TV’s father started hating his own invention – until one miraculous day

It was 1957, the game show was called “I’ve Got A Secret” and the guest had a most mysterious and disturbing name: Dr. X.

Since the premise of “I’ve Got A Secret” was that the contestants had to guess an unknown fact about the show’s guests (Dr. X was joined that night by a popular comedian, Buster Keaton), the candidates immediately probed Dr. X for details. When one asked if he had invented a machine that is painful when used, the soft-spoken Dr. X made the audience laugh by replying, “Yes, sometimes it is very painful. “

Dr. X turned out to be Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of electronic television when he was just a teenager. While television today is widely hailed for providing us with great works of art (it even has a golden age and a platinum age), in Farnsworth’s day it was considered by many with the same contempt reserved for new forms of entertainment media in every era. Farnsworth, however, had additional, personal reasons to feel bitter towards television.

He had lived the American dream by inventing a great invention all by himself, then suffered because he was woefully underprepared to face the hyper-competitive and often cruel business world that defines American capitalism.


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Like a character in a Horatio Alger story, Farnsworth was born in 1906 in a log cabin built by his grandfather in southwestern Utah. From an early age, he showed a talent for science, voraciously reading magazines like popular science and science and inventions, teaching himself physics and the works of Albert Einstein, and tinkering with machines whenever he found them (he even installed electricity on his rural farm). In 1922, Farnsworth worked with his high school chemistry teacher Justin Tolman on a sketch for a so-called “image dissector” vacuum tube that essentially created modern television technology.

Even before most people had decided on a career path, Farnsworth had already realized that the most efficient way to transmit images over great distances was to send them as a beam of electrons, which are then reproduced line by line along a light-sensitive screen. . He did it when he was 14, in fact, as he was plowing his family farm and visualizing beams of electrons patterned like the furrows he had created. With this epiphany, Farnsworth solved an intractable problem that existed with previous attempts at television, which had used a more primitive and less reliable method.

Farnsworth had the right ideas, but lacked the economic luck to make the most of them in a capitalist society. Although he was admitted to Brigham Young University at the age of 16 (his grandfather had been a disciple of the first Young), Farnsworth eventually withdrew because his father’s unexpected death meant that he could no longer pay school fees. Unwilling to let his dream die with his formal education, Farnsworth however raised funds for his invention while supporting his family with a full-time government job in Salt Lake City. On September 7, 1927 (the same year as the release of the first sound film, “The Jazz Singer”), Farnsworth and his team of engineers successfully transmitted television images of a line and a triangle to impressed investors. His latest image, a dollar sign, was met with amusement – ​​and, more importantly, with additional funding.

When one asked if he had invented a machine that is painful when used, the soft-spoken Dr. X made the audience laugh by replying, “Yes, sometimes it is very painful. “

Funding that Farnsworth badly needed. While he had revolutionized television technology, he still struggled with picture clarity and other technical issues. He was not alone in developing new ideas for conveying images; among others, an engineer named Vladimir Zworykin worked with Radio Corporation of America (RCA) electronics company president David Sarnoff to one day become the so-called “Fathers of Television”. In 1930, Zworykin met Farnsworth at his laboratory in San Francisco (Farnsworth believed this was a bona fide exploratory visit), observed and expressed admiration for his improved image dissector, and then returned to his own facility. in Camden, New Jersey to make an even better camera tube known as the Iconoscope.

That’s where Sarnoff comes in – a man who was later described by one of RCA’s successor companies as “the Bill Gates of his age” because he insisted on having “a stranglehold on everything a sector of the economy. Unable to put Farnsworth out of business through fair competition, Sarnoff paid a surprise visit to Farnsworth’s business in 1931 and, soon after, offered to buy Farnsworth out. When Farnsworth refused, Sarnoff fabricated a bogus legal case, filing frivolous patent suit after frivolous patent suit against him in order to tie him to court. Although Farnsworth ultimately prevailed, the ordeal broke him physically and mentally. Soon he developed severe depression and alcoholism. Even though Farnsworth’s legal victory in 1939 technically meant RCA would have to start paying him to make televisions, World War II temporarily stifled the television market. By the time the general public really took an interest in television, Farnsworth’s patents had expired. Shortly thereafter, it ceased operations.

If there’s any consolation to this story, it’s that Farnsworth continued to invent in his later years. As he lost the contents of “I’ve Got A Secret” (winning a carton of cigarettes and $80, or about $843.19 by modern standards), Farnsworth’s name would soon overtake Zworykin and Sarnoff in the popular consciousness as the main inventor of television. Prior to his death from pneumonia in 1971, Farnsworth even somewhat revised his earlier dismal view of television, which his children remembered bluntly lambasting him as they grew up. His widow, Elma Farnsworth, later told historians that when he saw Neil Armstrong land on the moon on July 20, 1969, he ultimately believed his own contribution to sharing that event with the world made his labors somewhat meritorious. .

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