The electronic television: Philo T. Farnsworth
Philo T. Farnsworth is known as the “Father of Television.” Born in Utah in 1906, Farnsworth was always fascinated by technology and inventions that used electricity. At a young age, he was amazed by a telephone conversation with his far-away aunt. When he asked his father who made such amazing devices, his father said, “Inventors make these things.” Farnsworth wanted to join the ranks of great inventors.
University of Utah (Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library)
When his family moved to his uncle’s farm in Idaho, he was thrilled to find it equipped with a Delco generator. Philo observed the technician who serviced the generator, and one day when it stopped he volunteered to repair it. Although the adults around him doubted his abilities, he repaired the generator and was declared “engineer in charge of the generator.” Farnsworth found a collection of technology magazines in the attic of the home which furthered his aspirations to be an inventor. His imagination was captured by an article about sending images through the air along with audio. In 1921, while running a plow line by line across his father’s field near Rigby, Idaho, Farnsworth realized that transmitting an image was like a field and must be transmitted one line at a time. In high school, he sketched ideas to transmit these images for his teacher and mentor, Justin Tolman. This sketch later played a key role in patent dispute of a key television component.
When the Farnsworth family moved to Provo, UT in 1923, Philo attended Brigham Young University until the death of his father later that year. Philo continued to dream of television but knew he would have to learn all that he could to perfect and prove his idea. Farnsworth became acquainted with and began working for Leslie Gorrell and George Everson in Salt Lake City, who saw the great potential in Philo’s ideas. They agreed to fund his work and Philo moved with his new wife, Elma Gardner, first to Hollywood and then to San Francisco to set up a laboratory and begin working on the television.
The idea of transmitting an image from one place to another had been widely discussed and debated for centuries, sparking the world’s imagination. Giant corporations and individuals all over the world were racing to figure out how to build a viable television first. The forerunners to television began emerging in 1884, all mechanically powered.
In 1927, at the age of 21, Farnsworth first demonstrated his invention by transmitting one straight line onto a receiving tube. Thus was the first working electronic television born.
As Farnsworth worked to improve his invention, word spread about the television with no moving parts. Soon, Vladimir Zworykin came to tour his lab and to see a demonstration. After Farnsworth refused RCA’s offer to buy his patents and hire him, his invention was stolen. Farnsworth became engaged in legal battles with RCA and was eventually rewarded with priority of the invention. The courts ordered RCA to pay royalties to Farnsworth, but he never became wealthy from them.
However, Farnsworth never quit innovating and lived to see his invention enable people to view the landing on the moon in their living rooms, which brought him great satisfaction. He said to his wife, “Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.” Although television has changed and improved tremendously, some of his work is still in use in modern commercial television receivers.
Philo Farnsworth continued to make other contributions to technology. He held about 300 foreign and US patents at his death in 1971. He created the first electron microscope and the first baby incubator. According to Donald Godfrey, in his book Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television, “Substantial contributions were made in other areas such as industrial, defense, and government television.” His work contributed to the development of radar, the infrared telescope, submarine detection devices, the PPI projector (allowing safe control of air traffic from the ground), the Early Defense Warning Signal, and fusion power.
History has diminished Farnsworth to just one of many contributors to the modern television. Although many did pioneering work that made it possible, Philo’s role as the father of the electronic television cannot be overlooked. Without his vision, tenacity, and faith, television as we know it today would not be the same.