Adapted by Hal Landen
In 1922 a 14-year-old farm boy first sketched his idea for television for his science teacher. The boy’s name was Philo T. Farnsworth and he knew very little about electronic theory.
Three years earlier his family had moved to a farm in Idaho. The farm had electricity. Philo became fascinated with it and one day when his father and several adults were puzzling over why their farm generator had stopped, Philo surprised everyone by stepping in and repairing the generator.
Philo loved to experiment by building electric motors in an attic loft that soon became his own inventor’s lab. One night in the dead of winter Philo read an article about the possibility of combining radio and motion pictures and transmitting this new media instantly into homes just as radio was now doing.
He had read science fiction accounts that used spinning mirrors, but they didn’t seem to be fast enough to capture the light of a moving image. Philo pondered the problem for months and in a moment had an inspiration – why not capture light in a jar and transmit it in a series of individual lines of electron beams. You could magnetically deflect each line one at a time so that together they would form a moving picture.
Philo was eager to show his science teacher the new idea. And so the excited boy sketched electrical diagrams on the blackboard. “This is my idea for electronic television.” “What’s television?” his teacher asked. They spent several weeks working on the idea until it seemed that Philo’s idea would work.
Despite family hardships, Philo was determined to go to college and managed to be admitted to Brigham Young University. In his spare time he learned about vacuum tubes and cathode ray tubes, but without money he had no hope of building a working model of his television idea.
With his father’s death in 1923 Philo left college and took a series of jobs. He and his friend Cliff both took correspondence courses in radio technology. Now calling him self Phil he shared his idea of television with Cliff. Cliff advised Phil to not publish the idea because the idea was too good to give away.
One of Phil’s bosses in these odd jobs was a man named George Everson who seemed interested in Phil’s television scheme. But surely, George asked, G.E. or Bell Labs must have found the answer already. Phil explained that they were still working with mirrors and disks. As Phil explained his idea more fully, his boss agreed to put up $6000 so Phil could test his idea.
Two other partners came into the venture and agreed that Phil should have 50% equity in the company. Phil wanted to do the work in Los Angeles where he would have access to the resources necessary for an unusual laboratory. Phil had fallen in love with the sister of his old friend Cliff. He was 19 when he married his sweetheart Pem. Together they would move to a new home in Los Angeles.
Their new home was a one bedroom apartment in an interesting suburb – Hollywood. The dining room became Phil’s lab. One of the many new skills he needed was glassblowing. But all of the glassblowers he met said what he envisioned was impossible. This was just another one of the technical challenges Farnsworth would have to overcome.
Meanwhile, his investor realized that Phil, like most new entrepreneurs, had underestimated how much money this would take. So George Everson met with people who might want to take a chance on an unproven idea. To make sure that these wild ideas would work, George asked Phil to present his case to an experienced electrical engineer. When the engineer agreed Phil’s idea just might work, the money followed.
Phil’s television laboratory needed equipment that would have to be invented and he needed people. One of the first was his old friend and now brother-in-law Cliff Gardiner who was quickly named the chief glass blower. Like Phil, Cliff had only a high school diploma and no knowledge of glassblowing. But on January 7, 1927 Phil applied for his first patent. This is considered the official date of the invention of television.
Phil and Cliff were working on the first television camera tube which they called the “Image Dissector.” It would dissect an image line-by-line with a pulsating electrical charge and then transmit these elements. They discovered a rare chemical called cesium which had the photo-electric properties needed for their “Image Dissector.” Cesium was widely used in radio tubes, but the only way they could get enough was to buy cases of radio tubes and smash them to remove the rare ingredient.
Their television receiver was built from a chemistry flask. This became the picture tube which Phil called the “Image Oscillite. It took months of building their television system before they could even test it. The first tests showed only a glow when current flowed through the receiver. It took several more months of redesign work, but then on September 7, 1927, Pem, George, and Cliff gathered to see the latest test.
The image Phil attempted to transmit was simply a black horizontal line painted on a glass slide. He reasoned that if the receiver could show whether this was horizontal or vertical, his test was successful.
In a separate room, Cliff dropped the glass slide between the Image Dissector and a bright carbon arc light. Phil, his wife Pem, and his investor George anxiously watched the flickering of Phil’s receiver. When the static had cleared, all three could see the glowing image of the straight line in the crude receiver. Cliff rotated the slide and these first television viewers saw the line rotate. The birth of television!
The idea Philo T. Farnsworth had conceived at the age of 14 had worked. But to become the television we know today, there would be years of work, many more investors and legal maneuvers from well-financed competitors. Farnsworth’s goal was to create a system that could show 400 lines per frame. The competition was still working with mechanical systems that could only show 50 lines per frame.
Phil’s business partners had now invested $60,000 more than they planned. Some were ready to sell the idea to a large electrical company to recoup their investments. But Phil’s vision was to file a number of related patents so that companies who wanted to use them would have to license these patents. In the long run this would be much more profitable than selling out so early in the game.
On Sept. 3, 1928, The San Francisco Chronicle described Phil’s television as a “queer looking line image in a bluish light which smudges and blurs frequently, but the basic principle is achieved and perfection is now a matter of engineering.”
Despite the growing publicity, financial difficulties were ever present and the original investors wanted to cash in. So a stock broker named Jess McCargar suggested they issue stock in the company. The new business was named Television Laboratories Inc.
In New York City, a Russian emigre named David Sarnoff was appointed vice president and general manager of the giant Radio Corporation of America. RCA had made millions by controlling the patents of radio broadcasting. They had purchased the patents of Marconi and other radio pioneers. Now every company that manufactured radio sets paid royalties to RCA, but these patents were due to expire. Sarnoff was most interested in Phil’s work.
Sarnoff had learned of another Russian, a Vladimir Zworykin, who had also been experimenting with television. In 1929 he had produced images with a cathode ray tube. Zworykin had applied for patents also, but they had not been accepted. Sarnoff knew that television was the future. So he hired the Russian engineer to invent and patent television for RCA. Zworykin’s first assignment was to visit Farnsworth in San Francisco to see what this young man, twenty years his junior, was up to.
Under the pretext of licensing the work, Phil showed him how the Image Dissector worked. Several eyewitnesses heard Zworykin exclaim, “This is beautiful. I wish I had invented it.”
While Phil was out of town to see Bell Labs new improved cesium, David Sarnoff himself sought permission from the investors to see Phil’s invention. When Sarnoff saw Phil’s television working, he quickly offered to buy the Television Laboratories Inc. including Phil’s services. George Everson rejected the $100,000 offer.
At this time the “Radio Trust” consisting of RCA, AT&T and GE had pooled their radio patents. Philco Radio Corporation, a smaller company that nevertheless sold a lot of radios, paid the usual royalties as others did. But they saw the opportunity and became the first television licensee. Farnsworth’s company would move to the Philco labs in Philadelphia.
Phil’s lab crew was out-of-place in its new corporate environment, but they continued to perfect their system. The F.C.C. granted them an experimental license to broadcast over the air. The first receiver was set up in Phil’s home and his young son was fascinated with the broadcast of a Walt Disney film “Steamboat Willy.” While there were no commercials, there was only the one program and it repeated itself over and over. A few miles away at the Philco lab Farnsworth’s crew were manipulating the electronic circuits.
The relationship with Philco was straining to the breaking point. The final straw came when Phil and Pem’s second son died before the advent of antibiotics. Grief stricken, Phil and Pem made arrangements to bury their son in their home town of Salt Lake City. Philco, however, would not grant Phil a leave of absence. Pem had to go without him.
The Great Depression was now in full swing, and according to their stock broker, the prospects of selling additional stock in Television Labs was unlikely. Farnsworth said he’d do it himself, if necessary. But whatever happened, he was unwilling to stay at Philco. Farnsworth moved all the equipment he owned back into the Farnsworth living room.
The stock broker offered to sell stock again if Phil would cut his staff drastically. The business was reincorporated as Farnsworth Television. With a core lab crew, the team began reconstructing their work, this time in a laboratory in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Over the last ten years, they had made a great deal of progress. The blurred image was much sharper thanks to their invention of the “sawtooth” waveform. Ghosting was eliminated by the introduction of a horizontal blanking interval. They were now achieving a horizontal resolution of 220 lines and the number of their patents had grown.
Back at RCA, Zworykin had developed a competing video camera tube called the “Iconoscope.” RCA intended to claim priority over Farnsworth’s “Image Dissector.” They wanted to control television just as they had controlled radio. As Sarnoff said in private, “RCA does not pay royalties, we collect them.”
The RCA legal guns were quite experienced in these kinds of battles. They attacked the Farnsworth patents in the U.S. Patent Office. Phil was forced from his lab to defend the charges during weeks of testimony. Phil’s attorney was also an engineer and asserted that Farnsworth had developed his original idea at the age of 14. And to prove it, they located Phil’s old science teacher who came to Washington and sketched the idea Phil had drawn on the blackboard back in his school days.
RCA did not counter with evidence that Zworykin had designed such a tube earlier. The Patent Office decided, “Priority of invention is awarded to Philo T. Farnsworth.” But RCA could appeal and did so in such as way as to strain Farnsworth’s legal bills to the limit. The legal maneuvers would continue for years.
In the summer of 1935, the first public demonstration of television took place at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Farnsworth was given funds to build a brand new system for the Institute. People lined up for blocks to see this new wonder. One camera was placed near the door. When people entered, they saw themselves on the nearby “receiver,” the bottom of a ten gallon jug.
Inside, a second camera transmitted a variety of programming, perhaps foretelling what we see today. It included athletes, vaudeville and a gaggle of eager politicians. The event was originally scheduled to run for ten days, but popular demand kept it open for three weeks. This event attracted international attention.
Despite the decision of the Patent Office, RCA was still litigating the Farnsworth patents. This caused needed research and development monies to be diverted to legal fees. Since the patents were in contention, Farnsworth was unable to sell licenses or collect royalties. One exception was a license sold to the BBC which helped keep the struggling company afloat.
Farnsworth’s fame spread as a 1936 Collier’s Magazine article dubbed him “Phil the inventor.” The article predicted that television would find its way into American homes by the following Christmas. Such predictions were becoming common, but were unfounded because the patents were still being contended by RCA.
By this time Farnsworth’s attorney had filed an additional 35 patent applications. Members of the Farnsworth “lab gang” had been responsible for 14 of the patents. This was the kind of team work that had helped them overcome the odds. In additional to their continuing work, Phil and the others now had to play host to a growing number of scientists and others who visited their lab in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
The investors wanted to sell out to RCA. Phil had been pushing himself for ten years now. His one licensee in England was in trouble. Phil and Pem left Philadelphia for England. When they returned, they found their lab team completely demoralized.
Jess McCargar, the stock broker, had sent a money man to manage the Philadelphia lab. When Phil confronted Jess, Jess gave him an ultimatum to drastically cut the payroll. Jess won and took it a step farther by firing everyone.
Much later, a group of the Phil’s core supporters met to see if they could find other ways to raise money. Much of the ownership and controlling power of the company had shifted to a board of directors led by a Wall Street investment firm. This firm had financed much of the capital needs since the beginning of the ’30s. Phil met with the board and negotiated a new beginning.
The firm would arrange for financing and the Farnsworth company would have it’s own factory to manufacture and sell radios. This would buy time until there was a market for television sets.
Other companies, too, were positioning for the television bonanza that was soon to come. These included Philco, DuMont, Zenith, and Emerson. The newly formed F.C.C. was given the task of allocating space in the electromagnetic spectrum so that television and radio broadcasts would not conflict.
The F.C.C. would also set standards for signal generation including scan and frame rates. These standards would enable one set to receive broadcasts from a number of different stations. Most observers believed that RCA would dominate this new industry as it had dominated the radio industry.
Sarnoff had spent millions to achieve this goal. AT&T was the other major player. Their Bell Labs had discovered the “coaxial cable” which was ideal for sending television signals from city to city. The F.C.C. granted them permission to run an experimental cable from New York To Philadelphia. AT&T was ready to wire America.
It was later discovered that AT&T and RCA had cross-licensed each other’s patents. The agreement gave each the power to use the other’s patented work as long as they didn’t compete. This notorious “Radio Trust” was somewhat modified by anti-trust proceedings in 1932, but many of these cross-license agreements are still in use today. To add television to this series of cross-licenses, RCA had a problem – the patents were held by Farnsworth.
Then the RCA engineers found a solution. They had completely redesigned the Iconoscope so that it produced better pictures than it ever had. The RCA legal team told Sarnoff that this was legally an original RCA creation. Patents were filed. Sarnoff vowed to launch commercial television at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Phil Farnsworth was invited to speak to the F.C.C.. He welcomed this because he felt he had always been well-treated by the F.C.C. This time the commissioners wanted his opinions on the future of this new industry – television.
Questioning began on the subject of licensing. Farnsworth told them that AT&T’s coaxial cable was a license he did not hold. Walter Gifford, the President of AT&T, happened to be in the audience. He stood and introduced himself to the panel and proceeded to ask the shocked Farnsworth if he would like to have a cross-licensing agreement with AT&T.
Six months later Farnsworth and AT&T had worked out the details. As “Business Week” reported in August of 1937, this deal gave Farnsworth the ability “to compete with RCA on more equal terms. The road is no longer blocked should Farnsworth decide to enter manufacturing.”
Until now, many companies were afraid to deal with Farnsworth because they feared reprisals from RCA. With the AT&T deal these companies were no longer hesitant. Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) bought Farnsworth’s Dissector tubes. CBS began television experiments in New York’s Chrysler Building.
The RCA hopes were dashed when the patent search for their new Iconoscope revealed an existing Farnsworth patent. The only good news was that the name “Image Orthicon” was awarded to RCA. The Orthicon tube which became a part of the workings of television was invented by Farnsworth, but the name was owned by RCA.
Sarnoff had spent $10 million on television. The Farnsworth company had spent $1 million. But there was nothing else to do. So in 1938 RCA lawyers began to draft a cross-license agreement with Farnsworth.
In March of 1939 the contracts and notes were prepared which would finally launch the Farnsworth television business. The papers included the initial operating funds for the new corporation and they included funding for the purchase of a rustic 80 acre farm in Maine the Farnsworths had discovered during a fishing trip.
It took several weeks for stock market conditions to improve, but the papers were signed and Philo T. Farnsworth received a check for $3 million. The new Farnsworth Radio & Television Corp was ready for business.
The next day World War II began in Czechoslovakia.
In April of 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president of the United States to appear on television. The setting was the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The appearance was broadcast to a handful of TV sets in the New York area by RCA television cameras. These first TV sets used the standard proposed to the FCC by the Radio Manufacturers Association. The standard was 441 lines and 30 frames. Today the standard is 525 lines and 30 frames.
At this time the F.C.C. had not formalized the signal standards and broadcasting licenses were still experimental. “Fortune Magazine” described television as David Sarnoff’s thirteen million dollar WHAT IF. While Farnsworth held over 100 patents, Sarnoff still refused to pay the kind of ongoing royalty he and RCA had charged radio businesses.
The Farnsworths moved to Indiana, the site of their new plant. Phil was named vice president and director of research. He became involved in engineering the assembly line operation and product design.
In December of 1939 lawyers for RCA and Farnsworth met in a conference room in New York’s Rockefeller Center. The result was a contract that required RCA to pay royalties for the first time in their history. World War II, however, slowed the development of domestic industries such as television.
Farnsworth Television and Radio Corp. was one that did quite well fulfilling defense contracts. When the war ended, the factories which had produced electronic equipment for the military would be converted to produce television sets and other domestic products for an eager public. Farnsworth was dismayed to learn that the company bore his name had been poorly managed. When he returned to Fort Wayne, Indiana to try to resurrect the company, it was too late.
Even though the demand for television sets was skyrocketing, the company was unable to get back on its feet. In 1949 it was sold to International Telephone & Telegraph. Farnsworth Television and Radio was no longer listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Phil stayed with ITT in Fort Wayne until 1967. Then he retired and moved back to Salt Lake City. As he saw what television had become he wondered if all his work had been worth it. Then in 1969 he and Pem watched a man walked on the moon and he knew his work had been worthwhile.
Philo T. Farnsworth died in 1971.
The New York Times described him as “a reserved, slender, quiet 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 mathematicians.” Philo Farnsworth was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Greatest Scientists and Thinkers of the 20th Century.
This story is condensed from the “Farnsworth Chronicles” by Paul Schatzkin.
Meet Philo Farnsworth on YouTube