Inventor Thomas Edison was once asked about his seeming inability, to invent artificial light. “I have not failed”, he explained “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
A baby was born this day in 1906 in a small log cabin near Beaver, Utah. His name was Philo, the first born child of Louis Farnsworth and Serena Bastian. He would grow to be the most famous man, you probably never heard of.
Philo was constantly tinkering. He was the kind who could look at an object and understand how it worked and why this particular one, didn’t. The family moved when he was 12 to a relative’s ranch near Rigby, Idaho. Philo was delighted to learn the place had electricity.
He found a burnt out electric motor thrown out by a previous tenant and rewound the armature, converting his mothers hand-cranked washing machine, to electric.
It must’ve seemed like Christmas morning when he found all those old technology magazines, in the attic. He even won a $25 prize one time in a magazine contest, for inventing a magnetized car lock.
Farnsworth was fascinated with the behavior of molecules and excelled in chemistry and physics, at Rigby high school. Harrowing a field one day behind a team of two horses, his mind got to working. What if I could “train“ electrons to work in lines like I’m doing here, with these horses? Electrons are so fast the human eye would never pick up, the individual lines. Couldn’t I use them to “paint“ an electronic picture?
Philo sketched his idea of an “image dissector” for his science teacher Mr. Tolman, who encouraged him to keep working on his idea. Justin Tolman kept the sketch though neither could know at that time. Farnsworth’s 1922 drawing would prove decisive one day in a court of law, over who invented all-electronic television.
From Japan to Russia, Germany and America more than fifty inventors were working in the 1920s, to invent television. History remembers the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird as the man who built and demonstrated the world’s first electromechanical television. Amazingly, it was he who invented the first color TV tube, as well.
It was all well and good but Baird’s spinning electromechanical disk was as a glacier, compared with the speed of the electron. Clearly, the future of television, lay in the field of electronics.
The Russian engineer Vladimir K. Zworykin applied for US patent on an electron scanning tube in 1923, while working for RCA. He wouldn’t get the thing to work though, until 1934. Meanwhile, Philo Taylor Farnsworth successfully demonstrated the first television signal transmission on September 7, 1927. The excited telegram Farnsworth sent to one of his backers exclaimed, “The damn thing works!”
Farnsworth’s successful patent application in 1930 resulted in additional funding to support his work and a visit, from Vladimir Zworykin. RCA offered Farnsworth $100,000 for his invention and, when he declined their offer, took him to court over his patent.
“If it weren’t for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners”.Johnny Carson
What followed was a bruising, ten year legal battle, a David vs. Goliath contest Farnsworth would win in the end, but at enormous cost both financial, and physical.
In another version of this story, the one that never happened, Philo Farnsworth went on to great fame and fortune to enjoy the fruits of his talents, and all his hard work. Instead World War 2 happened. Farnsworth’s hard fought patent rights quietly expired while the world, was busy with something else.
Ever the tinkerer, Farnsworth went on to invent a rudimentary form of radar, black light for night vision and an infrared telescope. Despite all that his company never did run in the “black”. He sold the company in 1949, to ITT.
From the 1950s on, the man’s primary interest, was in nuclear fusion. In 1965 he patented an array of tubes he called “fusors” in which he actually started a 30-second fusion reaction.
Farnsworth never did enjoy good health. The inventor of all-electronic television died of pneumonia on March 11, 1971 with well over 300 patents, to his name. Had you bought a television that day you would have owned a device with no fewer than 100 inventions, by this one man.
Ever the idealist Farnsworth believed television would bring about ever greater heights in human learning and achievement, foster a shared experience bringing about international peace and understanding. Much the same as some once believed of the internet where the sum total of human knowledge was now available for a few keystrokes, and social media fosters new worlds of harmonious relations where cheerful users discussed the collected works of Shakespeare, the Codes of Hammurabi and the vicissitudes, of life.
Farnsworth was dismayed by the dreck brought about, by his creation. “There’s nothing on it worthwhile” he would say“, and we’re not going to watch it in this household. I don’t want it in your intellectual diet…Television is a gift of God, and God will hold those who utilize his divine instrument accountable to him“. – Philo Taylor Farnsworth
That all changed if only a bit, on July 20, 1969. American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was probably a misspeak. Most likely he intended to say “one small step for A man” but, be that as it may. The world saw it happen thanks to a miniaturized version of a device, invented by Philo Farnsworth.
Farnsworth himself was watching just like everyone else alive, that day. Years later Farnsworth’s wife Emma, he called her “Pem”, would recall in an interview, with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences: “We were watching it, and, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Phil turned to me and said, “Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.” Before then, he wasn’t too sure”.