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Philo Farnsworth

August 20, 2015

My parents bought their first television set, capable of receiving only monochrome images, in 1950. It was housed in a huge, simulated cherry wood cabinet about half as large as a coffin, and it had doors to hide the picture tube, thus reinforcing the coffin effect. At that time, only one station could be received, WKTV, channel 13. Because of an FCC channel reorganization, WKTV moved to channel 2 in 1959.

This was quite a change, since channel 13 occupied the frequency range of 210-216 MHz, while channel 2 occupied the frequency range of 54-60 MHz. Fortunately, the transmitter was very near to our house, since the vacuum tube television receiver had limited sensitivity. Only after installation of a large attic antenna years later was it capable of faintly receiving one or two stations from Syracuse, New York, just fifty miles away.

While in high school, I built a Heathkit color television, a Model GR-295 with about twenty vacuum tubes, so I expanded my knowledge of electronics and learned a few things about television. In my college years, I worked one summer at WRGB, a Schenectady, New York, television station, after passing an operator license exam administered by the FCC. Such adventures in television technology would have been delayed beyond my generation without the work of American inventor, Philo Farnsworth, who was born on August 19, 1906.[1-4]

Philo T. FarnsworthPhilo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971)

Like Vannevar Bush, a prominent 20th century engineer born sixteen years earlier, Farnsworth became interested in mechanics and electronics at an early age.

I wrote about Vannevar Bush in an earlier article (Basic Research, October 22, 2010)

(Farnsworth in 1939, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Since there were more types of mechanical devices than electronic devices available to engineers in the early part of the 20th century, early television systems had a mix of mechanical and electronic components. Images were scanned and displayed using spinning disks. Farnsworth's main contribution to television technology was the elimination of mechanical components to create the first all-electronic television system. The crucial part of the system was a video camera tube that he called the "image dissector."

Farnsworth image dissector tubeFarnsworth's image dissector tube, as shown in the article, "Scanning with an electric pencil," Television News, vol. 1, no. 1 (March-April 1931), p. 51.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

As I wrote in an earlier article (Teen Scientists, February 1, 2013), many successful scientists and engineers show an interest in technology at a young age. Farnsworth, the eldest of five children, was born to Mormon parents on a farm near Beaver, Utah. When he was nearly a teenager, his family moved to another farm that had an electrical generator, and Farnsworth became adept at its maintenance.

He also found a pile of technology magazines in his new home, and he enjoyed inventing electrical gadgets, including a magnetic automobile lock for which he won a cash prize in a magazine contest.[1] In high school, he was an excellent student of physics and chemistry, and it was there that he first outlined his idea for an electronic television system to one of his teachers. After high school, he received a correspondence school certificate in radio technology from the National Radio Institute.

Farnsworth attended Brigham Young University, but he applied to the United States Naval Academy, where he was admitted with high scores on an entrance exam. When he found, however, that the government would own rights to any patents he might obtain while in military service, he almost immediately applied for, and obtained, an honorable discharge; the reason being that he was the eldest son of a fatherless family that needed his support, and he returned to Brigham Young University.

Farnsworth's future brother-in-law, Cliff Gardner, also had an interest in electronics, so the pair started a radio repair shop in Salt Lake City. The business failed, but Farnsworth remained in Salt Lake City, where he was introduced to two San Francisco philanthropists who agreed to fund his television research. Farnsworth married Pem Gardner before the move to the location of his California laboratory.

One of the first things that Farnsworth did after the move was to apply for patents on his television ideas. These were the first of Farnsworth's 165 lifetime patents, most of which are in television and radio technology. Farnsworth's image dissector camera tube transmitted its first image, a single straight line, to a receiver in another room of his laboratory at 202 Green Street in San Francisco, thereby demonstrating an all-electronic television system. The image dissector used the photoelectron emission of cesium as its operating principle.

Figure captionMonument placed at the site of Farnsworth's Green Street Laboratory (California Historical Landmark 941).

(Photo by Matthew Roth, via Wikimedia Commons. Click for larger image)

Farnsworth's image dissector video camera was extremely inefficient. The straight line was formed by illuminating a glass slide with the intense light of an arc lamp. Eventually, the sensitivity was increased to the point that Farnsworth could image his wife, who needed to keep her eyes closed since intense lighting was still required. Farnsworth gave a public demonstration of his television system on August 25, 1934, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

While Philo's fictional Futurama descendant, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth has a rival in Dr. Ogden Wernstrom, Philo Farnsworth had as his rival, Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin, who began television research at Westinghouse, eventually became the head of RCA's television research and development.

Zworykin investigated the image dissector concept, but abandoned it because of its low sensitivity. RCA went on to develop its own camera tube, the Iconoscope. As recalled by Zworykin in a 1970 interview, Farnsworth's problem was that he was too devoted to his dissector idea to investigate other approaches.[5-6] This is a cautionary tale for other inventors.

Farnsworth refused an offer from RCA to acquire his patents and to have him join their television team. This decision led to numerous patent disputes between Farnsworth and RCA. After a short employment at Philco and the failed development of a European television project, Farnsworth established the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation in 1938 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and acted as its director of research. In 1939, after much legal wrangling, RCA licensed Farnsworth's fundamental television patent[7] for a million dollars.

Farnsworth's company persisted through 1951, when it was acquired by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), and Farnsworth became an ITT employee. At ITT, Farnsworth worked on a number of non-television inventions, including radar systems; but, he was later fixated on fusion energy with a device called a Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor.

The fusion research did not go well at ITT, and it was terminated. Farnsworth continued his fusion research at Brigham Young University in 1967, but that venture closed in 1970, and it was a financial disaster for Farnsworth. A depressed and defeated Farnsworth died on March 11, 1971.

Figure captionFig. 11 of U.S. Patent No. 3,386,883, "Method and apparatus for producing nuclear fusion reactions," by Philo T. Farnsworth, June 4, 1968, and assigned to ITT.

(Via Google Patents.)

One notable, and the only extant, appearance of Farnsworth on broadcast television was in 1957 on the game show, "I've Got A Secret."[8] Unlike the publicly recognized technology superstars of today, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Farnsworth was not identified on the medium he helped to create.


  1. As usual, Wikipedia has a very thorough article about Farnsworth.
  2. Mary Bellis, "Philo Farnsworth, Father of the Television," Inventors Web Site at About.com.
  3. Philo T. Farnsworth Biography, Engineering and Technology History Wiki.
  4. George Everson, The story of television, the life of Philo T. Farnsworth," W.W. Norton (New York, 1949), pp. 288.
  5. Frank Lovece, "Zworykin v. Farnsworth Part I: The Strange Story of TV's Troubled Origin," Video magazine, August, 1985.
  6. Frank Lovece, "Zworykin v. Farnsworth Part II: TV's Founding Fathers Finally Meet -- in the Lab," Video magazine, September, 1985.
  7. Philo T. Farnsworth, "Television system," U.S. Patent No. 1,773,980, August 26, 1930.
  8. Philo Farnsworth on I've Got A Secret, YouTube Video.

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