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.
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.
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