Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

On the Web Since 1994

Podcasting Since January 2008

The 14-Year-Old Inventor of Television – Podcast #7

The following is an excerpt from my second book, Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart: More Stories From The Flip Side of History.

For the past several years, I have served on our local PBS television station’s Educational Services Committee.  A while back, I was asked by the station to attend a state conference on the role of digital television in the classrooms of tomorrow.  The conference was well attended, but, strangely enough, I was the only teacher there. 

The guest speaker was a former CEO of the RCA Corporation, a man whose name I have purposely forgotten.  His whole speech centered on the fact that RCA had single-handedly invented television.  On and on he went about their great achievement.  The woman that I attended the conference with could see that I was a bit annoyed by the whole bit.  Just the previous night, I had been telling her the real history of television, and what this guy was saying was just plain wrong.

My story, which you know is going to be totally different from that ex-RCA bigwig, starts in Indian Creek, Utah on August 19, 1906.  On this day, a boy named Philo Taylor Farnsworth was brought into the world and would eventually be the oldest of five children.  As all stories of great men go, he lived near poverty in a log cabin without any modern conveniences.

When Philo was twelve, the Farnsworth family picked up roots and moved to a small ranch in the Snake River Valley of Idaho in search of more fertile farmland.  Their new home had a convenience that they had never experienced before: that newfangled thing called electricity.  Philo took an instant interest in the flow of these mighty electrons.  In the attic of the new home, he discovered piles of science and radio magazines.  (Keep in mind that radio was brand new at the time.)  Philo read these magazines from cover to cover, absorbing all of the new knowledge that he could. He then read them over and over again. 

In the fall of1921, Philo enrolled in the local high school, but the courses were not challenging enough for him.  As a freshman, he was taking senior chemistry, but even this proved to be too simplistic for this young man’s eager mind.   His chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, provided him with additional tutoring after school each day. 

During the winter of 1922, young Philo continued his studies of the latest electronic magazines when he came across an article on something called television.  It was basically a dream at the time to somehow splice the images of movies with the sound of radio and transmit them through the air.  Yet, some scientists were making a little headway in this area.  Using a complex system of spinning disks, experimental television broadcasts were already underway.  The most famous of these men was a man named John Logie Baird, who actually sent the first transatlantic TV signal in 1928 and had an operating television network in Britain in the late 1920s. 

Farnsworth’s gut reaction was that this mechanical system of television could never work.  These beasts were just too difficult to calibrate, and their resolution was very poor.  Farnsworth figured that if he could harness the power of the electron, he could solve the problem.

Of course, the real question was how to do this.

Philo lacked a college degree and a real scientific education, but the answer hit him one day while he was plowing the family’s potato field at the tender age of just fourteen.  As he took the plow back and forth across the field, he couldn’t help but notice the parallel tracks left behind.  In simplistic terms, what Farnsworth quickly realized was that if he could get a beam of electrons to move back and forth row by row, he could generate a television image without any moving parts.

He had a great idea, but with whom could he share his excitement? 

There was only one man that Philo knew who could understand his concept.  That was Mr. Tolman, his chemistry teacher.  Once Philo perfected the fundamental design of the system, he drew a long series of diagrams on the chalkboard and explained the whole thing to Tolman.  Yes, a teenager had just laid down the blueprints for electronic television, the same system that is in use in nearly all households today.

Surely someone must have stumbled across this idea.  But Farnsworth knew that the researchers of the day were simply barking up the wrong tree.  Industry just had it plain wrong.  He would later find out that he was not the only person in the world with the same idea, but we’ll hold off on that for a while.

Of course, having a good idea and making it a reality are two totally different things.  The Farnsworth family moved backed to Utah, and Philo was accepted as an early admission to Brigham Young University.  With the vast resources that the University had to offer, Philo was finally able to do his own research into the nature of the cathode ray tube and the electrons it produced.  Sadly, Philo’s dad contracted pneumonia and died just before the Christmas of 1923.  Philo’s formal education was brought to a sudden end when he was only eighteen.

In 1925, Phil, as he now preferred to be known, met up with George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, who were in Salt Lake City to raise money for a community chest program.  Phil secured a temporary job with Everson and, during an after-dinner conversation one day, discussed his idea for electronic television.  Everson and Gorrell were hooked and wanted in on the development.  Together, the two men invested $6,000, which was a lot of dough in those days.  One stipulation to their agreement was that Farnsworth had to relocate to Los Angeles to do the research.  Figuring that L.A. offered better resources, he agreed.  Phil married his sweetheart Pem, and they moved off to the big city right away.

Once in Los Angeles, things were not as easy as one would think.  Keep in mind that since television hadn’t been invented, you couldn’t just head down to your local Radio Shack for spare parts.  Virtually everything had to be made from scratch.  After three months of experimentation, Farnsworth and his lab team were ready for their first test.  The tension in the room mounted.  The power switch was flipped.  Electrons surged into the device.


The generator blew the whole thing up.  Three months of work right down the drain.

The initial capital that Everson and Gorrell put up was quickly gone and another $25,000 was secured from an additional group of investors.  In return for their investment, Phil assured them he would have a picture for them within one year.

So, did he meet his self-imposed deadline?

Of course, he did.  On September 7, 1927, the redesigned system was ready for its first run.  Phil, Pem, and Everson gathered in one room of the lab.  Pem’s brother Cliff was in another room with a glass slide that Phil had drawn a thick straight line drawn on.  As Cliff dropped the slide into the “Image Dissector”, it appeared on the small receiver in the other room.   As Cliff rotated the slide, the transmitted line also turned.  While the image was still very small and crude, the modern age of television was born.  (The world would never be the same again.)

Every great invention seems to be noted for the first words its inventor utters when that darn thing initially works.  Edison supposedly recorded “Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow….” on his first phonograph recording.   Bell has been quoted as saying, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.”  Let’s just say that Farnsworth’s words were not quite as dramatic.  He simply said, “There you are: electronic television.” 

Work continued for the next year on refining the system.  The investors were looking for a return on their money, but that was still many years away.  A group of investors gathered at the Farnsworth lab in May 1928 to see their first demonstration.  Farnsworth knew exactly what image he could impress these guys with.  He transmitted a big dollar sign for their entertainment.  They were impressed and immediately wanted to sell the whole thing, including Farnsworth and his lab gang, off to a big company that could afford to make this dream a reality.  Farnsworth convinced the investors that his patent portfolio was so valuable that in the long run they would be rewarded with much more money than they would get by cashing their chips in at that time.  They decided to hang in there, at least for a while.

Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of modern television.
Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of modern television. Wikipedia image.

Word of Farnsworth’s success quickly spread around the country.  Hollywood actors, probably a bit concerned that they were about to be put out of work, flocked to see this new-fangled device.  Word eventually reached the ears of David Sarnoff, who headed the RCA behemoth.  At the time, RCA controlled the world of radio.  They basically owned everything related to the transmission of sound.  That included all of the important patents, the transmitters, the studios, and even the license for any other company to build a radio.  Dealing with RCA at the time was a do-or-die situation.  You did what they said, or they would put you out of business. 

It would probably come as no surprise to you that Sarnoff was worried about the effect Farnsworth and his television would have on RCA’s radio monopoly.  Sarnoff knew that his company had to do whatever it took to keep their existing technology from becoming obsolete. 

In 1930, Sarnoff took his first step toward squashing Farnsworth.  He hired a man named Vladimir K. Zworykin, a Russian émigré who was employed by Westinghouse at the time.  Remember how I said that Farnsworth was not the only one in the world thinking about electronic television?  You see, in 1923, Zworykin had applied for a U.S. patent for just such an invention.  Unfortunately, Westinghouse had little interest in the project and it was dropped.  The patent was not issued at the time, but the application remained on file.

Before coming to RCA, Sarnoff directed Zworykin to make a visit to Farnsworth’s lab in California to see what was going on.  Zworykin was not to mention that he was working for RCA.  When Zworykin showed up at the lab, Farnsworth was a bit too naïve and explained how the whole system worked.  Zworykin was amazed by what he saw and after three days of prowling around the lab, he left.

Sarnoff then took a visit out to the Farnsworth facility to see for himself what was going on.  He offered Everson $100,000 for the entire kit-and-caboodle, including Farnsworth.  Everson turned him down and Sarnoff left.  But this would not be the last that would be heard from Sarnoff and the RCA monster.  Sarnoff was going to control television.  There were no if, and, or buts about it.

In the spring of 1931, Farnsworth entered into his first licensing deal with the Philco Radio Corporation.  As part of the deal, Farnsworth had to move the entire operation east to Philadelphia, but he found out quickly that he could not function under the corporate system and quit.  Additional capital was raised (a tough thing to do during the Great Depression) and Farnsworth Television was established in Philadelphia. 

By 1934, Zworykin and his team at RCA had put together their own electronic television system, using much of the same technology that he had observed while visiting Farnsworth several years prior.  Their new camera tube was called the “Iconoscope” and was nearly identical to Farnsworth’s Image Dissector. 

Hey!  They can’t do that.  That’s theft.

Well, they did.  And to top that, the RCA legal team turned around and sued Farnsworth for patent interference.  Their claim was very simple.  Farnsworth’s television system was based on Zworykin’s original 1923 patent application while still at Westinghouse.  Sarnoff knew that if he couldn’t buy Farnsworth’s system, he would just sue the pants off the company until they were either forced to sell to RCA or were put out of business.  It was the classic case of David vs. Goliath. 

When they got to court, RCA’s major argument was that there was absolutely no way that a young kid could develop such a complicated system while still in high school.  But, Farnsworth had one ace up his sleeve.  Remember Mr. Tolman, Philo’s high school chemistry teacher?   He was able to reproduce in detail what young Phil had sketched on his blackboard on that fateful day in the early 1920s. 

In April 1934, the United States Patent Office gave its ruling on the case of Zworykin vs. Farnsworth.  The last sentence of the decision sums up the whole thing.  “Priority of invention is awarded Philo T. Farnsworth.” 

In plain English, the decision came down to this.  There are basically two parts to a television system.  The first part captures the image and converts it to an electrical signal.  On the other end is your television, which takes that electrical signal and converts it back to an image.  Making the television receiver was the easy part and had been figured out many years before.  Building a device that electronically captured an image was the difficult part, which had eluded even the best researchers, including Zworykin.  The decision made it clear that Farnsworth was the true inventor of such a device.  Yes, Farnsworth legally declared the true inventor of television.

RCA had lost.  The little guy had finally won.  At least it seemed that way.

Of course, RCA was not about to give up that easily.  It filed an appeal and kept Farnsworth in court for years. The head honchos at RCA did everything possible to drain Farnsworth’s meager resources.  They knew that as long as they kept the patents in litigation, Farnsworth would be unable to license out television to any other company and earn some much-needed cash. 

In the summer of 1934, it looked like the tide was about to turn for Farnsworth.  He was invited to demonstrate his television system at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.  The crowds lined up for blocks just to get a peek at television for the first time.  The event was scheduled to run for ten days, but proved so popular, that it was extended to three weeks. 

But money was still a big problem for Farnsworth.  Having a successful public demonstration is great, but it doesn’t help fund research.  While the courts forbade him from licensing the technology to any U.S. firm, he found his savior in John Logie Baird, the guy running that mechanical system over in Great Britain.  When it became clear that electronic television was the wave of the future, Baird was forced by his financial backers to negotiate a deal with Farnsworth.  In exchange for $50,000, Baird now had a contract to produce electronic television in England.  Much of Farnsworth’s earnings went to pay off the debt accrued by fighting RCA in court. 

Phil had wanted to use some of this newfound capital to build a television studio, but his investors objected.  So, Farnsworth built it himself.  The FCC granted Farnsworth an experimental license to broadcast as W3XPF.  There was one strange problem with these initial broadcasts.  One of the peculiarities of the Image Dissector was that red, which should have photographed black, was broadcast as white.  Blue looked almost as weird.  In other words, people looked very strange.  Max Factor, the man, provided the solution.  Blue makeup was applied to the lips and around the eyes of the actors.  They must have looked really strange in person, but they looked just fine on the tube.

The court battles with RCA continued, but Farnsworth Television pressed on.  In 1937, RCA felt that it finally had the weapon to knock Farnsworth out of the race.  RCA engineers had developed a new device called the “Image Orthicon” that its lawyers were sure did not violate any of Farnsworth’s patents.  RCA was now going to own television and a date was set for its introduction.  That was to be the New York World’s Fair in April 1939. 

            Sarnoff’s joy did not last long.  When the patent application was filed, it was soon learned that Farnsworth had been issued a patent in 1933 for a device that utilized the same technical principles.  RCA was beaten again.

            The World’s Fair came and RCA spent an incredible amount of dough promoting its invention.  Sarnoff made sure that Zworykin and the RCA team of engineers took full credit for the invention of television, a myth that still exists to this day.  (Check your favorite encyclopedia to see what it says…)  Of course, RCA did not own the critical patents on the invention, but that wasn’t going to stop it from promoting it as its own.

            That December, RCA was finally forced to admit defeat.  It entered into an agreement with Farnsworth Television to pay for the use of the technology of television.  Farnsworth looked like he was about to get filthy rich, but luck was once again not on his side.  His battle with RCA may have been over, but another battle was brewing overseas: World War II.  Once the U.S. entered the war, all further development of television was placed on hold.  The electronics industry had to use its resources to produce radar and other military communications equipment. 

            Farnsworth now had a bigger problem on his hands.  After such a lengthy battle with RCA, he knew that his key patents would expire by the time the war was over.  And they did.  When the war ended, Farnsworth pulled himself out of the day-to-day operations of the business.  He became very depressed and turned to alcohol for comfort.  While Farnsworth Television did eventually manufacture televisions, mismanagement placed the company in financial ruin and forced them to sell off to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in 1949.  Farnsworth Television was no more.  Due in large part to the propaganda put out by RCA, Farnsworth’s association with television would be quickly forgotten.  RCA may not have beaten Farnsworth’s patents, but they surely beat Farnsworth.

            In 1957, Farnsworth appeared on the television show I’ve Got a Secret as Dr. X.  Bill Cullen asked him, “Is this some kind of a machine that might be painful when it’s used?”  Dr. X responded, “Yes. Sometimes it’s most painful.”  No one was able to guess what Farnsworth’s contribution was, and he was awarded the standard prize of eighty bucks and a carton of Winston cigarettes.  What a reward.  None of those guys would have even had a job without Farnsworth’s genius.

            While Farnsworth would never have anything to do with television again, he did continue with his research.  He invented the first simple electron microscope and worked on the fundamentals of radar.  His greatest passion, however, was nuclear fusion.  He spent the last twenty years of his life pursuing a clean, unlimited source of energy for mankind.  When Farnsworth died on March 11, 1971, his name had clearly faded into obscurity.  Yet, his contribution continues to live on. 

And to think that it all started with a field of potatoes.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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