had tears in his eyes as he signed the agreement and accepted defeat. However, what appeared to be a major victory for Farnsworth was to take a tragic turn.

As the United States entered World War II, the government suspended the sale of television sets. In addition, by the end of the war many of Farnsworth's most important patents were about to expire. Farnsworth's company (Farnsworth Television and Radio, headquartered in Fort Wayne, Indiana) continued to manufacture television receivers until 1949, when it was sold to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). Farnsworth remained in Fort Wayne until 1967, when he resigned his position at ITT and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. It was there, in 1969, that Farnsworth and his wife watched Neil Armstrong take his "giant leap" to the lunar surface. Once Armstrong's feet touched the surface, Farnsworth turned to his wife and said, "Pem, this has made it all worthwhile" (Farnsworth, 1990, p. 328). What began as a boy's dream in a potato field was now helping to take mankind into the far reaches of the universe.

Farnsworth died in March 1971 in Salt Lake City. Although Zworykin (through the efforts of Sarnoff) has received much more acclaim as the "father" of television, Farnsworth was the first person to make electronic television a reality.

See also:Sarnoff, David; Television Broadcasting, History of; Television Broadcasting, Technology of.


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John W. Owens