Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television

PART I: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!”

Before Steve Jobs, there was Philo T. Farnsworth.

 

Farnsworth with Image Dissector, ca. 1920s, courtesy of the digitized Philo T. Farnsworth Collection, J. Willard Marriott Library. 

It is notable that in this age of celebrity worship, most people cannot name the inventor of the television. Even the meticulous Aaron Sorkin confused the details of Farnsworth’s life in his stage play. Woefully unrecognized, Farnsworth conceived of the idea for electronic television at the age of 14 and brought his conception to fruition in 1927 with his first electronic transmission.

Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, Farnsworth nurtured a broad, idealistic vision of how his invention would change the world, envisioning how television might increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. Farnsworth’s greatest resource, much like Jobs’, was unconventional thinking and an ability to assemble a small team of determined ingénues like himself. Farnsworth’s wife, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, attributed her husband’s success to “intuitive thinking, logic, and hard work,” as well as his ability to combine “seemingly unrelated elements into new instruments of amazing effectiveness.”

The inventor of television grew up in Utah prior to the existence of power lines, making his radical electronic concepts all the more remarkable. Farnsworth’s family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho, where Farnsworth delighted at the sight of a Delco power system, immersed himself in scientific magazines and invented tools that facilitated household chores. While working on the farm, a teenaged Farnsworth observed the straight rows created by the horses as he plowed, and abruptly thought “he could build the image like a page of print and paint the image line after line . . . with the speed of the electron, this could be done so rapidly the eye would view it as a solid picture.”

According to Pem, Farnsworth reasoned that by using an image dissector tube, he could manipulate electrons to “change a visual image into a stream of electrical current, transmit that to another vacuum tube at the receiver, and on a fluorescent screen turn the current back into the visual image again.” Farnsworth sketched his idea on the blackboard of his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, and presented him with a drawing of it, which would prove invaluable years later during a 1935 patent suit ruling.

 

Farnsworth’s sketch for teacher Justin Tolman, courtesy of the digital The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

In 1923, Farnsworth moved to Provo, Utah and pursued formal education, enrolling at Brigham Young University (BYU) to study mathematics and physics, although, like Jobs, never graduated. Ironically, his lack of formal training contributed to his success, as fundraiser George Everson recalled that Farnsworth “attacked the whole assignment with no engineering experience and little engineering knowledge, but to compensate for these inadequacies he had courage and genius.” After leaving BYU, Farnsworth worked for Everson as an organizer at the Community Chest Campaign, who, along with fundraiser Leslie Gorrell, funded Farnsworth’s electronic television idea. With this financial backing, Farnsworth moved to California, eventually establishing a lab on Green Street in San Francisco and hand-picking a team of scientists and innovators.

In the team’s early days, engineers shuffled in and out of the lab with various instruments, a “glittering array of crystals, prisms, and lenses.” This activity attracted the attention of police in the Prohibition era and Pem stated “it’s not hard to imagine how suspicious our operation must have looked to an outsider. Strange packages were being brought in, and the curtains were drawn for demonstrating the light relay.” Pem reassured two policemen, who came to investigate the lab, that she and her husband were not operating a still and continued their electronic experiments.

Farnsworth focused on perfecting the image dissector tube with the help of Pem’s glassblowing brother, Cliff Gardner. The scientific team constructed numerous models before developing a bulb that was delicate, yet strong enough to transmit an image electronically. After years of failed experiments and twelve hour work days, on September 27, 1927 Farnsworth transmitted the first “electronic television image.” With Farnsworth and his staff at the receiver, Cliff inserted the slide into the Dissector and a small line materialized in the receiver room, ushering in the television age. Farnsworth wired Gorrell a simple message: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!” and applied for his first television patent on January 7, 1927.

Read Part II of Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television.

For more information about Philo T. Farnsworth and his activities in Indiana, see the Home of Philo T. Farnsworth marker and the corresponding marker review.