Blog #1- The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of

Rediscovering The Forgotten Genius of Television. Those of us who grew up in the 20th century all had one thing in common. The center of our world was not school, family or religion… it was television. 

We grew up together with TV as our common voice. It became our oldest and dearest friend.  We saw things we couldn’t experience in a thousand lifetimes. Television has taken us to the heavens, the deepest seas and inside our own bodies. How many of us wouldn’t trade our parents for the ones we saw on our favorite comedies?  How many of us wanted to be doctors, lawyer, or Indian chiefs because we saw it on TV?  Television became the greatest influence on our lives, society and thoughts.  As for me, I spent my career creating television programs. I owe everything to the guy who thought this whole crazy thing up. 

So… Who came up with the idea for television?

There are many right answers to the question.  But the best and most amazing one is the true story of Philo Taylor Farnsworth. He was the 14 year-old Utah farm boy plowing a field of beets behind a horse in 1922 when he first imagined a mechanism for sending pictures through the air. 

Within five years, he had accomplished what the scores of scientists at RCA, Westinghouse, and labs in Germany, Russia, and Japan could not. On September 7, 1927, he transmitted the first all-electronic television image. 

He should be the most famous man in the world, but he’s not. He was all but forgotten to history, squeezed out by the industry his invention spawned.  Instead of being a household name and getting a royalty on every TV set ever made, he died drunk, in debt, and heartbroken.  His family was left with almost nothing but a fading legacy. 

It just didn’t seem right.  So I set out on a quest to find out what happened to Philo Farnsworth and his inventions.  

Over the next few weeks, I will be recounting my adventures meeting, helping, and honoring the Farnsworths while hatching a plan to celebrate the great man.  

We at thehistoryoftv.com will be releasing many rare and historic photographs, videos, and stories about the boy genius and his “big Idea”.  You are free to share them with your supporters and online followers.  You may use them for your research and archival purposes. We are sharing the Farnsworth archives for the first time.  Including…

For the first time ever, we will publish Dr. Farnsworth’s daily experiment journals and recreate THE DAY TELEVISION WAS BORN. 

All those of you who love television and want to pay homage to Farnsworth and his invention are invited to participate and share our live webcast on September 7, 2017, celebrating the 90th Birthday of Television. 

To learn more about this remarkable story, watch our short video narrated by Philo’s great-granddaughter Jessica.

His widow Elma also appears in the video recounting the excitement of living on the edge of discovery and invention. 

We call it THE MOST FAMOUS MAN YOU NEVER HEARD OF. 

Blog #2- From a Log Cabin to the Big Idea 

August 9, 1906 was a breathless, oppressively hot day in Beaver, Utah. Inside Lewis Farnsworth’s little log cabin, his young wife Serena was giving birth to their first child, a boy named Philo Taylor Farnsworth.  At the moment he came into the world, his father had a vision that this would be a special child.

Frontier life was harsh. When the farmland turned unforgiving. Lewis drove a stagecoach from the railroad 100 miles away. 

One day, Lewis took his young son along to see the big steam engine.  As the puffing, clanking monster pulled into the station, Philo hid in terror.  Then the engineer offered the lad a chance to see how he ran the train. Philo's fear turned to fascination.  At only three, he demonstrated a photographic memory and reproduced the train in a detailed drawing.

Power lines had not yet reached the rural West, the Farnsworth farm had no lights, phone, radio nor indoor plumbing.  Philo became fascinated with a Sears-Roebuck catalog and that fueled the boy’s imagination about things that used electricity.  His idea was to produce his own power by means of a primitive perpetual-motion device.  It didn't really work, but by age six, he had decided to be an inventor.

 In the Spring of 1918, the Farnsworth family packed their six children into three covered wagons and headed for greener pastures.  Bringing up the rear was eleven year old Philo driving the wagon carrying such prized possessions as the Edison Gramophone and his mother's indispensable white sewing machine. When they arrived at the Bungalow Ranch near the town of Rigby Idaho, to Philo’s utter delight, the place was powered by a Delco generator.  Electricity at Last!

While searching the attic for a quiet place to study, Philo discovered a treasure trove of radio and popular science magazines.  An issue of “Science & Invention” inspired him to enter a contest for the best idea to improve the use of the automobile. He devised a magnetic car lock and won the cash prize of $25. He also saw articles about a new device called mechanical television. 

 Philo's then rigged the family washer with a motor replacing the hand crank. He attached another motor to his mother's sewing machine and installed electric lights in all the outbuildings. The young inventor was in full bloom.

 In the spring of 1921, at the age of 14, while plow-harrowing beets and hay on the family farm behind a two-horse team...Philo's mind wandered to thoughts of electrons.

Philo Farnsworth’s son explains the legend of the “Harrow." 

He looked back over the straight lines left in the earth by the harrow. Then the idea hit him as a bolt out of the blue.Mechanical television would never work, but electronic television might. If he could deflect electrons in rows from left to right as a page of print is read, a visual image could be picked up one point of light at a time and transmitted to a receiver at a distant location.

From this moment on, he was a changed person.  It was as though a magic wand had touched him.   In the fall of 1921, Philo entered his first year of high school.  He signed up for algebra and science.  Then he applied for permission to take chemistry.

Mr. Justin Tolman, the Rigby High School chemistry teacher, refused to let the freshman into senior chemistry. Philo pleaded with Mr. Tolman to allow him to sit in on the class without credit.  Seeing his determination, Tolman gave in, soon Philo had a better grasp of the subject than any of the senior students.

 One day in late February 1922, when Mr. Tolman came for their tutoring session, he found Philo filling the blackboard with diagrams and equations.  Then Philo drew a picture of the the first workable television camera tube.  Mr. Tolman told Philo “most of it is over my head, but it certainly looks like a good idea.  One thing’s for sure; you have a big job ahead of you, but I would encourage you to stick with it.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see you finish it.”  Tolman tucked the drawing into his pocket and Philo beamed with pride.

The First Drawing of an Electronic Television Camera 1922

The First Drawing of an Electronic Television Camera 1922

That drawing would later change the course of Philo’s life as it became the centerpiece of a “David and Goliath like” patent battle that would pit the inventor against radio giant RCA.

 When RCA claimed it was impossible for a self-taught 21 year-old to invent something this complicated,  his former teacher showed up with the drawing. Not only could a 21 year-old invent television… a 15 year old did it.  

 https://www.thehistoryoftv.com honors all the teachers who make a difference.  

Blog #3- The Mother of Television 

In 1926, when Philo T. Farnsworth asked Elma Pem Gardner “can you be ready to be married in three days?” they were about to embark on a journey of romance and discovery on the frontier of invention.

About a year earlier, Elma, called Pem, asked her best friend Agnes Farnsworth to introduce her to Agnes’ brother Philo.  Pem was still in high school but Phil, who had dropped the “o” in his name by now, was a year older and a college man. She was attracted by his piercing blue eyes and as the saying goes, they made beautiful music together…Phil played violin and Pem played piano.  He wooed her on long horseback rides and told her his dreams.

 On February 25th 1926, Pem’s 18th birthday, Phil marked the occasion by proposing marriage. Along with a diamond pear shaped ring, Phil gave Pem the sheet music for their favorite song, “Always” with a note that said “Irving Berlin could say it so much better than me,”

Within four months of the proposal, the 19 year old fledgling inventor promoted an investment of $6,000 from George Everson in Salt Lake City. Phil and Pem were married and set off for Los Angeles to begin the lab experiments that would lead to the invention of television. 

Pem always believed in Phil and that his work would change the world… but she began to have doubts about the marriage when she was left alone on her wedding. After many hours of anxiety, Phil finally returned near dawn.  Seeing her mix of concern and anger he immediately said “Pemmie, I have to tell youthere is another woman in my life.” Before she could faint from shock he added “…and her name is Television. The way I see it, my work is going to be taking up most of my time.  The only way we will have as much  time together as I would like is for you to work with me.  Together, we’ll be working right on the leading edge of discovery”.

Philo the trained Pem to work with him in the lab. She did the technical drawing and typed up the day’s progress in a journal of the daily experiments. The journal would be the crucial element in proving his “priority of invention” of television.

She later reflected, “The idea that germinated in his brain for electronic television must have been a gift from God, a partnership between divine inspiration and temporal genius.  From that single seed of inspiration he peeled away many of the mysteries of the physical universe and commanded the forces of nature to do his bidding.”

In 1928, she would become the first woman ever photographed on electronic television, 75 years late, she received an ovation at the Emmy Awards in 2002. She lived to the ripe old age of 98 and spent the last 40 years of her life trying to regain the reputation that was rightly Philo’s.

On September 7, 1927 Philo and Pem Farnsworth became the mother and father of Television. 

#4- The Road to Invention

In 1926, 19 year-old Philo Farnsworth gathered up his $6,000 in seed money and set off to Los Angeles to invent television. 

The Farnsworths set up a lab and created this, the first electronic television camera:

It never worked, but it was the start. Each of the tentacles of the “Glass Octopus” needed its own power source. Before he could succeed, Phil would have to invent the tools to invent the tools. The first big breakthrough was the multipactor. It used one power source to energize many tubes. Now he could proceed.

Unfortunately, a power surge during one test caused a lab explosion and everything was destroyed.

The search for new investors led to the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. George Everson set up a meeting. Philo promised a working television system within one year and got $25,000 to set up a lab at 202 Green Street on September 22, 1927.

His lab staff consisted of his wife Pem, two electrical engineers and Pem’s brother Cliff Gardner.  It would be Cliff, a former lumberjack, who would learn to blow the intricate vacuum tubes that became the first television cameras.  

On August 30, just after his 21st birthday, Philo got the camera and receiver to work. He didn’t believe it at first, so he built a whole new system to check out on September 7, 1927.

This time ”the damn thing’ worked. It was the beginning of a new technological era that would change the world forever.