Philo Farnsworth: A Television Pioneer Who Started Young

I heard about Philo Farnsworth for the first time in the book “The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961” by Jeff Kisseloff. In it, the author described this American Inventor as the not well-known Television Pioneer who made it all possible. I was intrigued.

Philo Farnsworth, A Young Inventor Who Dreamt of Electronic Television

Philo Taylor Farnsworth II was born on August 19, 1906, in Beaver, Utah, and his interest in science started young. As a teenager, he avidly read science magazines and became captivated by the problem of television.

He realized that mechanical systems, such as those using spinning discs, would be too slow to scan and assemble images rapidly. Recognizing the need for an electronic system, he formulated the basic outlines of electronic television by 1922.

In 1923, while still in high school, Philo Farnsworth enrolled as a special student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Unfortunately, his father’s untimely death–in January 1924–forced him to leave the university and find employment to support his family while completing his high school education. His dream of developing television had to be temporarily postponed.

Philo Farnsworth in His San Francisco Lab

In 1926, he joined forces with charity fund-raisers George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, convincing them to invest in his television system. Farnsworth, along with his new wife, Pem Gardner, moved to Los Angeles to begin his work. With the original $6,000 provided by his benefactors quickly exhausted, Farnsworth secured an additional $25,000 and laboratory space from the Crocker First National Bank of San Francisco.

On September 7, 1927, Philo Farnsworth achieved his first successful electronic television transmission and subsequently filed a patent for his system that same year.

Farnsworth’s Electronic Television, From Paper to Reality

Continuing to refine his system, Philo Farnsworth conducted the first public demonstration of his invention to the press in September 1928. The backers at the Crocker First National Bank, eager to be acquired by a larger company, initiated contact with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1930–for more about RCA, take a look at my article about the invention of radio. RCA sent Vladimir Zworykin, the head of their electronic television project, to evaluate Farnsworth’s work.

While Zworykin’s receiver, the kinescope, outperformed Farnsworth’s, the young inventor’s camera tube, the image dissector, surpassed Zworykin’s. Impressed by the image dissector, Zworykin recommended that RCA offer Farnsworth $100,000 for his work. However, Farnsworth rejected the offer.

Instead of joining forces with RCA, Philo Farnsworth entered into a partnership with Philco (the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company) in 1931. Unfortunately, this collaboration lasted only until 1933. Despite of that, Farnsworth established his own company, Farnsworth Television, in 1937. He struck a licensing deal with American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), allowing both companies to utilize each other’s patents. Buoyed by the AT&T agreement, Farnsworth Television reorganized in 1938 as Farnsworth Television and Radio and acquired the Capehart Corporation’s factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to manufacture radios and televisions. The production of radios commenced in 1939.

Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrated the television receiver he invented.

RCA, still harboring resentment over Philo Farnsworth’s rejection, initiated a series of protracted court cases aimed at invalidating his patents. While Zworykin had successfully developed the iconoscope camera tube, Farnsworth held patents for many other essential components of a television system. Finally, in 1939, RCA agreed to pay Farnsworth royalties for his patents (totaling $1 million).

The years of relentless struggle and exhausting work had taken a toll on Farnsworth. That same year, he moved to Maine to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. And as World War II temporarily halted television development in America, prompting him to establish Farnsworth Wood Products, a company that manufactured ammunition boxes. In 1947, he returned to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Farnsworth Television produced its first television set. However, the company faced significant financial difficulties.

Two years later, International Telephone and Telegraph (IT&T) took over Farnsworth Television and reorganized it as Capehart-Farnsworth, with Farnsworth serving as vice president of research.

Philo Farnsworth Beyond Television

Despite its efforts, Capehart-Farnsworth remained a small player in the industry compared to its longtime rival, RCA. Farnsworth’s attention shifted to nuclear fusion, and he invented a device called the fusor (that uses an electric field to heat ions to nuclear fusion conditions) with the hope of creating a practical fusion reactor.

However, in 1967, IT&T cut funding for his research. After that, Farnsworth joined Brigham Young University, where he continued his fusion research under a new company, Philo T. Farnsworth Associates. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt in 1970, leaving Farnsworth in deep debt. He battled depression for decades, and in his final years, he turned to alcohol. Tragically, Farnsworth passed away from pneumonia on March 11, 1971, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Patent for Farnsworth’s television system

Following Farnsworth’s death, his wife, Pem Farnsworth, dedicated many years to preserving his legacy, which had been overshadowed by the protracted legal battles with RCA.

Eventually, Philo Farnsworth was recognized for his groundbreaking contributions and was posthumously inducted into the San Francisco Hall of Fame and the Television Academy Hall of Fame. A statue of Farnsworth now stands at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, commemorating his pioneering work.

Also in the history of the medium, I wrote about the invention of television, the canned laughter for television, and the TV Remote Control.

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