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Television's unsung inventor
Philo FarnsworthHis Invention
Philo Taylor Farnsworth's story is indeed an epic one, but it is still not widely known. Farnsworth was a 16-year-old Mormon farm boy from Rigby, Idaho with virtually no knowledge of electronics when he first sketched his idea for electronic video on a black board for his high-school science teacher in 1922. He successfully displayed the first TV picture in 1927, and soon after patented the idea at the tender age of 21. The boy genius successfully fought off the combined might of one of the largest corporations, RCA, and its massive teams of lawyers. But the story has a tragic end -- RCA managed to maneuver its way around the patents and effectively put Farnsworth's television company out of business. Farnsworth became an embittered alcoholic in his early 30s, having sacrificed much of his family life to the fight with RCA. Although he worked on the development of radar and on military projects, and won dozens of other patents, he spent the majority of his later years and all his money (from the royalties RCA continued to pay him) working unsuccessfully on nuclear fusion.
For more information, see The Farnsworth Chronicles

From "Radio's 100 Men of Science," published 1944:

Philo Taylor Farnsworth, specialist in cathode-ray tubes as applied to television, first became interested in electricity through a farm lighting system and its electric motors. Popular magazines told him of "such a thing called television," and he linked his life work to it. Farnsworth was described by a friend as "an omnivorous reader of scientific literature. While at Rigby (Idaho) high school, 1921-22, he delved into the molecular theory of matter, electrons, the Einstein theory, automobile engines, model airplanes and chemistry.

He went to Glen Falls, Idaho in 1923 as an electrician on a railroad, then to Provo, Utah to work in a machine shop. In 1924 he enrolled in the University, but at the end of the second year, his father died and young Farnsworth left college to help support the family. He entered the radio business at Salt Lake City as a serviceman, but the shop failed and he went to work in the railroad yards.

One day in applying for a job in connection with the Salt Lake City Community Chest campaign, he met Leslie Gorrell and George Everson of San Francisco, who were conducting the drive. Farnsworth was hired. As the men became acquainted it was natural that they should learn about television from the young man. This was a turning point. Everson agreed to finance the idea. A laboratory was set up in Los Angeles. In October, 1926, with additional financial assistance, they established the Crocker Research Laboratories in San Francisco "to take all the moving parts out of television." The idea conceived in 1922 was brought to a practical result in 1927 when a sixty-line image of a dollar sign was the first image Farnsworth transmitted.

(Note: Compare these dates to the 1923 start of Scotsman J.L. Baird on development of his mechanical TV system, and showing it for the first time in February, 1927, and Zworykin's first patent application for the basis of his iconoscope while a university graduate student in December, 1923. Farnsworth with his notion in 1922 at age 16 was truly a child prodigy by comparison.) The company was reorganized as Television Laboratories, Inc.; and later in May, 1929 was renamed Farnsworth Television, Inc. of California.

Farnsworth's first application for a patent cover a complete electronic television system, including an "image dissector tube." was made January 7, 1927. The image dissector was used to scan the image for transmission. At the receiver, an "oscillite" tube reproduced the picture. An electron multiplier tube, which Farnsworth called a "multipactor," increased the sensitivity of the image dissector.

from the National Inventors' Hall of fame:

Philo Taylor Farnsworth
Born August 19, 1906 - Died March 11, 1971
Television System
Patent No. 1,773,980
Inducted 1984

Philo Taylor Farnsworth's electronic inventions took all of the moving parts out of televisions and made possible today's TV industry, the TV shots from the moon, and satellite pictures. Born in Beaver, Utah, Farnsworth, was educated in the Utah and Idaho public school systems and while at Rigby (Idaho) High School in 1921 delved into the molecular theory of matter, electrons and the Einstein theory. He also studied automobile engines and chemistry. In 1926 Farnsworth joined the Crocker Research Laboratories in San Francisco. At the age of 20 he produced the first all-electronic television image.

Farnsworth's basic television patents covered scanning, focusing, synchronizing, contrast, controls, and power. He also invented the first cold cathode ray tubes and the first simple electronic microscope. He used radio waves to get direction (later called radar) and black light for seeing at night (used in World War II). During the 1960s he worked on special-purpose TV, missiles, and the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Before his death, he worked on a nuclear fusion process to produce clean, virtually unlimited energy; he held two fusion energy patents. When he died at age 64, he held more than 300 U.S. and foreign patents.

from Tube: the invention of television, by David and Marshall Jon Fisher

Television's earliest pioneer was John Logie Baird. A Scot, Baird had been fired from his job as assistant mains engineer after blowing up the Glasgow municipal power supply in an attempt to create diamonds in a cement pot. He had also concocted a cure for hemorrhoids, tried it on himself, and been unable to sit for a week; designed a glass rustless razor that wounded him badly; and developed pneumatic shoes that burst. In early 1923 he decided his next move would be to invent television. Baird produced the world's first TV picture that year, the first public demonstration in 1925, the first government license in 1926, and the first color and transatlantic transmissions in 1928.

Meanwhile in America, Charles Foster Jenkins (Quaker farm boy from Ohio, college dropout, and one of history's most prolific and wealthy inventors) transmitted moving pictures of a windmill in 1925. In 1928 Jenkins broadcast publicly from Jersey City, and Wall Street rewarded Jenkins's corporation with $10 million in stock. By 1928's end, 18 stations were broadcasting across America, using Jenkins's system and that of others. But the First Great Television Boom, as Tube calls it, went bust by 1932. Images were so murky that announcers would describe what the audience should see, and all existing systems used mechanical scanning, which was inherently too slow and bulky. The way ahead belonged to the two proponents of purely electronic television, Farnsworth and Zworykin.

As depicted in Tube, television's inventors seem to be figures endowed with an archetypal purity. None more so than Philo Farnsworth, who at 14, while mowing his Mormon father's hay field in Idaho in 1921, had a vision of images formed by an electronic beam scanning a picture in horizontal lines just like the mown field before him. He would create the cathode-ray camera tube a few years later. By 21, he was designing the multipactor tube, the core of the Farnsworth Image Dissector, the mechanism behind television scanning, and using Fourier analysis, which he had taught himself.

Farnsworth's misfortune was that he competed against a figure who perfectly represented another, perhaps more modern, type of American genius. David Sarnoff had risen from New York's Jewish ghetto through RCA's ranks. In 1932, he exploited a federal antitrust proceeding that broke up the GE/Westinghouse/RCA conglomerate on terms that kept RCA the leader in radio and gave him complete control of the company. Sarnoff's idea that RCA would have a "total systems" approach to the new television industry -- manufacturing, servicing, broadcasting networks, content -- made him the world's first systems integrator and a figure of Gatesian proportions.

Sarnoff made Farnsworth an offer, but Farnsworth said he would cede his brainchild only on a royalty basis. Sarnoff believed that what RCA needed, it must buy and control outright. And Sarnoff had Vladimir Zworykin. The only credentialed scientist among TV's inventors, Zworykin was perhaps as brilliant as Farnsworth, and he was developing his Iconoscope with all the weight of RCA behind him. Yet in the end, though Zworykin created the standards on which television was based, RCA was forced to pay royalties for the Image Dissector. Despite the payoff, Farnsworth, depressed after the years of struggle, developed a severe drinking problem and spent his money and remaining years fruitlessly pursuing the secret of nuclear fusion.