TV's `Idea Man'

Philo Farnsworth

ABOUT a month ago, Aug. 19, Philo Farnsworth would have turned 84. Who, you ask, was Philo Farnsworth? That so many of us do not know the name is precisely the injustice I wish to see corrected. Farnsworth - one of the great American inventors of television - is not nearly so well known as he should be, and I believe that each year his birthday ought to be observed, perhaps by a minute during which we all refrain from flipping channels. Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1906-71) was a Mormon farm boy, born outside of Beaver City, Utah, who suddenly and mysteriously got the idea for electronic television one day in 1922. As he told the story afterward, the 15-year-old was out plowing his father's cornfield when the idea struck him. He was, admittedly, your typical boy genius, the type who pored over the popular science magazines of the day, and he'd already rigged his mother's hand-cranked washing machine to an electric motor, when no one had ever thought of trying such a thing.

Young as he was, Farnsworth knew about prior efforts to translate pictures into electric signals that might be sent from one place to another. He understood the workings of two electronic devices that existed already - the photoelectric cell and the cathode ray tube. The one turned light into electricity, while the other could turn an electron stream back into light. Philo saw how the two might be yoked together into a system, the way you'd yoke together a team of horses.

But the problem remained of how to get the pictures into the system. Just as he and his team of horses, that fateful day, reached the top of a small hill at one end of the field, Philo - or Phil, as his folks called him - looked over his shoulder to make sure that the rows he'd just plowed were straight. That's when the inspiration hit him: ``You could scan an image that way!'' If he could get a beam of electrons to trace straight horizontal lines across a screen, just like the rows beneath his plow, then the image hitting a composite photoelectric cell could be translated into a simple electric signal! In his mind's eye, the youngster had solved television's biggest theoretical problem.

With what we must recognize as heroic perseverance, Farnsworth spent the next two decades of his life making his hilltop inspiration a reality. For a time, he and his former high school sweetheart, Elma Gardner, who would become his lifelong wife and partner, worked in the back of a bungalow on New Hampshire Street in Los Angeles. That's where they had to endure a Prohibition raid by police, who'd mistaken the drawn shades and deliveries of glass tubing as evidence of an illegal still.

Eventually - in a lab on San Francisco's Green Steet, where his backers had moved him - Farnsworth achieved his dream, a working television set. He knew how to promote it, too. At the first demonstration for investors, some of whom had been waiting for years to see results, one of the backers demanded, ``When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?'' Immediately, a big dollar sign appeared on the glowing screen.

Farnsworth was all of 24 when he patented his system, and offered to license it to RCA, then the industrial leader in television research. No, no, they said, in effect, we're RCA; people pay us for patents, not the other way around. Again Philo persevered and won. For the first time, RCA licensed someone else's patents, and the story goes that the RCA attorney had tears in his eyes as the contracts were signed. Eventually the Farnsworth Radio and Television Corporation became part of ITT, and Farnsworth retired a wealthy man.

So why, we have to ask, has this great American hero been so shamefully forgotten? Why does every schoolchild know the names of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and Alexander Graham Bell, yet no one knows who Philo Farnsworth was? Is it because Philo was not the only inventor of TV? It is true, mysteriously true, that in five other countries, other geniuses were getting similar ideas at the same time, independently - so that six countries can claim, and do claim legitimately, to have invented TV: Vladimir Zworykin and others in Russia, John Logey Baird in England, still others in Germany, in France, and in Japan.

And how do we explain that little miracle? For centuries, nothing, and then all of a sudden, in the early '20s, everyone's favorite genius is thinking about TV.

That must be what it is: TV no longer feels American to us, so we've forgotten one of the great exemplars of Yankee know-how, one who helped to wire the global electronic nervous system we all tap into. Now that high-definition television stands just over the horizon, offering American ingenuity and enterprise another chance to get back into the race, it's about time that we reinstated this deserving figure into the pantheon of our national heroes.

The Farnsworth story even has a nice coda. When he saw the junk that was actually broadcast on TV, Phil was, as his widow recently put it with nice understatement, ``disappointed in the programming.'' But then, 20 years ago, when he saw Neil Armstrong's first footsteps on the moon - an event that would not have taken place were it not for TV - he said: ``It's all been worthwhile.''

I propose, then, an annual birthday salute to Philo Farnsworth, to the unjustly forgotten Philo. To the patient inventor who stayed true to the farm boy's dream. And when TV tries to tell us which sponsor it's ``brought to you by,'' let's think instead of Philo and his ilk, the dreamers who, no doubt hoping for ``no further commercial interruption,'' dreamed up television for us all.

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