Philo T Farnsworth (1906 – 1971)
Christmas has come and gone and many of us will have spent more time than we would care to admit slumped somnolently in front of a glowing rectangular box transmitting what passes for entertainment these days. Yes, the television. I had always assumed that John Logie Baird was the brains behind the gogglebox but recently I was alerted to the endeavours of Utah born scientist, Philo Farnsworth, the latest to be enrolled into our illustrious Hall of Fame.
Philo, who had already shown his mettle as a child by winning a national contest for inventing a tamper-proof lock, was an avid reader of science magazines. He became interested in the concept of television and quickly deduced that the mechanical systems that were being suggested would be too slow to scan and assemble the many images required to put on a moving picture show. In a chemistry lesson at school he sketched out an idea for a vacuum tube that would revolutionise the TV, although no one realised it at the time. By the age of 16 he had worked out the basic outlines of a functioning electronic television.
In 1926 Philo raised some money to fund his work – $6,000 from private investors and $25,000 from Crocker First National Bank of San Francisco – and on 7th September 1927 made his first successful electronic television transmission, filing for a patent that year. Continuing to work on and perfect the equipment Farnsworth gave his first demonstration to the press in September 1928. But as you would come to expect with our inductees, trouble was just round the corner. His backers were keen to capitalise on their investment and entered into talks with RCA.
RCA sent their head of TV, Vladimir Zworykin, to review Farnsworth’s work. Zworykin was by no means an impartial assessor – after all, he was working on similar ideas for the American corporate – and concluded that whilst his receiver, the kinescope, was superior, Farnsworth’s video camera tube which dissected images and was essentially what he had sketched out in his science lesson a few years earlier was the bee’s knees. To buy him out RCA offered Farnsworth $100,000, an offer he rejected.
The 1930s saw Farnsworth embroiled in legal battles with RCA who claimed that his inventions were in violation of a patent filed earlier than his by Zworykin. The resources of RCA funded a series of actions, appeals and counter-appeals and it was not until 1939 that they agreed to pay Farnsworth $1m for his patents. The Second World War put a stop on TV production and by the time peace returned, Philo’s patents had expired in any case.
The decade of legal battles had taken its toll on Farnsworth’s health – he had a nervous breakdown in the late 1930s – but in 1947 his company Farnsworth Television produced its first TV set. The company, though, was unable to compete with the giants of the industry, particularly RCA, got into financial difficulties and was taken over by IT&T in 1949. Farnsworth was retained as vice president of research but the battle for primacy in the TV market was lost.
Worse was to follow. He moved back to Utah to continue research on technologies such as radar, infra-red telescopes and nuclear fusion but his company, Philo T Farnsworth Association went bankrupt in 1970. Philo then took to drink and died of pneumonia in Salt Lake City on 11th March 1971. It was only through the efforts of his wife, Pem, that Farnsworth’s part in the development of TV has been belatedly recognised, being inducted into the San Francisco Hall of Fame and the Television Academy of Fame.
Philo, for playing a major part in the development of TV and not profiting from it, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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