THH Episode 49: Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

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Transcript for Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Mans’s voice: High speed facsimile transmission and reception of both words and pictures…

[Click]

…planned research to anticipate the demands of a growing nation…

[Click]

Here in this modern workshop of science can be found some of the true pioneers of our time…

Beckley: Sitting on a desk in an office in Fort Wayne, Indiana was a small plaque that read, “Men and trees die – Ideas live on for the ages.” The slightly built man with dark hair and a thin mustache in the chair behind the desk, knew this better than most. At the age of 14, he had an idea that would, in time, change the world in innumerable ways. His idea would bring people together and cause divisions. It would influence national and international politics, introduce people around the world to new cultures and viewpoints, change how businesses make money…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

That man? Philo T. Farnsworth. And his idea?

Man’s voice: Television. An unparalleled blending of science and art.

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Inventors often hold lofty ideals for their inventions. Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin in 1793 with the hope of relieving the poverty in southern states. Instead, the Cotton Gin increased the need for enslaved labor and is considered one contributing factor of the American Civil War. Othmar Zeidler invented DDT in 1873 to rid the world of insect-borne diseases like malaria. But widespread use of the chemical has caused cancer, infertility, and has devastated ecosystems. Tim Berners-Lee had visions of a free information utopia when he invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Yet, many point to the internet as one of the driving forces of misinformation in modern society.

Similarly, Philo T. Farnsworth believed that the television could prevent wars through global discourse, increase literacy and facilitate the sharing of cultures. And it has.

Fred Rogers: You make each day a special day. You know how? By just being yourself. That’s right…there’s only one person in this…

Beckley: That was, of course, Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Educational programming like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street, as well as documentaries have gone a long way to democratize knowledge. Shows like Modern Family have increased acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in recent decades. Television also drives socialization, with friends gathering to watch the “big game” or joining forums to discuss their favorite shows. But, as is usually the case, there is another side of the coin.

[clips from the Jerry Springer Show]

Experts have linked watching reality TV with an increase in aggression in real life. And television in general has been shown to cause everything from a rise in childhood obesity to a decline in quality family time.

Of course, when Philo Farnsworth dreamed up electronic television as a teenager, he could hardly have predicted these disparate outcomes.

[Music]

Beckley: Farnsworth was born and spent his early life in Utah. When he and his family moved to a potato farm in Rigby, Idaho in 1918, eleven-year-old Philo was delighted to find that their new home was powered with a Delco system, the first time the budding scientist had ever lived with electricity. In the attic of the farmhouse, he found a stash of scientific magazines and ravenously consumed anything he could find about electricity. One idea contained within the pages of those magazines was “Pictures That Could Fly Through the Air,” a concept that captured young Farnsworth’s imagination and started him on a journey that would last decades and culminate in modern television.

Man’s voice: Here is the ultimate in television…let me do it again, right now, keep rolling…

Beckley: Farnsworth dove into the existing work on the technology, learning all there was to know about experiments in the field, which stretched back to the 1870s. Early experiments in television relied on a mechanical method of producing and disseminating images. This used a spinning disc called a Nipkow disc. After reading everything he could about this technology, Farnsworth deduced that it could never produce a high-quality image. And he was right – even the very highly engineered mechanical televisions that were made in the 1930s were only capable of 60 lines per frame. To put that into perspective – modern televisions have over 1000 lines per frame.

Farnsworth became obsessed with finding a solution to this problem. He began meeting with a high school chemistry teacher named Justin Tolman after school to ask questions and discuss possible answers. In this relentless pursuit of knowledge, he hit on three topics – electrons, magnetic deflection, and cathode ray rubes – that, when put together, he thought would present an answer to what he was looking for. Finally, everything he had been thinking about crystalized into a profound idea in a most unlikely place – on a horse drawn plow in the middle of a potato field.

[Music]

Beckley: As Farnsworth surveyed the work he was doing – turning over the earth row by row – it dawned on him. Farnsworth biographer Paul Schatzkin noted:

Clark from Schatzkin: “He suddenly imagined trapping light in an empty jar and transmitting it one line at a time on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons.”

Beckley: And so the initial conception for modern electronic television came into the world in the middle of an Idaho potato field from the mind of a 14 year old boy.

Man’s voice: Silent. Invisible. Instantly. Human speech, movement, and appearance invade the airways together, to be received in magic boxes for distant reproductions.

Beckley: Philo shared his idea with the only person he thought might be able to understand and confirm his theory – Justin Tolman.

While Tolman couldn’t grasp every facet of the intricate electronic scheme, he knew enough to encourage the young inventor in his work. At the end of their discussion, Philo jotted a simple sketch of his brainchild on a small piece of notebook paper and handed it to Tolman, who tucked it away for safekeeping. Little did he know just how important that scrap of paper would become.

[Music]

Beckley: Farnsworth nurtured his idea through his teen years and as he attended Brigham Young University.  While working for a fundraising organization, the Community Chest Campaign in 1926, he secured financial backing for his idea. With the support of fundraisers George Everson and Leslie Gorell, he moved to California and eventually established a lab on Green Street in San Francisco. It was here that he, his new wife Pem, and his brother-in-law Cliff set about building the first prototype of an electronic television.

Man’s voice: Television. The newest miracle of modern electric engineering.

Beckley: It wasn’t an easy road to travel. While Philo had a clear vision of what needed to be done to make electronic television a reality, actually accomplishing it was a different story altogether. Each step of the way, Farnsworth and the Green Street crew were inventing new techniques and tools, any one of which would have been an impressive accomplishment on its own. When Cliff was told it was impossible to create a glass tube built to the specifications required by Philo, Cliff developed his own technique of glass blowing that allowed him to create exactly what was needed. While working on techniques to amplify their image, Philo developed what he called the Image Analyzer, and laid the groundwork for the electron microscope, one of the most important tools in laboratories to this day.

Finally, on September 7, 1927, countless experiments and twelve-hour workdays paid off. Farnsworth and his staff stood with bated breath in front of a receiver in one room. In another, Cliff inserted a slide with a thick black line painted on it in front of a device Farnsworth called an “Image Dissector.”

Man’s voice: Mr. Philo T. Farnsworth is working on the Image Dissector tube.

Beckley: The image on the receiver flickered and bounced for a moment before a line became visible on the screen. As Cliff rotated the slide, the line on the screen rotated. The first electronic television picture had been transmitted. In his journal, Farnsworth noted this breakthrough with the reserved tone of a scientist;

Clark as Farnsworth: “The received line picture was evident this time.”

Beckley: Financial backer George Everson had no such reserve. He wired fellow backer Leslie Gorrell;

Clark as Gorrell: “The damned thing works!”

Beckley: But transforming this historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of technical, legal, and financial problems.

While Farnsworth had proved that his idea worked and applied for a patent for his design, he struggled to refine it – those first transmissions were plagued with shadowy double images, black smudges, and amplification problems. Farnsworth accepted these complications as simply part of the process, but it was more difficult to convince his financial backers of that, and many withdrew their support. Looking for alternate funding, Farnsworth invited Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin to the Green Street lab to see a demonstration of the Image Dissector. Zworkyin had been working on electronic television just as long as Farnsworth. In fact, he submitted a patent application for an electronic television in 1923, although he was unable to prove that it worked, and the patent was not granted.

As far as Farnsworth knew, Zworykin worked for Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh-based electronic manufacturing company. The hope was that Zworykin would be impressed by what he saw and convince Westinghouse to provide some much-needed funding.

However, Zworykin was not visiting with the interests of Westinghouse at heart –he had travelled to San Francisco on a circuitous route to his new employer – the Radio Corporation of America, something he had neglected to tell Farnsworth.

The Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, had established a virtual monopoly on radio technology throughout the early 20th century.

Man’s voice: Nowhere did the challenge provoke more unending experiment and research then at RCA.

Beckley: They bought up what patents they could and sued the holders of others out of business and then acquired the patents in settlements. Looking forward, the behemoth of a company was hoping to establish a similar strangle hold on television, and they recognized Farnsworth’s patent as a potentially important step in that direction.

Zworykin was tasked with finding out if the work being done on Green Street was indeed something RCA would need to try to acquire. And apparently he decided it was. Directly after leaving the lab, he dictated a 700-word telegram to his colleagues – instructions for building an Image Dissector of their very own. Weeks later, when he showed up at RCA to report for duty, he brought with him a replica of the piece of equipment Farnsworth had been working on for four years.

Man’s Voice: The turning point came in 1923 when Dr. Zworykin invented the iconiscope.

Beckley: After the pretense of offering to buy out Farnsworth’s lab for the paltry sum of $100,000, RCA began claiming that Zworykin’s 1923 patent filing was for a device similar enough to the Image Dissector to claim priority of invention. When Farnsworth realized that they were maneuvering into position to launch a lawsuit, he went on the offensive and launched his own claim with the U.S. Patent Office. What followed was described by Philo’s wife as a “David and Goliath confrontation.”

The respective lawyers representing Farnsworth and RCA interviewed key players and collected reams of testimony. RCA focused on the claim that Farnsworth had dreamed up electronic television when he was barely even a teenager. It seemed absurd, not to mention impossible to prove. That was, until they tracked down a now retired Justin Tolman.

When Tolman was asked if he remembered a student by the name of Philo Farnsworth he replied,

Clark as Tolman: “I surely do . . . he was the brightest student I ever had.”

He went on to recount in detail the day a fourteen-year-old Philo had described his idea for electronic television. At the end of the interview, in a scene reminiscent of a dramatic TV procedural, Tolman pulled from his pocket Philo’s sketch of an image dissector, drawn one year before Zworykin’s patent claim. The U.S. Patent Office ruled in favor of Philo T. Farnsworth as the inventor of electronic television.

However, that ruling didn’t mean that RCA was thwarted – they still had appeals to make. The appeal process would drag out for years, causing massive amounts of mental stress for Farnsworth, who struggled with bouts of depression and alcoholism as a result. The stress was also financial – each appeal would need to be defended on Farnsworth’s part by costly patent attorneys. Luckily, Farnsworth had secured financial backing by one of RCAs biggest rivals – Philco.

Man’s voice: Just an example of what’s in store for you right now at your Philco dealer. Another example of quality first by Philco!

Beckley: His partnership with the electronic engineering giant necessitated a move to Philadelphia where Farnsworth and his team continued to refine their technology until finally it was ready for public demonstration.

On August 24, 1934, the doors of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia opened, and Farnsworth watched as the public poured in for their first glimpse of the long dreamed of television. As visitors entered the building, they were immediately confronted with what must have been a truly astonishing sight – themselves, caught on camera and broadcast to a screen. In the auditorium, they were treated to a wide variety of programming, which was being filmed and transmitted from the roof of the Institute. Vaudeville acts, political speeches, popular athletes, and other local celebrities were featured in those early television transmissions. Thousands of Philadelphians attended the demonstrations and an exhibition that was supposed to last 10 days stretched into three weeks.

The phenomenal success of that exhibition proved what the Farnsworth team had suspected for years – the public was ready for television.

Man’s voice: Technicians at Farnsworth’s Philadelphia laboratory have helped make television, the dazzling dream of the decade, a practical reality for today . . . you are about to witness the most excitingly different concept in the history of television.

Beckley: Farnsworth himself was sure that a fortune lay in television broadcasting rather than manufacturing. To this end, he established W3XPF, an experimental TV station which blanketed Philadelphia with some of the earliest electronic television signals. As television sets were still not commercially available, very few residents had receivers. Those who did, mostly engineers who were working for Farnsworth, became very popular with their neighbors.

While Farnsworth’s work with W3XPF was promising, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, was slow to allocate air space and create other institutional standards that would need to be in place before commercial broadcasting was feasible. In the meantime, Farnsworth reluctantly turned to manufacturing. Investors looked for a suitable plant to purchase and eventually landed on a building in Fort Wayne, Indiana once occupied by the Capehart Phonograph Company. According to Schatzkin, the location was chosen because,

Clark from Schatzkin: “the company’s plant was an ideal facility, and the name ‘Capehart’ was expected to lend a certain cachet to the eventual Farnsworth product line.”

Beckley: The Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation, or FTRC, opened shop on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne in 1939 and launched into production of television, radio, and phonograph equipment.

Man’s voice: …that’s where Hoosier ingenuity took over…

Beckley: FTRC wasn’t the only company producing commercial televisions – companies such as RCA and International Telephone & Telegraph, or ITT, had established licensing agreements with Farnsworth and were also working to bring the new technology into American homes. However, just as the commercialization of the television was starting to take off, yet another obstacle presented itself – World War II.

Man’s Voice: New weapons of war add to the increasing thrills captured by intrepid cameramen.

Beckley: During the war, FTRC, along with most of American industry, turned to wartime production. While a blow to commercial TV, this was a boon for FTRC. During the war years, the company expanded greatly. Farnsworth himself spent much of his time at his home in Maine, working in a home laboratory and allowing others to run the day-to-day operations of the plants – that’s plants plural, as FTRC operated seven factories – four in Fort Wayne and one each in Marion, Huntington, and Bluffton – by the end of the war in 1945.

Much of this expansion was achieved with the help of loans that came due a year after the end of the war, just as the company was struggling to shift back to peacetime operations. Farnsworth and his shareholders did everything they could to remain an independent company – even going so far as to offer RCA use of Farnsworth’s patents “in perpetuity” for two and a half million dollars, an offer which RCA declined. In the end, to avoid bankruptcy, FTRC was sold to ITT for the rather meager sum of $1.7 million.

Despite losing independence, the company continued to produce televisions and Farnsworth continued to conduct research and experiments, although by this time he had shifted his focus from television to his next obsession, one that was equally forward thinking in the 1950s as television was in the 1920s – Fusion.

Man’s voice: Today atomic scientists produce radioactivity in large amounts . . .

Beckley: Philo’s interest in fusion, which is an experimental form of power that harnesses the energy of nuclear reactions, began to develop while he was working in his home laboratory in Maine during the early 1940s, and he continued to work on it in a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne.

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, interest in fusion went into overdrive. Farnsworth, like many others, including Hoosier physicist and former THH podcast topic Melba Phillips, wanted to see the peaceful application of the science used to power our cities. He dreamed of harnessing fusion to power the nation cheaply and, more importantly, cleanly.

In 1947, a mutual friend set up a phone call between Farnsworth and Albert Einstein. Einstein had worked on Fusion during the war only to vow never again to revisit it after his work contributed to the development of nuclear weapons. Pem, Farnsworth’s wife, later said that he found Einstein to be a

Clark: fellow traveler in the rarefied regions of the physical universe where his mind now dwelt.

Beckley: Einstein asked Farnsworth to send him the math behind his theories once he had worked it out. This conversation bolstered Farnsworth’s inventive energy– after a lifetime of being surrounded by people who just didn’t understand how his mind worked and suffering from loneliness and depression because of it, here was an equal. Much like he did with television back in Rigby, Idaho, he set about learning all he could about the budding field of fusion.

By 1953, the father of television felt on the brink of a new discovery. One summer day, the whole Farnsworth family was piled into a Cadillac on their way to Utah for a banquet. Schatzkin describes the scene as told by Farnsworth’s son and namesake Philo Farnsworth III:

Clark: “Pem was driving, with four-year-old Kent asleep with his head in her lap. Phil was slumped in the front seat, his head down, his fedora pulled down over his eyes. All of a sudden, ‘Dad practically jumped out of his seat in one fluid movement and punched his fist forward, saying ‘I’ve got it.’”

Beckley: The feat had been repeated – just like in that potato field in Idaho all those years ago, in an instant, everything he had been studying suddenly came into focus. And Philo T. Farnsworth was off on yet another years-long quest for scientific invention. One that would eventually produce the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor. This was the first device of its kind in the world, and it continues to be the most widely used type of fusor in experimentation today.

In 1957, Farnsworth made his one and only television appearance on a gameshow called “I’ve Got a Secret.” At the end of his appearance, he talks about where he sees television going in the future;

Man’s Voice: This is the famous Dr. Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the television.

[Applause]

Man’s Voice: Let’s go from the past – the not too distant past – to the future. What are you working on now?

Farnsworth: Well, in television, we’re attempting to make better utilization of the bandwidth because we think we can eventually get in excess of 2000 lines instead of 525 and do it on an even narrower cannel, possibly, than we’re doing it today, which would make for a much sharper picture. Then we hope…we believe in the picture frame type of television where the visual display will be just a screen. Then we hope for a memory so that the picture will be just as it was pasted on there, and many different improvements will result in a camera when you use such devices because part of the scene that you can remember, and you practically have a memory card of it, and it will simplify production of it.

Beckley: In that one-minute clip, he outlines HDTV, Flatscreen televisions, and digital video cameras decades before any of those technologies would be developed – the very definition of a visionary.

Man’s voice: Converting the dreams of yesterday into the reality of tomorrow . . . here is a look into the future of communication . . .

Beckley: It would be an understatement to say that the world has embraced Farnworth’s creation. Globally, 79 percent79 percent of households have at least one television set. That’s astounding. People from around the world are able to share experiences in a way that newspapers, radio, and even motion pictures could never rival and those shared experiences have shaped our society in huge ways. The Vietnam War was the first war to be covered on television and coverage of the conflict – the images of the dead and injured contrasted with the lack of progress being made – sparked an antiwar movement in the United States which eventually shifted public opinion.

The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show created a craze in America which would change the music scene forever. It inspired countless young people to start bands and went a long way to unify a generation we now call the Baby Boomers.

Nearly every American of a certain age can clearly remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when we watched the Twin Towers fall. And we continued to watch as that day changed our society – we watched as the United States went to war, as Congress passed the Patriot Act, and as Islamophobia spread like wildfire.

Television has brought us together in good times and in bad. This was the promise Farnsworth saw for the television. True – he would likely have been disappointed seeing his invention used for misinformation and reality television. But he would have reveled in seeing the world sharing in our triumphs and tragedies – in fact, he and Pem watched the 1969 moon landing, after which Philo declared,

Clark at Farnsworth:  That has made it all worthwhile.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from IHB historian Nicole Poletika’s two-part blog post about Farnsworth on the Indiana History Blog. If you want to learn even more about Farnsworth’s life and work, I highly recommend Schatzkin’s biography, “The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion.” Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Blog Posts

Poletika, Nicole, “’The Damned Thing Works!:’ Philo T. Farnsworth & the Invention of Television,” Indiana History Blog.

Poletika, Nicole, “Philo T. Farnworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne,” Indiana History Blog.

Books

Schatzkin, Paul, The Boy Who Invented the Television, Tanglewood Books, 2008.

Indiana State Historical Markers

Philo T. Farnsworth Indiana State historical Marker Review

Articles

Butts, Tom, “The State of Television, Worldwide,” TVTechnology.com.

Viewer Beware: Watching Reality TV Can Impact Real-Life Behavior,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio.