One of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century was conceived
in a muddy hayfield on a farm in Rigby, Idaho. The invention was
television and the inventor was Philo Taylor Farnsworth. Television
has changed the world, but its inventor remained largely unknown.
The names of Edison, Marconi and Bell are invariably associated
with light bulb, radio and telephone respectively. But if we ask
: Who invented television? The answer may not be that forthcoming.
Many names have been associated with the inventing of television—Nipkow,
Baird, Jerkins, Zworykin, and dozen others. However, many forget
that `none of these names would be remembered if Farnsworth had
not breathed life into the dream that obsessed them all’.
Unfortunately he name of Philo Taylor Farnsworth, who first demonstrated
the electronic television is not a very familiar name like Edison,
Marconi or Bell. Although best known for his development of television,
Farnsworth did research in many other areas. He worked on the development
of electron microscope, radar, peacetime uses of atomic energy and
nuclear fusion process. He invented the first infant incubator.
Farnsworth held 300 US and foreign patents. Farnsworth died in 1971
out of depression, drinking and illness. At the time of his death
he was a bankrupt man and he was anything but famous. He died in
obscurity. History is making amends and Farnsworth is now getting
recognition that he deserved. His statue was erected in Utah and
Washington, D.C. The peak in the Oquirrh Mountains where Utah’s
television station antennas sit was named after him. The US Postal
Service commemorated him with a stamp in 1983. The Time magazine
named Farnsworth as one of the 100 great scientists and thinkers
of the 20th century. The US News & World Report called him one
of the world’s greatest inventors, alongside the Wright Brothers
and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Farnsworth was born on August 19, 1906 to Lewish
Edwin and Serena Bastian Farnsworth at Indian Creek, near Beaver
City, Utah in a community, which was settled by his paternal grandfather
in 1856 under instructions from the Mormon Church leader Brigham
Young himself. Philo Farnsworth was named after his grandfather.
When Farnsworth was 11, his family moved to his uncle Albert’s
farm near Rigby, Idaho. And the story of television began here.
In the spring of 1919, the Farnsworth family reached the crest of
a hill overlooking their new home, after a difficult journey over
the mountains from their native Utah. At the reins of one of the
three covered wagons was Philo. He surveyed the scene before him
and after seeing wires running between the different buildings,
he shouted excitedly, "This place has electricity!" None
of the other family members had noticed this. Before this Philo
had never seen electricity. He had only read about this invisible
force in books. It did not take more than a few weeks for young
Philo to figure out what made the electrical system work. And what
is more he did it all by himself. One day seeing his son coming
forward to repair the disabled generator at the farm, when all the
adults had no clue, Lewis Farnsworth realized that his son had a
natural affinity for the system. After this incident the boy-electrician
was made the official chief engineer of the Farnsworth farm. Now
it was no more a pastime for Philo. It became his own field of work.
Using the spare parts lying around the farm, young Plilo constructed
over a dozen devices. He built electric motors for running his mother’s
washing machine. Farnsworth’s mother wanted him to be a violinist,
and he remained an avid violin player all his life.
In the attic above the house, Philo created his
own world. Whenever he found spare time Philo would come to this
place to explore electricity in whatever books or journals his father
could afford. The stories of scientific inventions and discoveries
used to fire his imagination. He thought inventors possessed a special
power that allowed them to see deep into the mysteries of nature
and use her secrets to make man’s life more comfortable. He
also thought himself a born inventor. At the age of 12 he won a
$25 prize from one popular science magazine for inventing a thief
proof car lock.
In the fall of 1921, Farnsworth entered high school
as a freshman. The school was six kilometers away from his home.
He rode to high school on a horseback. He found the teaching at
school too dull. Somehow, he managed to find his way into the senior
chemistry class. Even this advanced course proved inadequate for
young Farnsworth’s thirst for knowledge. Since his school
days Farnsworth was intrigued with the electron and electricity.
He read his high school’s electronics encyclopedia from cover
to cover. He paid special attention to two of its entries—the
one on the photoelectric cell and the other on the cathode ray tube.
The chemistry teacher in the school named Justin Tolman took special
interest in this young prodigy. He took extra time after class each
day to tutor Farnsworth.
One cold night in January 1922, Farnsworth, while
reading in his attic hideaway, stumbled upon an article about something
very new: "Pictures That Could Fly Through the Air." The
writer of the article talked about a speculative electronic device,
an electronic magic carpet, a hybrid of radio and movies, capable
of simultaneously projecting both image and sound into homes of
people around the world. Farnsworth’s imagination was captivated
by this idea. After reading the articles a number of times he was
convinced that he was uniquely equipped to solve this problem. He
began to read whatever he could lay his hands on the subject. In
this process he came to know that several inventors had achieved
limited success with a mechanical television system.
Between 1914 and 1918 radio was primarily used
for two-way communication, but by 1920 broadcast radio was a commercial
reality. Now the next logical step was the broadcast film. Large
corporations were quickly moving to research in this new technology.
George Carey, an inventor from Boston, had proposed a system for
transmitting images and sound. According to Carey each element or
piece of the picture was to be simultaneously carried over separate
circuits. W. E. Sayer of the USA and Maurice Leblanc of France in
1880 proposed an operating principle for all forms of televised
transmission. Unlike Carey, who needed separate circuits, Sayer
and Lablanc proposed that each element in the final picture could
be rapidly scanned, line-by-line and frame-by-frame. However, the
resulting image would appear as a coherent whole and not as a succession
of black-and-white dots. This is because of the limitations of human
eyesight. So Sayer and Leblanc theoretically established the feasibility
of using a single wire or channel for transmission. So now the problem
was to achieve it practically. In 1873, the photoelectric properties
(that is electrical conduction varies with the amount of light)
of selenium paved the way for development of a practical television.
In 1884, Paul Nipkow, a German inventor, received a patent based
on rotating disc with a spiral-shaped aperture. Nipkow’s device
was able to scan images simply and effectively at both the scanning
and receiving ends. This synchronization of the scanning speed of
the camera and receiver tremains essential to all television systems
in use. The major disadvantage of Nipkow’s television was
the means of transmission. Selenium was not a suitable photoconductor
as it responded to changes in light too slowly. Potassium hydride-coated
cell created by the German scientists in 1913 offered heightened
sensitivity to light. Moreover it was able to follow rapid changes
of light as well. The invention of this cell made it possible to
construct a working television for the first time. In 1897 Karl
Ferdinand Braun developed an early receiver based of this cell made
it possible to construct a working television for the first time.
In 1897 Karl Ferdinand Braun developed an early receiver based on
a cathode-ray tube and a fluorescent screen. It may be noted that
a cathode ray tube is a device that converts electrical signals
into a pattern on a screen and forms the basis of the television
receiver. In 1907 Boris Rosing not only proposed the use of Braun’s
receiver but also improved upon it by introducing a mirror-drum
scanner that operated at the transmitter and. By doing this he succeeded
in transmitting and reproducing some crude geometrical patterns.
Between 1908 and 1911 A.A.Campbell Swinton proposed a method that
eventually formed the basis of modern television. He proposed the
use of cathode ray tubes out be the camera and receiver ends. However,
Swinton, method was too advanced in his time for practical application.
Daniel McFarlan Moore, an American inventor, created the first neon
gas-discharge lamp, which made it possible to vary the light intensity
at the receiver end. It was Farnsworth, who realized when he was
student in school that there was an inherent problem in trying to
convert light into electricity using whirling disc and mirrors.
This is because discs could not be whirled fast enough to transmit
a coherent light. He thought that means of transmission should be
such which could work at the speed of light. And this he achieved
But Farnsworth correctly could guess that these
rudimentary systems would not work fast enough to capture and reassemble
anything but shadows and flickers. It is said that Farnsworth conceived
the idea of electronic television while he was tilling a potato
field back and forth with a horse drawn harrow. Farnsworth realized
that an electron beam could scan images in the same way, line by
line, just you read a book.
His father advised Philo not to reveal his idea
to anyone because he thought ideas were too valuable and fragile,
and could be easily pirated. But then Philo needed someone other
than his father to tell him that his idea would work. Finally he
shared his idea with his chemistry teacher. One late afternoon in
March 1922, Tolman found that Farnsworth was drawing complicated
figures and equations across the blackboard in his classroom. Tolman
did not find any connection between these figures and diagrams and
his chemistry teaching. So he asked Farnsworth: "What has this
got to do with Chemistry?" "I've got this idea,"
said Farnsworth. "I've got to tell you about it because you're
the only person I know who can understand it." Then after taking
a deep breath he said: "This is my idea for electronic television."
Tolman was naturally startled to hear it as the concept of television
was totally unknown to him. So he said: "Television?"
After this incident both the teacher and the pupil
spent the next several weeks developing and elaborating on Farnsworth’s
concept. At the end they were both convinced that Farnsworth’s
idea would work. What they did not know was that when Farnsworth
would get an opportunity to prove his idea.
With the loss of his uncle’s farm in 1923,
Farnsworth’s family moved to a place near Provo, Utah where
Philo's father found work hauling freight over the mountains in
mule-driven wagons. Farnsworth got admitted himself in the Brigham
Young University as a special freshman. For this he had to work
hard. Once admitted, he had the vast resources of a major university
in terms of library and laboratory facilities. He did his own private
research about cathode ray tubes and vacuum tubes.
He could spend only two years at the University.
He was forced to leave the university to look after his family after
his father’s death. His father died of pneumonia, which he
contracted just before Christmas 1923. He was caught in a violent
snowstorm while he was crossing the mountains. He had no specific
employment. He did whatever he could get. He worked as a member
of logging crews, as a salesman of electrical products and as an
electrician on the railroad. He also repaired radios and delivered
them to their owners.
The Farnsworth family moved to Provo, where they
shared a house with another family, the Gardeners. Cliff, the oldest
of the two Gardner boys, was nearly the same age as Farnsworth.
They became close friends because like Farnsworth, Cliff was also
interested in radio and other electrical things. Cliff became a
close associate of Farnsworth in the development of electronic television.
Farnsworth also got attracted to one of the six daughters of the
family, Elma Gardener,whom he later married.
Both Farnsworth and Cliff subscribed to a correspondence
course in Radio maintenance. In the spring of 1926 the two boys
decided to start their own business installing and repairing radios.
And to materialize their plan they set off to Sal Lake City. However,
their first venture was a failure. During this time Farnsworth thought
about writing his ideas for designing and developing an electronic
television and submitting it to Popular Science Magazine. He hoped
that by this way he would be able to earn about 100 dollars. However,
Cliff persuaded him not to do this. Cliff returned to Provo and
Farnsworth signed up with the University of Utah Placement Service
with the hope that they might find him work. Through the University
Placement Service, Farnsworth came in contact with George Everson
and Les Gorrell, professional fundraisers from California. Everson
and Gorrell wanted to organise a community chest campaign in Salt
Lake City. They used to hire native college students to staff their
operations. So they contacted the University of Utah Placement Service.
Farnsworth was also an applicant. While he was being interviewed
for one of a number of jobs for conducting a community survey, Farnsworth
straightway offered himself to be the Survey Manager. He told them
that he was the most suited candidate for the job as he was so familiar
with the area. He was selected. Farnsworth's first responsibility
was to complete the job of hiring the campaign staff. Among his
first recruits were Cliff and Elma Gardner, his future wife. His
association with Everson and Gorrel proved to be a long lasting
one. Towards the end of the survey Everson asked Farnsworth whether
he would go back to school again. To this Farnsworth replied: "No,
I can't afford it. I've been trying to find a way to finance an
invention of mine but it's pretty tough. I've been thinking about
it for about five years, though, and I'm quite sure it would work.
Unfortunately, the only way I can prove it is by doing it myself;
but I don't have any money.” On being asked by Gorrel that
what was his idea, Farnsworth replied: "It's a television system."
The concept of television was totally new to them. So they asked
Farnsworth to explain his idea. While describing his ideas, his
speech found new eloquence. It seemed as some special power came
to him, as his genius suddenly found a way of expressing itself.
Thought Everson and Gorrell had no idea what he was talking about
but they were touched by his passion. But still Everson remained
skeptical. He could not believed that either General Electric or
Bell Labs had not already accomplished what Farnsworth proposed
to do. As an attempt to convince Everson, Farnsworth presented a
summary of the progress that had been made till then in realizing
a viable television system. Everson became more and more intrigued
and finally he asked Farnsworth how much it would cost to build
a model of the machine. Farnsworth suggested a figure of about $5,000.
Everson said: "Well, your guess is as good as any. I surely
have no idea what is involved. But I have about $6,000 in a special
account in San Francisco. I've been saving it with the idea that
I'd take a long shot on something and maybe make a killing. This
is about as wild a gamble as I can imagine. I'll put the $6,000
up to work this thing out. If we win, it will be fine, but if we
lose, I won't squawk." Finally an association of Everson, Farnsworth
and Gorrell was formed. It was decided that for the contribution
of his invaluable genius, Farnsworth would control half the equity
in the company and the remaining half would be equally divided between
Everson and Gorrel for raising the funds required to implement the
Following the suggestion of Everson, it was decided
to set up the operation in Los Angeles. It was thought that the
resources of a vast metropolis like Los Angeles would be much more
suited to finding and fabricating parts for the exotic apparatus
of Farnsworth. But before moving out of Utah, Farnsworth and Elma
decided to get married. Their parents were not in favour of a marriage
in such a haste. However, inspite of their parental objections the
young couple got married by a Mormon bishop at Provo. At the time
of marriage Farnsworth was 19 and Elma was 18. The newlywed couple
rode the Pullman train from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. Before
this journey Elma had never been out of Utah. After reaching the
destination, their first priority was finding a suitable place in
which to set up housekeeping and an electronics laboratory. Eventually
they found a cozy one bedroom apartment with a small yard at 1339
New Hampshire Avenue in the heart of glamorous Hollywood of 1920s.
Farnsworth set up shop in the dining room.
Farnsworth started working. But it was an extremely
challenging task. Virtually everything had to make from scratch.
He had to design and build many of the basic tools required for
the machine. He had to teach himself a number of new areas like
electrochemistry and radio electronics. Even he had to learn the
ancient art of glass blowing because most of the glass blowers he
met said that the tubes he wanted were impossible to make.
As the work progressed it became obvious to Everson
that Farnsworth's first estimate of $5,000 would not bring him close
to completing a working model of the machine. So more money needed
to be raised. Before getting money from other sources, Everson wanted
to be assured about the feasibility of the idea by a more reliable
source. Accordingly he contacted the firm of Lyon and Lyon, local
patent attorneys, for advice. After listening to George, Leonard
Lyon, one of the partners of the firm, said: "If you have what
you think you have, you've got the world by the tail. If not, then
the sooner you find out, the better." Following this, arrangements
were made for Farnsworth to meet with Lyon and Dr. Mott Smith of
the California Institute of Technology, who would pass judgment
on the merits of Farnsworth's idea. The meeting lasted for hours.
Lyon’s reaction was expressed in the following words: "It's
monstrous! Just amazing . . . the daring of this boy's mind!"
After the meeting was over, Everson asked Dr. Smith
the following three terse questions:
"Is this thing scientifically sound?"
"Is it original?"
"Is this thing feasible? Can it be worked out to make a practical
Smith’s answers to the above three questions were:
"I'm pretty well acquainted with recent electronic developments,
I know of no other work that is being carried out along similar
"You will encounter great difficulty in doing it, but I see
no insuperable obstacles at this time."
After listening Dr. Smith’s answers Everson
was fully convinced. He decided to raise $ 25,000, though Farnsworth
thought that with another $ 12,000 he would be able to come up with
a working model of the machine. Raising money was not an easy task.
Everson found that the wealthy people very whimsical. For example
somebody told him that he would support the project if it had something
to do with bacteriology. Some other person told that he would support
it if it was a colour television.
There was another problem. Farnsworth was a stranger
to the locality, The work being done in Farnsworth’s apartment
seemed to be unusual. Someone thought that perhaps a still was being
operated. There was prohibition in those days. So one day men in
uniforms descended to search the apartment. They could not find
any alcoholic product. However, the sergeant heading the investigating
team was really amazed by seeing the things assembled in the apartment
and he started wondering whether something more sinister than a
still was going on there. So he asked Farnsworth what all the staff
was. "This is my idea for electronic television," replied
Farnsworth. The sergeant was so startled to listen this that he
simply asked: "Tell a what?"
In August, 1926, George Everson, while looking
for investigators met a banker affectionately called as "Daddy"
Fagan at Crocker National Bank in San Francisco. He went there to
meet Jess McCager, whom he knew earlier. Not finding him there,
Everson was totally disappointed. Observing Everson’s disappointment,
Fagan, who at the time was considered the most conservative banker
on the West Coast, asked if he could help him. "I don't think
it is anything that would interest you in the least," Everson
told Fagan. "It's not an investment, it's not even a speculation.
It is wildcatting, and very wildcatting at that." For some
reasons "Daddy" Fagan became interested and he persuaded
Everson to explain why he had come to the bank. After listening
Everson, Fagan said: "Well, that's a damn fool idea, but somebody
ought to put money into it," Fagan said, adding, "Someone
who can afford to lose it." After two days of his conversation
with Fagan, W.W. Crocker himself advised George to summon his young
genius to San Francisco to meet Roy Bishop, a successful capitalist
and an engineer of some standing. Farnsworth met Bishop to explain
his ideas. While Bishop became convinced about the soundness of
the idea but he was not sure of Farnsworth’s ability to work
out commercially. Before taking any decision, he wanted to consult
with Harlan Honn, another “hardboiled” engineer. He
said: "If you can convince him (Honn) that your proposition
is sound, then I think we can find a way of backing you." Honn
was satisfied with the scheme. He said: "Why sure this system
will work. I think very well of it." Finally the matter was
discussed in the Directors Room of the bank. Farnsworth was asked
to explain his ideas before the principals of the bank. The bank
decided to provide $25,000 (at that time it was a substantial sum)
and one half of the second floor over a garage at 2002 Green Street
in San Francisco where he could set up a laboratory to implement
his ideas. Roy Bishop said: "Young man, you are the first person
who has ever gotten anything out of this room without putting up
something in return." Then Bishop addressed the rest of the
group and delivered an ironic benediction: "We're backing nothing
here but the ideas in this boy's mind. Believe me, we're going to
treat him like a race horse." This was the beginning of Crocker
After finalizing the plans for his television
system and drawing detailed diagrams, Farnsworth decided to file
for his first patent. The application was submitted on January 7,
1927. As the documents disclosed an invention that would work, January
7, 1927 may be considered as the date on which television was invented.
However, patents could not be officially granted until the device
had been proven to work or “reduced to practice”. On
September 7, 1927, Farnsworth and his friends became the first humans
to gaze into the shimmering eye of electronic television. For Farnsworth
it was just a beginning. The crude, flickering image of a white
straight line drawn on a black background only proved that the idea
that struck him when he was 13 would work. He was aware of the magnitude
of the job that now lay before him before he would be able to take
this fragile invention from the laboratory to the living room. Work
continued for another year funded by the Crocker group. As time
passed the expenses increased. Nearly $60,000 was spent by the Spring
of 1928. This was more than twice the original limit. So it became
essential that Farnsworth showed his invention to the people who
were paying for its development. So a date was set for a demonstration.
The Crocker group reassembled at 202 Green Street in May of 1928.
When, 16 months earlier, they supported the idea of a 19-year-old
boy who told them that he could invent television, they really understood
very little of what Farnsworth meant by that. Only reason why they
supported was that for some unexplainable reason they thought it
was bound to be a winner. So 16 months later they had no idea what
to expect. They had no idea what a television would look like..
However, they were amazed to an apparition of a dollar sign ($)
materialized out of the darkness. After the demonstration, Roy Bishop
said: "It will take a pile of money as high as Telegraph Hill
to successfully conclude this work." Then he further added,
"I think we should take immediate steps to sell this invention
to one of the large electrical companies that can afford to provide
more adequate capital and facilities." Farnsworth was not surprised
by the Bishop’s proposal. He described what he thought about
the future of the project. He reasoned, everybody who wanted to
get into the television business would have to come to Farnsworth
to license his patents. Thus, the patents would earn from royalties
many times more than what they could get if they tried to cash out
now. The Crocker group agreed to continue finding money to support
On Sept. 3, 1928, The San Francisco Chronicle
published an article titled “SF MAN’S INVENTION TO REVOLUTIONISE
TELEVISION”. The article was accompanied by a front page photo
of Philo T. Farnsworth, posing as he would a hundred times with
his magic jars in hand. “In any method of transmitting moving
images at a distance, some means must be evolved of breaking the
image into pin points of light. These points are translated into
electrical impulses, the electrical impulses are collected at the
receiving end and translated back into light, and the image results.
All television systems now in use employ a revolving disc, two feet
in diameter, to break up or “scan” the image. A similar
disc is at the receiving end, and the two discs must revolve at
precisely the same instant and at precisely the same speed or blurred
vision results. Farnsworth’s system employs no moving parts
whatever. Instead of moving the machine, he varies the electric
current that plays over the image and thus gets the necessary scanning…The
laboratory model he has built transmits the image on a screen one
and one-quarters inches square. It is a queer looking little image
in bluish light now, one that frequently smudges and blurs, but
the basic principle is achieved and perfection is now a matter of
engineering. The sending tube which is the heart of Farnsworth’s
transmitting set is about the size of an ordinary quart jar that
a housewife uses for preserving fruit, and receiving tube containing
the screen is even smaller.”
Not long after the Chronicle article appeared,
fire swept through the second floor of 202 Green Street, charring
all of Farnsworth's equipment. The disaster highlighted the hazards
involved in the Farnsworth’s project. The chemicals like potassium
used for the project were highly volatile; vacuum tubes being still
very fragile occasionally imploded without warning, and of course
there were the strong currents and high voltages that were always
present. Farnsworth and his co-workers quickly rebuilt the laboratory.
In March 1929, Everson and McCargar reincorporated
the venture as Television Laboratories Inc. and McCargar was declared
president and chief executive. Everson was named treasurer and Farnsworth,
who continued to own a substantial share of the enterprise, was
named the Director of Research. Farnsworth accepted the new circumstances
and started working with a new zeal. He was particularly happy about
the fact that the threat of a sell out had been averted, though
Inventors engaged in developing television systems
of their own, failed to appreciate the significance of Farnsworth’s
invention. They preferred to rely on mechanical methods. Howver,
David Sarnoff, the Vice President and General Manager of the RCA
started taking great interest in what was going on at 202 Green
Street. In 1930 Sarnoff contacted the services of Vladimir Kosma
Zworykin, a Russian-born research engineer. Zworykin had filed for
a patent in 1923 for a camera tube called an icnoscope. Zworykin
had achieved significant research results with a receiver similar
to Farnsworth in 1929. However, he was unable to duplicate Farnsworth’s
success with a suitable electronic camera. Zworykin’s system
could not produce more than 40 or 50 lines per frame.
Zworykin visited Farnsworth at San Francisco.
He introduced himself as a fellow researcher interested in television.
Farnsworth welcomed him. Zworykin spent three full days at Farnsworth’s
laboratory. He became familiar with many of the most confidential
aspects of Farnsworth’s invention. On returning to RCA’s
laboratory Zworykin began to reverse engineer Farnsworth’s
invention. When Zworykin did not succeed Sarnoff tried to buy Farnsworth
out. He offered Everson about $100,000 with the condition that Farnsworth’s
service will go along with it. It was a staggering sum in those
days. However, Everson and Farnsworth did not accept the offer.
In the Spring of 1931, when the Philco Radio Corporation
in Philadelphia became the first bonafide licensee of the Farnsworth
company. Philco was a respectable firm that did a fair share of
the radio business during the 1920s for which they paid the usual
patent royalties to RCA. Still Philco survived on the periphery
of the "Radio Trust," in which large companies like RCA,
AT&T and General Electic all pooled their patents. To strengthen
their position in the industry Philco decided to support Farnsworth’s
ongoing research. In exchange, Farnsworth agreed to move his entire
operation to Philadelphia to get Philco started in the television
business. The working environment in Philadelpia was totally different
from the environment in which Farnsworth and his co-workers worked
in San Francisco. Though they found difficulty in adjusting the
new environment they continued to work.
During 1933, Farnsworth acquired enough investment
capital to restructure the venture, which was renamed as Farnsworth
Television, Inc. Farnsworth found a suitable location at 127 East
Mermaid Lane, in a suburban neighborhood near Philadelphia, and
with the underpaid help of Cliff Gardener and Tobe Rutherford, began
rebuilding. Their task was formidable. Most of the important equipment
that they needed for their work was the property of Philco and had
to be left behind. So they had to build from scratch again.
Unfortunately for Farnsworth, the Radio Corporation
was not so favorably disposed. The competition began intensifying
early in 1934, when RCA began demonstrating their own new electronic
television system which Zworykin succeeded in producing three years
after his visit to Farnsworth's lab. In 1933, after Farnsworth abruptly
terminated his arrangement with Philco and struck off once again
on his own, he resumed his efforts to find another company willing
to support his research with a patent license.
Through contacts in the industry, Farnsworth and
his backers learned why none of the most likely candidates would
offer Farnsworth a license for his patents. All these companies
were actively engaged in the manufacture of radio equipment, and
so were dependent on patent licenses with the Radio Corporation
of America for their livelihood.
Farnsworth and his backers did the only thing
they could do: they mounted a challenge before the examiners of
the U.S. Patent Office. The ensuing interference proceedings focused
primarily on Claim 15 of Farnsworth's 1930 patent #1,773,980, which
describes the simple, elegant concept of an "electrical image,"
which is the critical step in the process of converting light into
“An apparatus for television which comprises
means for forming an electrical image, and means for scanning each
elementary area of the electrical image, and means for producing
a train of electrical energy in accordance with the intensity of
the elementary area of the electrical image being scanned.”
This paragraph, which was first composed in 1927,
announces the arrival of television on the Earth. It was essentially
the idea that 13-year-old Farnsworth, visualised in his mind’s
eye while tilling the potato fields in Rigby, Idaho. This paragraph
describes the essence of Farnsworth's invention. Yet in 1934, RCA's
lawyers contended that Zworykin’s 1923 patent had priority
over any of Farnsworth’s patent including the one for his
image dissector. Farnsworth spent many weeks answering questions
posed by a battery of RCA's legal experts. Farnsworth's case was
handled by a sharp young attorney, Donald K. Lippincott, who was
every bit as much an engineer as he was a lawyer. Lippincott and
Farnsworth together built clear, concise and uncompromising arguments
that methodically demolished RCA's claim. RCA’s legal experts
particularly challenged Farnsworth’s claim that he conceived
the idea of electronic television when he was in a school. His chemistry
teacher, Justin Tolman came forward to testify that Farnsworth had
indeed conceived the idea when he was a high school student. What
is more Tolman 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 Farnsworth had
gone on to invent.
In April of 1934, the United States Patent Office
delivered its first milestone decision in the case of Zworykin vs.
Farnsworth. In its final ruling the patent office summarily dismissed
RCA's claim and priority of invention was awarded to Farnsworth.
However, RCA had an option of appeal within 16 months. RCA appealed
and lost. However, litigations on different aspects continued for
In the summer of 1934 the prestigious Franklin
Institute of Philadelphia invited Philo T. Farnsworth to give a
full scale public demonstration of television. It was first such
demonstration in the world. Farnsworth accepted the invitation.
This gave him an opportunity to forget his problems with RCA. During
the preparation for his demonstration he was introduced to Russell
Seymour Turner, an engineer and businessman whose father had accumulated
a large chunk of Farnsworth stock. Turner developed a great liking
for Farnsworth since the moment he saw him. He ensured that Farnsworth
had enough funds to build a completely new system for the Franklin
Institute exhibit. A picture tube of the size of a ten gallon jug
was made and the camera was compact even by today's standards. The
exhibit was an unprecedented success. There was little advanced
publicity. However, when the exhibit was opened in August, 1934,
the response was so strong that the event, which was originally
planned to last ten days continued for three weeks.
The tremendous success at the Franklin Institute
was a great morale booster for Farnsworth and his men. It was their
first contact with so large an audience. The Franklin Institute
demonstration attracted considerable international attention. Many
scientists and dignitaries from all over the world started visiting
Farnsworth's lab at 127 Mermaid Lane in the Philadelphia suburbs.
In the fall of 1934, Farnsworth sailed for Europe
hoping to form an alliance that would enable him to overcome his
difficulties at home. He was invited by Baird Television of England.
Baird Television was named after John Logie Baird, who invented
a mechanically-scanned television device. He was the first independent
inventor to earn money from sending pictures through the air. The
British Broadcasting Corporation had permitted Baird to use their
radio channels at night to broadcast pictures on a temporary, experimental
basis. In 1934, the BBC expressed dissatisfaction with Baird’s
system and asked him to conclude his experiments. The British Gaumont,
a large conglomerate, which was supporting Baird Television financially
asked Baird to abandon his mechanical device and go for Farnswoth’s
device. They were highly impressed by the demonstration of Farnsworth
in England. And finally a deal was made for a patent license. As
part of the deal Farnsworth was paid $50,000 in cash.
After the expiry of Farnsworth’s key patents,
RCA started producing and making television sets on a large scale.
It has been reported that the corporate giant instigated an aggressive
public relations campaign to promote both Zworykin and Sarnoff as
the fathers of television. Farnsworth had no resources left to counter
this campaign. He sold the assets of his company to International
Telephones and Telegraph. He was totally devastated. He suffered
a nervous breakdown that left him bedridden for months. After coming
out of television business he worked as a consultant in electronics
and a researcher in atomin energy for sometime. Being totally disillusioned,
he withdrew his family to a house in Maine. He became a victim of
depression and alcoholism.
Farnsworth became so unknown to the public towards
the end of his life, that he was made a mystery guest on the television
programme What’s My Line? None of the panelists was aware
of his work. Being asked by one of the panelists whether Farnsworth
had invented somekind of a machine that might be painful when used,
Farnsworth’s answer was : “Yes, sometime it’s
Farnsworth died on March 11, 1971.
In its obituary on march 12, 1971, the New York
Times described Farnsworth as “a reserved, slender, quite
and unassuming man tirelessly absorbed in his work. At the age of
31 he was rated by competent appraisers as one of the 10 greatest
For further reading
- Burns, R. W. Television: An International History of the Formative
Years. London: Peregrinus, 1998.
- Everson, George. The Story of Television: The Life of Philo
T. Farnsworth. New York, 1949.
- Farnsworth, Elma G. Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery of
an Invisible Frontier. Sal Lake City, 1990.
- Fisher D.E. and M. J. Fisher. Tube: The Invention of Television.
Washington: Counterpoint Press, 1996.
- Horvitz, Leslie Alan. The Forgotten Inventor: Philo Farnsworth
and the Development of Television in Eureka!: Scientific Breakthroughs
that Changed the World. New York; John Wiley & Sons, Inc,
- Keller, Peter A. The Cathode Ray Tube: Technology, History
and Applications. New York: Palisades Press, 1991.
- Postman, Neil. Philo Farnsworth. Time. March 29, 2000
1. Logie Baird
2. Paul Nipkow
3. Brigham Young
4. Karl Ferdinand Braun
5. Vladimir Kosma Zworykil
6. Farnsworth with his image dissector (1920) and one of his picture
7. Farnsworth image dissectors (1926-27)
8. Philo T. Farnsworth
9. Farnsworth was and avid violin player
10. Farnsworth flanked by Les Gorrell (left ) and George Everson