Saturday, August 19, 2006


For me, personally, Philo T. Farnsworth was the greatest inventor who ever lived, and his invention was more important than the heart-lung machine, more powerful than the atomic bomb, and greater than even Liquid Prell. (Sorry about that, 2046 Year Old Man!)

And had he lived, Philo T. Farnsworth would have turned 100 years old today and I wanted to pay tribute to the man who created the machine that allowed me to explore the fantasy universe I sometimes call home.....

Philo T. Farnsworth invented television. No, he invented Television.

There were about six others who were working on their own viable electronic/mechanical image transmission devices before Farnsworth, but his basic design was the one adopted by RCA and which became the industry standard. And Farnsworth first worked up the basics when he was just a 14 year old Idaho farmboy!

In 1929, Farnsworth transmitted the first human image - that of his own wife, Elma, whom he credited as being his partner in every way when it came to the invention of Television.

The thing was, his idea was stolen by RCA, run by "General" David Sarnoff, and Farnsworth would spend a good deal of his life thereafter in fighting to gain the credit and the riches that were due him.

The actual culprit was Vladimir Zworykin - even his name is villainous! - who was working for Westinghouse first and then RCA. In 1930, he visited Farnsworth in his San Francisco lab under false pretense and essentially stole the basic design to be developed back in Pittsburgh by the RCA machine.

"It's the quintessential American story," says Thomas Schlamme, a director who will be directing a movie based on an Aaron ('The West Wing') Sorkin play about Farnsworth.

"It's clearly the story about a Jewish immigrant [Sarnoff] who pulls himself up from the bootstraps and rises in the corporate world of television and entertainment. And you counter that with a young boy genius, who was a Mormon who lived in Utah.

"And these two men sort of collided at a certain point in their time. They reflect two sides of the American experience."

While he battled Sarnoff, Farnsworth continued to work on various other aspects of Television, but also on other inventions as well. By the end of his life, Farnsworth was holding about 300 patents for his works.

He went to work for Philco, but he was abused even by that corporate entity - when his son died at a young age, Philco wouldn't even give him the time off to go home to Idaho to bury his son.

Eventually, Farnsworth won out in the courts to regain the patent for the magical device he created. But by then the toll had been laid upon him - he suffered from alcoholism and bouts of depression.

When he died of ulcer problems in 1971, it's possilbe that he had seen all of the great things that his invention made possible. As Dr. Philip Kipper, a televisiologist observed, "He envisioned television broadcasting. I don't think he could envision 'I Love Lucy,' but he certainly envisioned being able to transmit pictorial images to a mass audience."

By March 11th, 1971, he would have seen the Moon landing and the coverage of Kennedy's assassination and funeral - events which brought America together via his invention. Farnsworth might have seen 'Twelve Angry Men' by Reginald Rose and 'Patterns' by Rod Serling and 'Marty' by Paddy Chayefsky. He might have seen 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' and the first season of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'All In The Family'.

Perhaps he also saw 'The Prisoner' and 'Star Trek'.

And it's pozzble, jus' pozzble, that he also saw 'Turn On', 'You're In The Picture', 'My Mother The Car' and 'Clutch Cargo' cartoons. Visions like that would probably exacerbate his depression.

Despite the many low points throughout the years since Television came into existence, at least Sarnoff did some good by stealing Farnsworth's invention. "[He knew] this would be a great thing, that we would pump the best of ourselves into people's living rooms," says writer Aaron Sorkin. "that this was going to end fear, that it was going to end illiteracy, that it was going to end war by pointing a camera at it."

(At the same time, it also contributed to war by giving Al Quaeda a venue in which they could show the beheading of a man with impunity. One of my co-workers showed me that video on his cell-phone last night around midnight, and it was a sickening way to begin Farnsworth's birthday.......)

So if you should happen to land on one of the many NBC stations - NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, BRAVO, SCI-FI - today while flipping through channels, remember to flip the bird at the Peacock, as a salute to Philo T. Farrnsworth


The word is half Greek and half Latin.
No good will come of it
C.P. Scott, editor,
Manchester Guardian, 1928

No comments: