Tag Archives: television

Philo’s Vision

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.)


Desi Loved Lucy

Anytime you watch a rerun, or dance in a conga line, or yell, “Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do,” pause and thank Desi Arnaz.

Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was born in Cuba in 1917 to a wealthy father who was the mayor of the city of Santiago, and a mother who was an heiress to the Bacardi Rum fortune. His family was stripped of its substantial wealth and forced to flee to Miami after a revolution in 1933.

Desi worked odd jobs to support his family before becoming a professional musician, playing guitar and percussion for a Latin orchestra in New York. He returned to Miami to head up his own combo, which caused a sensation when they introduced the conga line to America. Arnaz soon found himself on Broadway in the musical Too Many Girls in 1939. The following year, Desi went to Hollywood to appear in the filmed version of the play. It was there that he met actress Lucille Ball. As Lucy later states, “it wasn’t love at first site. It took a full five minutes.” They eloped on November 30, 1940 – seventy years ago this week.

Late autumn would prove special for Desi on several occasions. In the fall of 1950, CBS executives approached Lucy to bring her popular My Favorite Husband radio show to television. She agreed as long as Arnaz was cast as her husband in the show. This met with a fair amount of resistance from network executives fearing that American audiences wouldn’t warm to the Cuban-accented Arnaz. They needn’t have worried. After I Love Lucy debuted during the autumn of the following year, it went to top the television ratings where it remained for most of its nine-year run.

Arnaz produced the show employing a three-camera setup that allowed for shooting before a live audience. He also insisted that the show be captured on film, and that Desilu Productions, the company that Arnaz and Ball created, retain the rights. This single act created the rerun. The couple was also able to purchase RKO Studios in the autumn of 1957.

Shortly after the show ended, the marriage dissolved. It had been a rocky relationship for years due to Desi’s drinking and womanizing. Desi sold his shares of Desilu to Lucy and lived in semi-retirement near San Diego for the rest of his life raising thoroughbreds.

The late autumn wasn’t always good for Desi. He passed away from lung cancer on this date in 1986. Lucy, who remained a friend, telephoned him shortly before he died.