Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth was born in a log cabin on his grandfather’s remote ranch in southwest Utah on August 19, 1906. His family was of pioneer Mormon stock. Despite the classic 19th Century pioneer circumstances of his birth, Farnsworth would help reshape the modern world with his inventions.
By 1918 the family was ranching on its own in southern Idaho. The new homestead had its own small generator and was primitively wired for lighting and some farm equipment. Young Philo, a tinkerer in the great tradition and a devotee of Popular Mechanics was soon busy adapting other gadgets and appliances to being run by electricity.
In high school in Rigby, Idaho proved to be a whiz at advanced math, chemistry, and physics. But he stunned his high school science teacher with sketches for electron tubes. He demonstrated how pictures might be transmitted and received wirelessly over a distance by filling several chalkboards with equations for his awestruck teacher. That teacher’s memory of these early events later became key testimony in Farnsworth’s epic patent battles with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
After graduating from high school early, Farnsworth worked for the railroad to raise money for tuition to Brigham Young University. In 1923 he joined his family, which had moved to Provo, Utah. But when his father died less than a year later, 16 year old Philo was forced to quit school to support his family.
But his dreams never died. He seized another opportunity to get a quality education when he tested number 2 in the nation and was recruited to the U.S. Naval Academy. But when he discovered that the Navy would own any patents he developed during his continuing research, he resigned and returned to Utah.
An unsuccessful business venture brought him to Salt Lake City, where he took classes at the University of Utah. He also caught the eye of George Everson, a professional fund raiser and philanthropist in town to work with local Community Chest. Philo’s project so excited him that he agreed to pay for him to move to Los Angeles where he would be provided housing and a small laboratory space.
Farnsworth leapt at the opportunity. He married his sweet heart, Elma “Pem” Gardner, the sister of an associate of Everson.
After a period in L.A., the Farnsworth’s moved to San Francisco to be closer to Everson. Despite Everson’s support, it was difficult to keep up the research and support the family. Farnsworth worked mostly alone and the strange looking apparatus that were brought into his apartment/laboratory aroused suspicion and the place was raided by local police suspecting he was running a distillery.
After only a few months in California, however, Farnsworth was far enough along in his work to file patents. Others were developing television systems, based on mechanical scanning devices. Farnsworth proposed an entirely electronic system to produce images that could be received on another devise. These early patent applications gave him a heads up over others who were experimenting with electronic systems.
In September, 1927 Farnsworth transmitted his first image in his San Francisco lab, a simple line inscribed on a black plate back illuminated by a powerful arc lamp to a receiving device which reproduced the image by an electronic scan. He demonstrated his device to the press a year later.
In 1930 Farnsworth’s patents were approved. He was also visited by Vladimir Zworykin, who had been developing his own television system in Pittsburg for Westinghouse for some years. Although his system was promising, it never functioned well enough. Impressed, he made copies of Farnsworth’s Image Dissector for his own use. He would eventually abandon that technique because of the extremely bright lighting required and turn his attention to developing the Iconoscope.
Meanwhile Farnsworth turned down an offer by David Sarnoff of RCA to buy his patents and work for them. But again the inventor balked at having his patents held by others. Instead he moved to Philadelphia where he found what he hoped would be a congenial home at Philco.
RCA acquired Zworykin’s patents, which Zworykin had already used to challenge Farnsworth’s. The company renewed the objections, but in 1934, based on evidence from that high school teacher and others, the Patent Office ruled that Farnsworth established priority for electronic television with his Image Dissector. In the mean time Farnsworth applied for additional patents, including one for color transmission and reproduction.
Despite the Patent Office decision, litigation between Farnsworth and RCA dragged on for year, greatly distressing the inventor. Finally in 1939 RCA agreed to settle the dispute by licensing Farnsworth’s patents for a million dollars. That led directly to the famous public demonstration of the RCA television system, based on several different patents, including Farnsworth’s at the New York World’s Fair on April 20, 1939.
But before that Farnsworth had struggled. He parted ways with Philco in 1933 and then went to England in hopes of raising money for his expensive litigation with RCA. There he met John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor who had given the world first public demonstration of a working television system in London in 1926 using a mechanical rotating disc device. The two joined forces and Baird’s company began to market a system to the BBC in competition with EMI, which used Zworkink’s patents. Eventually the BBC opted for the EMI system.
Farnsworth also demonstrated his system in Germany, where it was used for experimental broadcasts of the 1936 Olympics.
Back in America, Farnsworth continued his experimentation and filed several patents both for the improvement of television and in new areas, including ray for airplanes and ships to penetrate fog. During World War II in combination with other patents on an improved cathode ray tube to be used as an image receptor, led to radar.
He founded his own company, Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation based in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1936. The company took on numerous defense contracts during the World War II, including the development of radar and improvements to sonar. But the small, undercapitalized company struggled to make deliveries on time.
In 1951 International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) bought his company and kept Farnsworth on a chief researcher working from a small basement laboratory known as The Cave.” His improvements to the radar circular sweep screen made possible modern air traffic control systems.
ITT agreed to modestly fund Farnsworth’s basic research into a new area, nuclear fusion. He developed a specialized set of fusion reaction tubes called fusors. Although he was able to produce micro scale fusion reactions in the lab, he could not figure out how to create large enough reactions to become a potential power source. ITT soured on the expense of the project and cancelled its support, causing Farnsworth to leave the company in 1966.
Disillusioned and drinking heavily, Farnsworth transferred his research back to Utah where he worked in a laboratory provided by Brigham Young University. He started a new, small firm, Philo T. Farnsworth and associates and lured some former colleagues from ITT to join him in Utah. He secured a contract with NASA, but his bank called in its loans, which Farnsworth had secured with his home and pension. The company collapsed and the Internal Revenue Service padlocked his lab for failure to pay back taxes.
Despite the failure of his fusion system to be commercially viable, It has become an invaluable tool in basic research and fusors are used to produce particles for use in cyclotrons and for other basic particle physics research.
With his family reduced to poverty despite fathering one of the great industries of the century, Farnsworth fell into deep depression and drank heavily, destroying his always fragile health. He died of pneumonia on March 11, 1971, largely in obscurity. His widow Pem campaigned relentlessly after his death to promote his place in the birth of television.
Farnsworth was not THE inventor of television. Many inventors contributed to what would ultimately be the operating system that became practical and which after World War II exploded changing society and culture in ways Farnsworth could never have imagined when he began sketching ideas for tubes as a 14 year old in an Idaho science class.