The history of Philo T. Farnsworth -- How the TV came to be and other facts about its inventor

If 13-year-old farmer Philo T. Farnsworth hadn’t stopped in a beet field near Rigby, Idaho, in 1920 to take a long, hard look at the rows he’d just plowed, you might not be watching Roseanne next Tuesday night.

The lines Philo’s disc harrow left in the dirt made him think about parallel lines of electrons arrayed on a tube. He’d read about similar contraptions in popular science magazines, and the gizmo he thought up that day was basically the same as the TV in your living room. In 1922 he diagramed the ”Image Dissector,” the heart of his system’s camera, on a blackboard for his astounded high school physics teacher. In 1926 the invention was pitched to an investor, J.J. ”Daddy” Fagan, vice president of San Francisco’s Crocker First National Bank. Fagan listened, spat three times into a spittoon, growled, ”Well, that is a damn fool idea,” and gave Farnsworth $25,000.

On Sept. 7, 1927, the historic doohickey transmitted its first all-electronic TV image: a single faint straight line. ”He had the six basic patents used in every TV today,” says his 82-year-old widow, Elma ”Pem” Farnsworth. ”You take Farnsworth’s patents out of your TV and you’d have a radio.”

Yet his name is so obscure that when the Postal Service issued a Farnsworth stamp in 1983, a New York Times article about it inadvertently confused Farnsworth with Edwin Armstrong (the inventor of FM radio). Now, however, Farnsworth is about to get another honor. On May 2, the State of Utah will install his statue in the U.S. Capitol. Farnsworth, who was born in a Utah log cabin and caught the wagon train to Idaho at age 12, will stand alongside the Mormon patriarch Brigham Young himself. Pem Farnsworth will observe the occasion by publishing a biography of Philo, who died in 1971 — Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier.

Farnsworth produced the world’s first completely electronic TV system, but he was not alone on the video frontier. ”A very crude TV was invented by Denis Redmond in Ireland in 1878,” TV historian Mark Schubin says. ”It used glowing platinum wires, and could double as a toaster. In 1911, A.A. Campbell Swinton diagramed an electronic system almost identical to what we use today, but he kept pooh-poohing everything he did.” At one conference, Campbell Swinton declared, ”It is only a product of my imagination. Such an apparatus will never be built.”

A penniless Scotsman named John Logie Baird beat Farnsworth to the punch with the first working TV system. It used a whirling perforated disk instead of electronics to scan the image, and incorporated cardboard, darning needles, and sealing wax.

Inspired by Baird, the British government appointed a committee to study the pressing linguistic problem of what to call people who watch TV. Rejecting such suggestions as ”televisioners” and ”looksteners” (look-listeners), the committee officiously recommended the term ”lookers.”

The locution didn’t last, and neither did Baird’s system. ”All these clever inventors were trying to lick a 20th-century problem with 19th-century technology,” explains Paul Schatzkin, a screenwriter who has spent 15 years researching a film about Farnsworth. Though the Baird-style mechanical perforated-disk TV was not yet obsolete by 1934, Baird conceded the promise of Farnsworth’s electronic approach and flew him to Britain for an Image Dissector demonstration that resulted in a TV milestone: The Duchess of York promptly went out and bought a hat she had seen featured.

In America, Farnsworth faced a more formidable competitor: RCA’s David Sarnoff, whom Schatzkin calls ”the Darth Vader of communications history.” Sarnoff, the driving force behind the U.S. TV industry, had an in-house inventor, Vladimir Zworykin, who became Philo’s great rival.

At first it seemed they’d be allies. Farnsworth showed Zworykin around his lab for three days in 1930, when Zworykin looked to be a source of informed feedback — and a possible link to fresh financing. RCA experts had told Zworykin that a crucial glass-vacuum-tube seal was impossible to make; Philo’s brother- in-law showed Zworykin how to make one. Zworykin praised Philo’s device, saying, ”I wish that I might have invented it,” and then had his people make replicas of it.