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The farm boy who invented television

Nov 18, 2021

Philo Taylor Farnsworth was just 14 when he had an idea. The idea would shape the rest of his life.

Farnsworth had aspired to be an inventor since the age of six. That's according to Evan I. Schwartz writing for the MIT Technology Review. By the end of his life, he would hold more than 300 patents. These related to television and other matters.

On August 26, 1930, he received a patent for the first totally electronic television system. That was about a decade after first having the idea that underlaid his invention.

Farnsworth wasn’t the first person to dream up television. But he was the first person to find a way to make it work without a mechanical aspect. The biggest problem that inventors faced was how to transmit image data. Farnsworth’s central innovation was to imagine a way of doing it that relied on electronic technology alone. In this way, it wasn’t slowed down by the abilities of a mechanical image-transmitting system like the ones used by earlier television developers. Schwartz went on to write a book about Farnsworth. He explains how it happened:

Farnsworth dreamed up his own idea for electronic-rather than mechanical-television while driving a horse-drawn harrow. This was at the family’s new farm in Idaho. That's according to surviving relatives. He was plowing a potato field in straight, parallel lines. As he was plowing, he saw television in the furrows. He envisioned a system that would break an image into horizontal lines. Then it would reassemble those lines into a picture at the other end. Only electrons could capture, transmit and reproduce a clear moving figure. This eureka experience happened at the age of 14.

There were many things between this vision and Farnsworth’s television patent. His wife was Elma Gardner Farnsworth. The couple moved from Utah to California to be closer to the motion-picture community. And they wanted to keep working on their innovation. In 1927, Philo and Elma watched as he made the first transmission. It was a horizontal line. It was transmitted to a receiver in the next room. That's according to The New York Times in Elma Farnsworth’s 2006 obituary.

Farnsworth transmitted an image of Elma and her brother two years after the first transmission. This made Elma the first woman on TV.

Farnsworth was brilliant and young. According to Schwartz he was backed by “wildcat investors.” Farnsworth predated the tech innovators of Silicon Valley. “On September 3, 1928, a photograph of him appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Alongside it was bold type hailing the ‘young genius’ who was ‘quietly working away in his San Francisco laboratory’ on his ‘revolutionary light machine,’” wrote Schwartz for Wired. “Just 22 years old, he had recently grown a mustache to mask his youth.”

The parallel to modern-day Silicon Valley extended to Farnsworth's ownership of his work. He explained his invention to the Times in 1930. Farnsworth said it would work with existing broadcast technology, which was central to its appeal. It also made TV commercially viable.

That got the attention of RCA, which had a near-monopoly on radio broadcast technology. RCA sued him for patent infringement. Schwartz writes that the David and Goliath battle had similar parallels to the modern-day case between Microsoft and Netscape. That story ended with a large settlement from Microsoft.

Also like the tech innovators of Silicon Valley, Farnsworth thought his invention had utopian prospects. “If we were able to see people in other countries and learn about our differences, why would there be any misunderstandings?” he asked. “War would be a thing of the past.”

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