PHILO T. FARNSWORTH (1906-1971)
Philo Taylor Farnsworth was a 14-year-old farm boy when he came up with the concept of electronic television in 1921. During his lifetime he amassed over 160 patents for his inventions. In addition to TV, he worked on the development of radar, the electron microscope, night vision, the human infant incubator, the gastroscope, and his final frontier, a combination of nuclear energy and electronics he called “nucleonics." For a comprehensive overview of Farnsworth's life, as told by his great-granddaughter, Jessica, watch the video below.
THE BOY GENIUS
Born in a log cabin in Utah in 1906, Philo Taylor Farnsworth grew up in the old west. His father drove a stagecoach and their farm had no electricity. He had no telephone, no computer, not even lights at night. After seeing a locomotive at the age of six, he decided to be an inventor. A summer job near Rigby, Idaho provided the fertile soil for his “big idea.”
The barn contained a stash of science fiction magazines that promised a future with flying cars, picture phones, and mechanical television. By learning to repair the farm’s broken Delco generator, he began his lifelong fascination with electrons.
THE PLOW THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
This is an actual harrow disk from the plow 14-year-old Philo Farnsworth used in 1921 to create the lines in the dirt that inspired his concept for electronic television. His “big idea” was that if he could train electrons to scan a picture from side-to-side, the way his horses moved across the field, he could send images to distant locations where they could be reconstructed line-by-line. He had not yet been to high school.
THE BIG IDEA
In the video below, Dr. Farnsworth's son, Kent, explains exactly how his father conceived the idea for electronic television.
When he was 15, Philo entered high school and begged his science teacher, Justin Tolman, to let him take senior-level physics and chemistry. The teacher was reluctant at first, but agreed.
One day he noticed Farnsworth drawing on the blackboard. It turned out this was the first design for an all-electronic television camera. Tolman volunteered to tutor the young genius and kept a notebook sketch of the first camera. Decades later, when RCA claimed it was impossible for a self-taught 21-year-old to invent something as complicated as TV, his former teacher showed up with the drawing. Not only could a 21-year-old invent television… a 15-year-old did it.
ELMA "PEM" FARNSWORTH
In 1926, Philo proposed to his 18-year-old sweetheart, Elma “Pem” Gardner. He trained her to do technical drawing, spot welding, and she typed his lab notes chronicling the progress of each day’s experiments. Their lab journal would eventually be the crucial evidence proving Farnsworth’s “priority of invention,” establishing him as the true originator of all-electronic television. When he wanted to test his new invention, Pem became the first human ever televised.
Pem’s devotion to Philo is clearly illustrated in her encouraging letters (see below). He wanted her by his side in the lab, telling her, “Together, we’ll be working right on the leading edge of discovery.”
THE MOTHER OF TELEVISION
In the video below, meet Pem Farnsworth and hear her story in her own words.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
In 1926, the 19-year-old fledgling inventor promoted an investment of $6,000, over $85,000 today, from Salt Lake City businessmen, Les Gorrell (left) and George Everson (right). Phil Farnsworth (he dropped the “o”) now began work in earnest on electronic television.
The supply of electricity from the public utility in Salt Lake City was unreliable, so Farnsworth, with his wife Pem by his side, moved his operation to Hollywood, California.
THE FIRST TV CAMERA
The first camera tube Farnsworth ever built (see below) took the glass blower over two months to create. It never worked, but it was the start. Unfortunately, a power surge during the first test caused a lab explosion and everything was destroyed. This tube, labeled “1”, is the only remaining relic of that era.
1926 RECEIVER AND NOTEBOOKS
The ideas for electronic television hatched from Farnsworth’s mind almost fully developed before he built them. These concept drawings of “The Transmitting End” and “The Receiving End” from his May 1926 notebook are almost identical to his first TV cameras and the receiver tube shown below.
THE FIRST WORKING CAMERA TUBE (1927)
In 1926, the need for new investors led to Crocker Bank in San Francisco. Philo promised to deliver a working television system within one year and got $25,000, close to $400,000 today, to continue his work. Philo, his wife, and three assistants transformed an empty loft at 202 Green Street into an electronics laboratory.
Against all odds, within one year, they produced the first working electronic television camera tube dated September 7, 1927. It was built by Pem’s brother, Cliff Gardner, based on Phil’s patents. The rounded lens resembled an eyeball and it broadcast a single line. As his wife danced around the lab, the 21-year-old inventor said, “I said I’d invent television and there it is.” Notice how similar it is the 15-year-old boy’s chalkboard drawing. When his backers asked when they might see some money in “the damn thing,” his next broadcast was a dollar sign.
THE DAY TV WAS BORN (September 7, 1927)
The video below chronicles how 21-year-old Philo Farnsworth and four assistants accomplished what the biggest corporations and smartest engineers in the world could not. Relive the day all-electronic TV was born, September 7, 1927.
FARNSWORTH TELEVISION JOURNAL
The inventor’s progress is traced in this official Farnsworth Television Journal. On September 7, 1927, he wrote, “The received line picture was evident this time.” This bound volume, filled with descriptions, diagrams, and photographs, is marked as evidence in the Farnsworth patent victory over RCA.
Philo's handwritten notes (above) were typed by Pem (below) for inclusion in the lab journals.
THE WORLD TAKES NOTICE
Word of Farnsworth's success spread quickly. Soon his lab was visited by investors, dignitaries, and even silent film superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks who decided television was no threat to the film industry.
FARNSWORTH IMAGE DISSECTOR & ELECTRON AMPLIFIER
This is the demonstration image dissector camera tube Farnsworth took with him to show investors how the system worked. He had the lens sawed off to reveal a simulated picture on the optical image plate. He would explain how that image was scanned and converted to a trail of electrons to be transmitted and then decoded by a receiver.
Before he could broadcast complex images, Phil realized he would have to invent the tools to invent the tools. The first big breakthrough was the multipactor, an electron amplifier that used a single power source to energize many instruments at once. Now he could proceed.
FARNSWORTH RECEIVER & CAMERA
The first television sets needed constant adjustment and the tiny cathode ray tubes glowed greenish-gray images. This 1930s Farnsworth television and camera, recreated by Richard Grosser, reveals how much “do-it-yourself” was required.
Early television receivers were complex instruments that required precise calibration by the user. The meter on the left measured the signal in milliamperes to allow accurate tuning. Other controls centered the picture vertically and horizontally and kept the image from rolling or skewing.
Often, experimental television stations had only a few dozen viewers who could receive a signal, so consumers were given custom station call letters to affix to their tuners.
THE FRANKLIN INSTITUTE
In 1934, Farnsworth successfully demonstration television at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. Audiences were transfixed and refused to leave. Finally he told his cameraman, “Point the camera at the moon.” The next day, 200 newspapers reported the story, “The Man in the Moon has posed for his first Radiograph snapshot.”
In this rare photograph from 1934, Farnsworth (on the right behind the camera) shows the strain of keeping the demonstration television system operational while programing enough material to televise for the entire 10-day run of the exhibition.
EARLY TV STAR MICKEY MOUSE
The bright lights needed for television pictures were so intense that Farnsworth created a system for broadcasting films. A Mickey Mouse cartoon was the first. On the box, the inscription to his son reads, “Dear Skee, Hope you like it. It is one of the first films used over television (Daddy’s Television). Love from Mom & Dad – 1945”
THE RIVAL & THE CORPORATE GIANT
Russian scientist and inventor Vladimir Zworykin moved to the U.S. in 1919 to work on television at Westinghouse. On December 29, 1923, he filed a patent called "Television Systems," but the project was dropped. In 1929, Zworykin invented an all-electronic camera tube called the Iconoscope. It didn’t produce a usable image like Farnsworth’s image dissector, but it still caught the attention of RCA Chairman David Sarnoff who recruited Zworykin to develop television for him.
David Sarnoff became the first media mogul in 1917 when he formed the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to control all the patents involved in radio. He also had visions of developing television.Sarnoff introduced television to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair in 1939 and popularized it with his broadcast network, NBC.
THE IATRON TUBE
Farnsworth concentrated on research in his post-war government contracts, creating satellite cameras, 3-D industrial television and the iatron “memory tube” which is the basis of today’s computer flat screens.
THE FARNSWORTH TV SET
After World War II, Farnsworth’s patents started to expire. Anyone could use his technology without paying a royalty. Farnsworth’s tiny company couldn’t compete with RCA’s marketing power. Philo was driven to bankruptcy. He had a breakdown and moved to Maine to go fishing. Then he came up with an idea he thought was better than television. The television in this exhibit is one of the last sets manufactured at the Farnsworth factory in Indiana. In the clip below, Dr. Farnsworth's son, Kent, describes the details of a rare Farnsworth signature television.
I'VE GOT A SECRET
The clip below is Philo Farnsworth on the game show "I've Got A Secret" in 1957. It's the only time Philo was seen on commercial television and no one knew who he was. Especially interesting are his predictions about the future of television and nuclear fusion.
Below is the letter Philo received, along with a check, as his prize for stumping the panel and winning "I've Got A Secret." He was also awarded a carton of Winston cigarettes.
Philo Farnsworth’s last experiments aimed to create clean, safe, unlimited energy using the principles of the H-bomb. He felt his “Fusor” (pictured) could power cars, homes, and spaceships. Its applications included altering weather patterns to increase food production, killing viruses that cause cancer, and powering human settlements on Mars. His small-scale tests were successful, but poor health and insufficient funds doomed his development of “nucleonics.”
FIRST MAN ON THE MOON
When Neil Armstrong took his historic first step on the moon, Philo Farnsworth and his family watched live pictures on TV along with the rest of the world. But Philo wasn't just an observer. Months earlier, when NASA was searching for the perfect television camera to send into space, they decided to use Philo's original image dissector design. It was deemed most likely to endure the rigors of space travel. One of Philo's cameras was the first to televise the moon from the Earth back in 1935, and the first to send back pictures of the Earth from the moon over three decades later.
Throughout his lifetime, fame and fortune eluded Philo Farnsworth. After his death in 1971, his wife, Pem, devoted her life to setting the record straight starting with her autobiography, “Distant Vision.” She worked tirelessly to have a postage stamp and a posthumous Emmy award in his honor. The schoolchildren of Utah raised funds to have a statue erected in the U.S. Capitol in 1990.