The Forgotten Inventor

September 7, 1927. “That’s it, folks.  We’ve done it! There you have electronic television!” And with that statement, the 21 year-old self-taught inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, the “Father of Television,” excitedly announced to a small group of scientists his breakthrough in electronics. It would forever change the landscape of communication and entertainment. And it was wizardry in action.

Through his “Image Dissector,” Farnsworth sent through the airwaves the image of a triangle, placed on a slide.  He then directed it be rotated. On the other side of his machine, on a receiving screen, the triangular image magically appeared. And upon his command, as fast as Harry Potter could say “expecto patronum,” the image of the triangle rotated.

Television was not invented by just one person or through a single process. Its building blocks–tracing back to the early 1800’s–touch upon many areas of science and engineering including, chemistry, electro-magnetism, mechanics, and countless other disciplines. A combination of stiff competition and scientific achievement gradually pushed forth its development.  But it was Farnsworth’s insistence to electronically transmit images through the air with his Image Dissector that significantly advanced the new medium. Yet Farnsworth did not stop there. He thereafter devoted many years of his life patenting processes that would improve upon his innovation that made televisions affordable, popular, and ubiquitous world-wide.

But despite Farnsworth’s great accomplishment at such a young age, along with the improvements he developed, he never achieved the fame and fortune he sought and truly deserved.  He was underfunded and drew enormous competition from rival inventors and powerful corporations. One such well-funded inventor, Vladimir K. Zworykin, worked for Westinghouse and then later the RCA Corporation.  Zworkin also laid claim to inventing the modern television. RCA, headed by its powerful President David (“General”) Sarnoff, engaged Farnsworth in rival lawsuits. Despite the fact that the U.S. Patent Office sided with Farnsworth, Farnsworth lost many of the lawsuits against the powerful RCA Corporation. Farnsworth did eventually settle out with RCA, but it was a pittance compared to the enormous profits that RCA made on its televisions. Nevertheless, Farnsworth spent many years trying to re-establish and lay claim to inventing the medium he devoted his life to, only to be beaten back by the wealthy and powerful Sarnoff.

Philo Farnsworth died at the age of 64 largely forgotten for his great contribution to the television industry. Interestingly, he appeared in 1957 on the television show I’ve Got a Secret where he revealed his “secret” to a stumped cast. For his part, Farnsworth received $80 and a carton of cigarettes.

You can watch his performance via this link:    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKM4MNrB25o

Fittingly, in 1999, Time Magazine included Farnsworth in its “Time 100: Most Important People of the Century.”

1921. The ever-curious Philo drew this conceptual image of his image dissector for his high school science teacher, Justin Colman, when he was just 13.

1921. The ever-curious Philo drew this conceptual image of his image dissector for his high school science teacher, Justin Colman, when he was just 13. This drawing was used in some of the litigation to prove his patent claims.

Philo showing off his image dissector in 1927.

Philo showing off his image dissector in 1927.

Farnsworth's Appearance on I've Got a Secret in 1957.

Farnsworth’s appearance on I’ve Got a Secret in 1957.

David Sarnoff. Sarnoff was the powerful President of RCA which owned the National Broadcasting Company.

David Sarnoff. Sarnoff, who liked to be referred to as “General,” was the powerful President of RCA which owned the National Broadcasting Company.