Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television Part II

 

 

PART II: A “David and Goliath confrontation”

 

Employees at the Fort Wayne Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation, ca. 1940, accessed

digitized Philo T. Farnsworth Collection at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

See PART I: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!” for Farnsworth’s childhood, conceiving the idea for electronic television, and achieving the first electronic image transmission.

Philo Farnsworth was “the first to form and manipulate an electron beam” and according to his biographer Paul Schatzkin “that accomplishment represents a quantum leap in human knowledge that is still in use today.” Farnsworth’s ability to harness electrons negated the need for mechanical objects to transmit images and later contributed to breakthroughs in radar and electron microscopy.

However, transforming his historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of financial and legal problems. Farnsworth struggled to maintain a balance between scientific experimentation and his financial backers’ desire for a return on investment. In 1928, Farnsworth met with impatient investors who demanded to see “some dollars” in his invention, and stunned them when an image of a dollar sign materialized in the screen before them. This presentation bought Farnsworth more time, but later that year the backers repealed their support, forcing Farnsworth to rally his team to continue with the development of television.

In the period between his first transmission and first public demonstration of the television in 1934, Farnsworth continued to navigate around financial problems, company reorganization, and protests by radio and film actors fearing the new medium could jeopardize their jobs. The primary obstacle to commercialization was RCA’s lawsuit regarding his 1927 television system patent. Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin attempted to devise an electronic television system and applied for a patent in 1923, despite lacking proof of its feasibility. Farnsworth invited Zworykin, a former employee of Westinghouse, to see his San Francisco lab in 1930 in hopes that Westinghouse might fund his invention. Unbeknownst to Farnsworth, Zworykin no longer worked for the company and his visit to the lab was motivated by personal objectives.

 

Farnsworth’s television system patent, contested over in the 1935

patent suit against RCA, accessed Google Patents.

Farnsworth demonstrated how to construct an Image Dissector for Zworykin, who later replicated the tube and presented it to RCA. Farnsworth’s refusal to sell his patents to RCA prompted the company to sue for priority of invention, so as to introduce commercial television to the public. The U.S. Patent Office settled the “David and Goliath confrontation,” as described by Farnsworth’s wife Pem, when it ruled in Farnsworth’s favor based on Justin Tolman’s presentation of Farnsworth’s high school Image Dissector sketch. For the first time in RCA’s history, the company had to pay patent royalties, rather than receive them. The ruling also established Farnsworth as the inventor of television, despite ongoing debate and distortions to the historical record like Aaron Sorkin’s stage play proclaiming RCA the victor of the suit. Schatzkin provides a superb synopsis of the debate about the inventor of television and errors punctuating the narrative in The Boy Who Invented Television.

Farnsworth continued to fight against RCA’s appeals and his refusal to bow to the corporation taxed his mental and physical health. While struggling with depression, exhaustion and a dependence on liquor to cope with the stress, Farnsworth vowed to bring television from conception to commercialization. He aimed to get into broadcasting, but because the FCC would not yet allocate spectrum space for television, Farnsworth decided to enter into manufacturing.

 

Farnsworth with rolling camera in 1935, courtesy

of the digital The Farnsworth T. Farnsworth Archives.

In 1938, investors reorganized the company into the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation (FTRC) and scoured the nation for a manufacturing plant that would allow them to profit from Farnsworth’s invention. They selected the former Capehart Phonograph Company building in Fort Wayne, Indiana because, according to 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.” The FTRC plant opened in 1939, stimulating the city’s economy with the production of radios, phonographs and television equipment. Not only did Farnsworth oversee production, but continued his scientific endeavors with a research department that Pem contends operated at “high efficiency.” She asserts that “his input breathed energy into the men, and in turn their reciprocation kept him on his toes.” The plant’s opening coincided with the outbreak of World War II and Fort Wayne would experience the same economic revival as the nation through the manufacture of war goods.