Philo T. Farnsworth, whose name would have sounded more comfortable belonging to a carnival huckster than to one of history’s most accomplished inventors, has been called “probably the most influential unknown person of the past century.”
Farnsworth, “the boy who invented television,” was a self-taught electronics whiz who was born into a Mormon family in Utah in 1906. His family soon relocated to a farm in Idaho where 14-year-old Philo realized that an image could be scanned and recreated using the same motion that it takes to plow a field.
He drew up a plan for his electronic scanning device onto a blackboard for his high school chemistry teacher. The teacher made a sketch of the drawing, which Farnsworth used many years later to win a patent lawsuit with RCA.
A few months after turning 21, Farnsworth was able to successfully broadcast a single line using his “image dissector” at his laboratory in San Francisco.
The following year he was able to show the money to his backers when he broadcast an image of a dollar sign during his first public demonstration of the device. (One of his potential backers was publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was reportedly steered away from funding Farnsworth by an associate who found his laboratory to be too messy.)
By 1929, Farnsworth had eliminated all the moving parts from the system, creating the world’s first all-electronic television system. That same year he broadcast an image of his wife Pem, making her the first human to ever be seen on television.
Farnsworth’s demonstrations caught the imagination of the public as well as the eye of megalomaniac David Sarnoff, who was the potentate of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Had Farnsworth made his creations in the era of the lone inventor, his name may be as famous as Thomas Edison’s or Alexander Graham Bell’s. But his contributions came at a time when corporations sought control of emerging technologies, and no one wanted to control television more than David Sarnoff.
Sarnoff first tried to buy Farnsworth’s patents, but when he wouldn’t sell, he then engaged him in a series of costly and emotionally draining patent suits. At the end of the day, Sarnoff got what he wanted and became known to some as the “father of television,” while Farnsworth never became wealthy from the fruits of his labors.
Farnsworth earned patents for improvements to several other devices over his career, including electron microscopes, telescopes, radar, and infra-red night lights. He even developed a crude fusion reactor.
He continued developing television, envisioning several of our current technologies like high-definition, flat screens, and TiVo –in the 1950s!
Farnsworth died from pneumonia on March 11, 1971 – forty years ago today.
For much of his adult life he was a sharp critic of what his progeny had grown up to become. He was said to have had a change of heart at the end of his life when he witnessed the images of the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon; something that wouldn’t have been possible without his invention of the “image dissector” decades earlier.
(For a fascinating account of Farnsworth and his long-running battles with David Sarnoff for television’s supremacy, check out The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television by Evan I. Schwartz.)