It seems almost unfathomable that one of the century's greatest inventions was conceived in a muddy hayfield on a ranch in Rigby, Idaho.
But that's where Mormon farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth was in 1921 -- breaking up soil with his uncle's horse-drawn harrow -- when the idea walloped him. He gazed at the plowed rows of dirt behind him, and a vision of a line of excited electrons danced in his head.
And so, the idea for television was born. Farnsworth was only 14 years old.
"He had it all pretty well figured out, but he couldn't figure out how to scan a picture -- to turn it into an electrical impulse that can be transmitted," said Farnsworth's widow, Elma "Pem" Farnsworth. "All at once it hit him that that is what he could do, that he could scan a picture like reading a page one line at a time. This was the one thing that was holding the industry up."
And a new information revolution began.
They called him "Phil," a seemingly run-of-the-mill man with extraordinary intellect whose far-reaching vision and mind-numbing calculations created a device that opened the world inside our living rooms.
Events such as the moon landing, the Vietnam War and the Watergate hearings unfolded on cathode ray tubes like the one he invented. Thanks to him, such quips as "Where's the beef?" and "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz" became a part of the American lexicon. Then again, we might condemn him for "Laverne and Shirley," "The Gong Show" or "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?"
Yet can we accept the notion that one man -- especially a homely chap born in a log cabin near Beaver, Utah, who used to ride horseback to school -- could diagram the complex computations that make up television?
For decades, electronics giant Radio Corporation of America (RCA) would fashion a public relations machine to say otherwise. It was their engineers who brought TV to the world, they exclaimed, because television is too complicated to be the brainchild of just one man.
A Sad End: Though he won a patent war with RCA in the 1930s, Farnsworth was pushed out of the television race by RCA's corporate juggernaut. And he eventually faced bankruptcy, depression, drinking and illness before he died in 1971. Near the end of his career, Farnsworth was anything but well-known. About his only acknowledgement then was as a mystery guest on the game show "What's My Line?" (In fact, he stumped the panel and walked away with a pack of Winstons and 80 bucks).
But history is making amends. Farnsworth is now getting the recognition many say he deserved. He was given an honorary Emmy. His statue was erected in Utah and Washington, D.C. The peak in the Oquirrh Mountains where Utah's television station antennas sit was named after him. The U.S. Postal Service commemorated him with a stamp in 1983. Last year, Time declared him one of the 20 most important scientists and thinkers of the 20th century. U.S. News & World Report called him one of the world's greatest inventors, alongside the Wright brothers and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Brigham Young University, the same college that Farnsworth attended for two years, has now turned his life into a stage play.
"A Love Affair With Electrons" is about Farnsworth's life told in a series of vignettes, each like a television program.
"What interested me more was not so much who invented television but what it means" said Eric Samuelsen, BYU associate professor of theater and writer-director of the play. "Whoever invented television changed the world."
But let's get some misconceptions out of the way: No, Philo Farnsworth was not from Rigby, nor did he build the first TV there. And while Utahns can call him their own, he really built and projected the first television image in his loft in San Francisco.
The grandson of a pioneer who settled with Brigham Young, Farnsworth was a boy growing up in Indian Creek, Beaver County, when he realized how to make his mark.
"He decided that when he was 6 years old he was going to be an inventor," said Elma Farnsworth from her home in Fort Wayne, Ind. "This was when the telephone and gramophone came to the country. He thought it was magic and his dad said, 'No, it's an invention.' He thought an inventor was a pretty good thing to be."
Hard times forced the Farnsworth family to move to Rigby, where they helped take care of their Uncle Albert's ranch. By the age of 12, Farnsworth already was adept at fixing the ranch equipment, including the broken-down Delco power system.
"The older people stood around very apprehensively watching him take it apart. He washed all the parts good and put them back together and asked for some light oil, and it turned on," Elma Farnsworth said. "That was the first time he had much response to the fact he was a pretty smart boy."
He loved magazines such as Popular Science and was way ahead of his classmates in math and science at Rigby High School. And in his head, he carried this idea: You could transmit an image of an object from one place to another by converting the picture into electricity and shooting the stream of electrons at a fluorescent screen in a vacuum tube.
To show his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, how it worked, Farnsworth scribbled a diagram of his idea on the school blackboard. He was 15.
That later would prove auspicious. During Farnsworth's battle with RCA over the patent, Tolman would be called to testify, and he reproduced the sketch in detail -- a key piece of evidence in favor of Farnsworth.
Back to Utah: Because of economic hardships, his family moved back to Utah, and Farnsworth attended BYU for two years until his father's death forced him to pull out. Meanwhile, he began working on his concept for television while taking odd jobs. (The term "television" had been around for some time, but at that time it referred to various mechanical devices for projecting a moving image similar to movies.)
He later met George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, two California fund-raisers who were in Salt Lake City to recruit college students. Farnsworth was hired as a survey manager, but he told them about his idea for electrical television. Intrigued, the three formed a company to start the project.
Earlier, he met Elma Gardner, best friend of his sister Agnes, and every Friday night the three would go to the dances on the BYU campus. He and Elma married in Provo in 1926. They eventually had four sons, including one who died as a toddler from an infection.
But their first night together as man and wife was hardly passionate.
"On our wedding night, he said, 'There's another woman in my life, and her name is television,' " Elma remembered. She spent the night alone while Phil talked with Everson about his idea.
San Francisco Lab: After rounding up investors, the Farnsworths set up a laboratory in a loft at 202 Green St. in San Francisco, where the first television flickered on.
On Sept. 7, 1927, when Farnsworth was 21 years old, he placed a glass plate with a line scratched on the surface into what he called the "image dissector," or camera. He popped a switch, and Elma and his amazed colleagues could see the line on the glass receiver tube.
"The received line picture was evident this time," Farnsworth wrote in his research journal that day. "Lines of various widths could be transmitted, and any movement at right angles to the line was easily recognized."
Maybe we should remember what Everson wrote: "The damned thing works!"
But what should be the start of a celebrated story instead turns sour.
About the same time, RCA's president, David Sarnoff, was pushing his company's own design. He hired Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian ZmigrZ and research engineer who also had done pioneering work in television.
Zworykin and Sarnoff each visited Farnsworth's San Francisco laboratory to see how far he had come. Impressed with Farnsworth, Sarnoff offered him $100,000 for his work but was turned down.
By the early 1930s, RCA had developed its own camera tube, dubbed the iconoscope, which was similar to Farnsworth's image dissector, and in 1934, Farnsworth and RCA were engaged in litigation over who should be awarded the patent for television.
"It gets more complicated because there were more inventors involved, though they were the two principal people involved," said Elliot Sivowitch, museum specialist for the telecommunications exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington. "Farnsworth won a number of lawsuits in the 1930s. But in order to get TV off the road, RCA had to come to a compromise situation in which both organizations cross-licensed each other in order to get television off the ground."
Nevertheless, the U.S. Patent Office awarded the patent to Farnsworth, and RCA was ordered to pay him royalties, which really griped Sarnoff. "RCA doesn't pay royalties," he was rumored to have said. "We collect them."
Still, the patent battle left Farnsworth drained.
Battle of Attrition: "That was after many years of litigation and high expense to Farnsworth," said former KSL executive D. Donald Gale, who has lectured on Farnsworth's life and helped write Elma Farnsworth's biography of her husband. "But that was part of their strategy -- to slow him down and try to use up all of his fortune."
The U.S. government suspended the production of televisions during World War II (only a handful were produced in New York before then, even though television broadcasts were few and far between). When the war was over, Farnsworth was afraid his patents would expire. Meanwhile, RCA was trumpeting Sarnoff and his engineer, Zworykin, whom they called the real inventors of television. It was a corporate undertaking Farnsworth could not compete with.
"He had a nervous breakdown," recalled his wife. "He had put his whole life into this, and he felt he had spent all this time and energy for nothing because he didn't think his patents would still be valid."
And while Farnsworth went on to other projects -- including developing radar systems, the electron microscope, the first baby incubator and research on nuclear fusion -- he remained widely unknown as the key developer of the world's most popular electronic invention (at one point in the 1980s, there reportedly were more televisions on Earth than telephones).
"I used to get upset with it. But he didn't," Elma Farnsworth said. "He just said, 'Historians will take care of that.' "
For decades, they didn't.
"Part of the struggle was that Farnsworth was an uneducated man from Utah and Idaho whom other scientists refused to recognize," Gale explained. "They didn't figure anybody with that kind of background could possibly do the kinds of things that he did. Sarnoff, however, had all of the resources of RCA behind him, and he could do what he wanted with them."
It took Farnworth's wife, now 92, to set the record straight. She has written a biography about him called Distant Vision, and she has devoted her life to making sure her husband receives the proper credit.
But even now, with a wave of new recognition for Philo Farnsworth, some historians balk at the idea that one man made the machine.
"Television is comprised of many inventions or related technologies. Giving one man credit is inappropriate," said perturbed television historian Ed Reitan in Los Angeles. "I would say David Sarnoff should be credited because of his ability to get it commercially deployed."
Prolific Patent Holder: Later, after a stint as director of research at ITT, Farnsworth briefly fell into depression, dealt with drinking problems and had a house burn down in Maine. He died in 1971 in his home in Holladay from complications from a perforated ulcer. At his death, he held 300 domestic and foreign patents.
Though the Farnsworths were comfortable financially, they never got rich from television because RCA eventually bought up his expired patents.
"It had been a problem with other kids when I told them who my father was," said son Russell Farnsworth, a musician living in New York. "They say, 'If your father invented television, why aren't you rich?' That happens a lot -- even today."
Furthermore, Philo Farnsworth hated what he wrought. In fact, when a panelist on "What's My Line?" asked him if what he invented was painful, Farnsworth replied, "Yes, it's sometimes most painful."
"One day, Phil was at home, and he noticed that Kent [their son] had been watching television for a couple of hours," Elma recalled. "He turned it off and said, 'There is not going to be any TV-itis in our house.' That was the word he used for couch potato."
In the end, Philo T. Farnsworth's story is about a visionary mind in a common man who battled corporate America in the Information Age, a war he won as well as lost.
"RCA was trying to make Phil a nonperson," Elma Farnsworth said. "I used to get really upset about it, but Phil said, 'You can't change the past, and we have too much to do for the future to worry about it.'
"That was his attitude all the time. We were living in the future, and we were breaking ground along the way."
The idea walloped 14-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth as he broke soil in a horse-drawn harrow.
In rows of plowed dirt Farnsworth saw lines of excited electrons dance in his head. The idea for television was born.
Farnsworth realized he "could scan a picture like reading a page one line at a time. This was the one thing that was holding the industry up," said Farnsworth's widow, Elma "Pem" Farnsworth.
"Phil" Farnsworth was born in 1906 in a log cabin near Beaver and rode horseback to school, yet he could diagram the complex computations that make up television.
For decades, electronics giant Radio Corporation of America (RCA) tried to take credit for TV, claiming its engineers brought the technology to the world.
Farnsworth won a patent war in the 1930s but eventually was pushed out of the television race by RCA's corporate juggernaut. He would face bankruptcy, depression, drinking and illness before dying in 1971 in Salt Lake City.
Near the end of his career, Farnsworth was anything but well-known. About his only acknowledgment was as a mystery guest on the game show, "What's My Line?"
He stumped the panel and walked away with $80 and a pack of Winston cigarettes.
But history is making amends. Farnsworth is now getting recognition.
Time magazine last year declared him one of the 20 most important scientists and thinkers of the 20th century, while U.S. News & World Report called him one of the world's greatest inventors, alongside the Wright brothers and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Brigham Young University, which Farnsworth attended, has turned his life into a stage play.
"What interested me more was not so much who invented television but what it means," said Eric Samuelsen, BYU associate professor of theater and the play's writer and director. "Whoever invented television changed the world."
The grandson of a Mormon pioneer, Farnsworth decided early on to become an inventor, Elma Farnsworth said from her home in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"This was when the telephone and gramophone came to the country. He thought it was magic and his dad said, "No, it's an invention.' He thought an inventor was a pretty good thing to be."
At a young age, Farnsworth was adept at fixing ranch equipment. He also gave thought to converting images into electricity and shooting the stream of electrons at a fluorescent screen in a vacuum tube.
At 15, he showed his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, how it worked, scribbling a diagram on a school blackboard.
Tolman would later be called to testify during Farnsworth's patent battle with RCA and reproduce the sketch in detail -- a key piece of evidence in Farnsworth's favor.
Meanwhile, Farnsworth began working on his concept for television and teamed up with George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, two California fund-raisers who were in Salt Lake City to recruit college students and had recruited Farnsworth as a survey manager. The three formed a company to develop television.
By then, Farnsworth was married.
"On our wedding night, he said, "There's another woman in my life, and her name is television,' " said Elma, who spent the night alone while Phil talked with Everson about his idea.
The couple had four sons, including one who died as a toddler from an infection.
After rounding up investors, the Farnsworths set up a laboratory in a San Francisco loft, where the first crude television image flickered to life on Sept. 7, 1927.
"The damned thing works!" wrote Farnsworth, then 21.
But RCA President David Sarnoff was pushing his company's own design with help from Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian engineer who also had done pioneering work in television.
Zworykin offered Farnsworth $100,000 for his work but was turned down.
By the early 1930s, RCA had developed its own camera tube, dubbed the iconoscope, which was similar to Farnsworth's image dissector, and by 1934, Farnsworth and RCA were battling over patent rights.
The U.S. Patent Office awarded the patent to Farnsworth, and RCA was ordered to pay him royalties.
Farnsworth went on to other projects, developing radar systems, the electron microscope, the first baby incubator and research on nuclear fusion. But he remained widely unknown as the key developer of television.
But Philo Farnsworth was no TV slouch.
"One day, Phil was at home, and he noticed that (son) Kent had been watching television for a couple of hours," Elma recalled. "He turned it off and said, "There is not going to be any TV-itis in our house.' That was the word he used for couch potato."
PHOTO CAPTION: Only in recent years has Philo Farnsworth, seen here at his Philadelphia laboratory in 1934, been recognized for his scientific achievements.
The Utah native who as a 14-year-old farm boy had looked across the plowed rows of his father's potato field and envisioned electron beams scanning pictures in horizontal lines is no longer the forgotten inventor of television.
Seventy-five years ago Saturday, on Sept. 7, 1927, Philo Farnsworth was able to take what he later called an epiphany and make it a reality, transmitting a single line of light in a makeshift lab in San Francisco.
"There you have it," said the 21-year-old Farnsworth. "Electronic television."
Within two years, the man who was born in a log cabin on a hardscrabble farm near Beaver in 1906 had put together the world's first electronic television system, transmitting two dimensional moving pictures. He filed 10 patents from 1927 to 1929 that formed the basis for his system: a camera tube for pictorial scanning, circuitry and a magnetically focused cathode ray tube for viewing.
But then a lengthy patent infringement fight against the Radio Corporation of America sapped his energy, wrecked his health and nearly forced him into bankruptcy.
Farnsworth won the patent case, but RCA went on to dominate the television market. Encyclopedias credited his arch rival at RCA, Vladimir Zworykin, with inventing television. Reference books that did mention Farnsworth described him as only one of many contributors to the birth of TV.
His slide into obscurity was underscored in 1957, when Farnsworth walked away with $80 and a carton of Winston cigarettes after panelists on the television show "I've Got a Secret" failed to identify him.
"Does what you do cause pain?" asked one panelist.
"Sometimes it does, yes," Farnsworth answered.
Now, three recent books and other sources have revived the legacy of Farnsworth as the inventor of the medium that would transform modern life.
Time magazine spearheaded the reappraisal in 1999 by naming him one of the 20th century's greatest scientists -- and the only one who did not complete college. (He dropped out of Brigham Young University when his father died.)
A Man Named Phil: "For those inclined to think of our fading century as an era of the common man, let it be noted that the inventor of one of the century's greatest machines was a man called Phil," wrote Neil Postman for Time. "I refer, of course, to Philo Taylor Farnsworth. The 'of course' is meant as a joke, since almost no one outside the industry has ever heard of him. But we ought not to let the century expire without attempting to make amends."
Postman said he chose Farnsworth as the father of television because Farnsworth was named the winner in the famous 1932 case that pitted Zworykin's patent against Farnsworth's invention, including the camera tube Farnsworth had named the Image Dissector.
"I was impressed at how hard RCA tried to obliterate Farnsworth's contribution or minimize it," said Postman, who is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Media Ecology at New York University.
"There was so much money behind what they were doing that I became suspicious. Of all the evidence that impressed me was the one showing Farnsworth had the design when he was only 14 years old."
That evidence was produced by Farnsworth's chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, who testified in the patent case that Farnsworth had confided his boyhood idea to him for an electronic TV system when Farnsworth was attending high school in Rigby, Idaho, where the Farnsworths had moved when the boy was 11.
"I told you I wanted to be an inventor, and this is my invention," Farnsworth told his teacher. "I've got to tell you about it. You're the only person I can make sense to."
Tolman was able to diagram Farnsworth's idea from memory, and under cross-examination repeated in detail what Farnsworth had described. He even produced Farnsworth's student notebooks and the boy's original drawing. Tolman didn't understand what Farnsworth had said, but he was so impressed that he had tucked away the materials since that afternoon in 1922 when the two of them had talked.
Perhaps only one or two men on the planet could have comprehended Farnsworth's idea at that time, said Postman, and one of them would have been the much older, affluent and educated Zworykin.
Meeting of Minds: Zworykin first met Farnsworth in 1930 when he visited Farnsworth's lab, held up the Image Dissector and exclaimed, "This is a splendid instrument. I wish I would have invented it myself," according to George Everson, a financial backer whose 1949 Farnsworth biography was the only one for more than 40 years.
Two books published this year, The Last Lone Inventor by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and The Mogul, by Daniel Stashower, charge that Zworykin and his boss, David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, stole Farnsworth's invention. It is a contention, however, that is disputed by noted television historian Albert Abramson.
"I have great respect for Philo Farnsworth and his contributions to television, but things have gotten out of hand," said Abramson. "Sarnoff never took anything from him. Sarnoff was in the business of either buying or through interferences [patent cases] was out to get all of the essentials for a workable television system. This he did admirably."
Zworykin's Legacy: He credits Sarnoff with bankrolling Zworykin and a team of brilliant RCA engineers with perfecting and making television affordable and practical. In fact, modern TV systems are based on Zworykin's Kinescope, a television picture tube, the Zworykin Iconoscope, a camera tube that has electrical storage capacity, and RCA engineer Randall Ballard's system of interlaced scanning, a system which creates what the eye sees as a complete picture.
"Farnsworth's worthy invention was different,'' said Abramson, the author of several books on the history of television. "It was the slope wave generator," in which images are scanned in straight lines, from left to right and running from top to bottom.
When asked in a KSL-TV television documentary years later about Zworykin's contributions, Farnsworth replied: "I have no doubt that God could inspire two scientists at the same time and in different places with similar ideas."
Still, the Patent Office ruled that Farnsworth indeed had invented the world's first all-electronic television system.
"Sarnoff had three options," said Donald Godfrey, author of Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television. "He could invent around Farnsworth's system, buy him out or tie him up in the courts. Eventually, Sarnoff did all three."
"It still gets under my skin when I think about all their dirty tricks,'' said his widow, Elma "Pem" Farnsworth, who wrote a book in 1990 on her husband's life, Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier.
Sarnoff also initiated a widespread public relations effort to credit RCA and Zworykin with inventing television. The U.S. television industry's highest honor is named after Zworykin's invention, the Image Orthicon, nicknamed the "Immy." The name later evolved into the "Emmy" award.
Farnsworth did not have the money, backing or health to continue in television. He began drinking when doctors suggested that alcohol could relieve his active, racing mind. He spent his final years researching fusion. When Farnsworth died in 1971 in Salt Lake City, he was credited with more than 300 American and foreign patents, including devices that extended the vision of large telescopes and infra-red lights for night vision.
For more than 30 years, his widow has led a crusade to win recognition for the husband she helped in the laboratory during the heady days of his television inventions.
She worked for and lived to see Farnsworth awarded an Emmy posthumously, a bronze plaque erected at his San Francisco lab, his image emblazoned on a 20-cent U.S. postage stamp and a statue of Farnsworth placed in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. The Farnsworth statue holds an Image Dissector in its hands.
'Things Will Work Out': "Phil used to say that we're on a guided tour, we need to go on, do the best we can and things will work out all right," said Pem Farnsworth, 94, who lives with their son in Fort Wayne, Ind. "I am aware of being helped many times in my life, so I didn't get discouraged."
Unlike Zworykin, the Farnsworths did not have a corporation to publicize his achievements, but they had a church. Farnsworth, a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stopped attending services when he was 17, after his father died, and did not return until his move back to Utah in 1967.
Still, Mormon officials have long evoked his name as the inventor of television working under the influence of the Lord, said Godfrey.
"I am a deeply religious man, I know that God exists," said Farnsworth in a KSL interview a year before his death. "I know that I have never invented anything. I have been a medium by which these things were given to the culture as fast as culture could earn them. I give the credit to God."
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