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Philo Taylor Farnsworth
The Forgotten Genius
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti


“In a simple laboratory on this site, 202 Green Street, Philo Taylor Farnsworth, U.S. pioneer in electronics, invented and patented the first operational all-electronic “television system” on September 7, 1927. The 21-year old inventor and several dedicated assistants successfully transmitted the first electronic television image, the major breakthrough that brought the practical form of this invention to mankind. Further patents formulated here covered the basic concepts essential to modern television. The genius of Green Street, as he was known, died in 1971.”

The above statement is inscribed on the plaque at the invention site, where Farnsworth invented television.

 


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 finally,

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?" "What's that?"

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 project.

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 operating unit?"
Smith’s answers to the above three questions were:
"Yes."
"I'm pretty well acquainted with recent electronic developments, I know of no other work that is being carried out along similar lines."
"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 Research Laboratories.

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 Farnsworth work.

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 temporarily.

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 electricity.

“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 years.

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 most painful.”
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 living mathematician.

For further reading

  1. Burns, R. W. Television: An International History of the Formative Years. London: Peregrinus, 1998.
  2. Everson, George. The Story of Television: The Life of Philo T. Farnsworth. New York, 1949.
  3. Farnsworth, Elma G. Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery of an Invisible Frontier. Sal Lake City, 1990.
  4. Fisher D.E. and M. J. Fisher. Tube: The Invention of Television. Washington: Counterpoint Press, 1996.
  5. 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, 2002.
  6. Keller, Peter A. The Cathode Ray Tube: Technology, History and Applications. New York: Palisades Press, 1991.
  7. 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 tubes
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 (right)