Philo Farnsworth:
The "Father" of Television?

Philo Farnsworth

Philo Farnsworth…

The unassuming farm boy who while plowing a field at the age of 15 imagined the basic technology of how to build the modern television…!!

Learn more about this fascinating inventor and scientist below…!

Philo Farnsworth... His Early Years

Philo Farnsworth was from modest beginnings… He was born just a few miles outside of the tiny town of Beaver, Utah in a log cabin on August 19, 1906.

As a young boy he loved to read science magazines and science books and was fascinated by the exciting new technology of electricity and electrical power.

A quick learner… he found that he had a tremendous aptitude in mechanical and electrical technology. By the time he was 12 years old he had built several electric devices and actually refitted the family washing machine (that operated by hand) so that it operated with an electric motor.

He was quite ingenious… Family and friends were quickly realizing that Philo was on his way to doing great things.  By the age of 13 Philo won first prize in a national contest sponsored by Science and Invention magazine by inventing a theft proof ignition switch for automobiles.

Young Philo was proving to be quite a young prodigy…! It was only two years later that he would come up with an idea that would help to forever change the world…!

Conceiving the Idea of the All-Electronic Television

At the age of 14 Farnsworth conceived the basic idea of how to create the device he would become most famous for… The all-electronic television! He first described and diagrammed his "television" idea in a 1922 9th grade science paper for his science teacher.

His science teacher thought his idea was brilliant and actually kept the original drawings, included with the science paper, for years afterwards.

He knew that Philo was really on to something and later, they actually did come in very  handy… They were used as evidence in one of the patent copyright cases years later to prove that Philo came up with this idea at an early age!

Here's how Philo explained it…

"I was tilling a potato field with a horse-drawn plow, crossing the same field time after time and leaving lines of turned earth there, when it occurred to me that electron beams could do the same thing with images, leaving a trail of data line by line".

Continuing His Education... Brigham Young University and the Naval Academy...

After high school Farnsworth enrolled at Brigham Young University in late 1923 to forward this study in electricity and electronics.

Unfortunately, he wasn't able to stay at BYU very long.

Philo's father died in January of 1924 and, as the oldest son, he assumed responsibility for helping to provide for the family. As a way to help his family financially, and still get an education, he applied to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland (after he'd earned the nation's second highest score on Academy tests) and was accepted.

Even with the added responsibility however Philo would not let his dream of inventing and all-electronic television die.

He wasn't at the Academy for long however… When he learned that the government would own his patents (and royalties) if he stayed in the military… he decided to seek an honorable discharge (which he was granted) and returned to Utah.

Philo wasn't done with his education however… After leaving the Naval Academy Farnsworth decided to further his knowledge in electricity and electronics by signing up and completing correspondence courses with a prestigious technical college... the National Radio Institute. He earned his electricians license and certification as a "Radioman" by mail in 1925.

Philo eventually re-enrolled at BYU but family finances continued to be a serious problem and he was finally forced to leave school altogether and find full-time employment.

Pursuing His Dream of Building a Working All-Electronic Television...

No matter what else Philo was doing, at heart, he was an inventor…

He never gave up on his dream of building an all-electronic television system and in 1926 he traveled, with his new bride Elma ("Pem"  his lifelong partner and laboratory assistant) to San Francisco where (with the help of investors) he set up a small laboratory in his apartment complex and resumed his work on the all-electronic television system.

Farnsworth was working with a small group of engineers and had limited funding, but it was there that he built his first functioning television camera and receiving system... And on September 7, 1927, he made his first electronic transmission of a television signal. It was very crude, just the image of a single line to the receiver in the next room of his apartment-laboratory but… It was an all-electronic television signal and you could see it! Eureka…!! And improvements quickly followed! The first patents for his all-electronic television system were filed in January 1927.

Back in those days however… There were quite a few engineers that were working on all-electronic television systems of their own and some of them were very well funded.

Farnsworth knew he had to move quickly. His main ongoing problem at that time was how to fund his research.

Philco, a large appliance maker, hired Farnsworth in 1931 to establish a television division for the company and it seemed like he would finally have the financial backing that he needed.

By 1933 however, with stiff competition from RCA, Philco decided that their television research was no longer viable and closed the television division.

Farnsworth's Battles with David Sarnoff and RCA…

Farnsworth was still not beaten…!

Determined to go on with his work... he established his own company, the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation and continued his research.

But he was still running into stiff competition from a familiar foe… In the 1930's one of the giants of the entertainment industry - Radio Corporation of America (RCA) - headed by the legendary David Sarnoff, had quickly become the dominant force in the all-electronic television industry.

 The Image Dissector

One of the devices Farnsworth is best known for inventing is the first fully functional all electronic image pickup device the "Image Dissector" or "Dissector Tube".

The image dissector is a video camera tube in which photo-cathode omissions create an electron image which is then scanned to produce an electrical signal representing the visual image.

He called his device an image dissector because it converted ("dissected") individual elements of the image into an electrical signal one at a time.

Sarnoff was one of the first entertainment executives to realize the vast  potential of television and with Vladimir Zworykin heading Sarnoff's team he was determined that RCA would be the undisputed leader in that field.

That determination led Sarnoff to play hardball with anyone  who got in the way… especially the stubborn Farnsworth. RCA and Sarnoff fought Farnsworth "tooth and nail" for years over the patent rights for the various devices (such as Farnsworth's Image Dissector) that made up the all-electronic television system.

Sarnoff tried various other approaches also to secure the patents from Farnsworth for the all–electronic television.

Sarnoff even offered Farnsworth $100,000 (a fortune in those days) to buy his patents but, he included a stipulation that Farnsworth must work for RCA. A stubborn Farnsworth, not wanting to give away his work, refused.

RCA and Farnsworth continued their legal battles over the patent rights to various components of the all–electronic television and in 1934...  

The US Patent Office rendered a decision that awarded the priority of the invention of the Image Dissector (the forerunner of the camera tube) to Farnsworth.

Winning the patent battle was a major victory for Farnsworth! But... Even at that point however Sarnoff and RCA would not give up and the legal battle still continued but... after exhausting every legal avenue, eventually RCA was forced to pay Farnsworth royalties.

Of course… While this long legal battle was taking place RCA was not standing still in their research and development of an all–electronic television.

They had an army of well-funded electrical engineers, headed by Vladimir Zworykin, working on perfecting the all-electronic television system so that it could be used by the ordinary family for home entertainment. They were quickly discovering and codifying the rest of the technology that would take television out of the lab… and into America's living rooms…!

By 1936, RCA had pretty well taken over the field of television and the rest of industry started to fall in line following their lead.

Phil Farnsworth however was far from done with television and he continued his research... Perfecting many of the electronic devices that are used in television systems today.

In the long history of television and video he's definitely and without a doubt, one of the founding fathers of television. In his later years, Farnsworth moved back to Utah and continued research in several different areas of electronics and fusion technology at Brigham Young University.

While Philo Was Alive He Really Wasn't Very Well Known for His Marvelous Invention...

As you can see from this clip from the popular old television show "I've Got a Secret"...Farnsworth didn't become famous until many years later.

"I've Got a Secret" July 1957 …


His Later Years... Farnsworth's View of Modern Television Programming...

Well… as the years went by and television grew up... what did Philo think about his "child" as he saw it mature…?

Farnsworth's overall attitude about television was that the programming being presented was not worthwhile or intellectually stimulating.

He had hoped that it would become a marvelous teaching tool and that there would be no excuse for illiteracy as education could be accessed easily.

He also envisioned that news and sporting events could be seen as they were happening. Well…  He was partly right… At least about the news and sporting events anyway!

His wife Elma "Pem" Farnsworth says that Philo did have a change of heart about the value of television when he saw the transmission of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. She reports that at that moment Philo turned to her and said...

"Pem... This has made it all worthwhile"...

Farnsworth's Legacy…

Farnsworth passed away on March 11, 1971.

At the time of his death, Farnsworth held over 300 US and foreign patents and his inventions contributed to the development of radar, infrared night vision devices, the electron microscope, the baby incubator and the astronomical telescope…just to name a few.

As one of the true giants of American inventors... Philo Farnsworth is... to many people...

The real  "Father of Television"...!

Have fun...!  Dan (Editor)

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