The farmboy who invented television
Philo Taylor Farnsworth had an idea. It would shape the rest of his life. He was just 14 years old.
Farnsworth wanted to be an inventor. He dreamt about it since he was six. That's according to Evan I. Schwartz. He was writing for the MIT Technology Review. Farnsworth would hold more than 300 patents by the end of his life. These patents related to television. They also related to and other matters.
He received a patent for the first totally electronic television system. He got it on August 26, 1930. 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 needed this so it wasn’t slowed down by the abilities of a mechanical image-transmitting system. These systems were 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. It was for electronic-rather than mechanical-television. He thought of it while driving a horse-drawn harrow. This was at the family’s new farm. It was in Idaho. That's according to surviving relatives. He was plowing a potato field. He plowed it in straight, parallel lines. As he was plowing he saw television in the furrows. He envisioned a system. It would break an image into horizontal lines. Then it would put those lines back together. It would form a picture. It would come in 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. They wanted 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. It was in the next room. That's according to The New York Times. It was recalled in Elma Farnsworth’s obituary. She died in 2006.
Farnsworth transmitted an image of Elma and her brother. This happened two years after the first transmission. This made Elma the first woman on TV.
Farnsworth was brilliant. He was young. He was backed by “wildcat investors.” That's according to Schwartz. 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.’” That's what Schwartz wrote 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. This was in 1930. Farnsworth said it would work with existing broadcast technology. This was central to its appeal. It also made TV commercially viable.
That also got the attention of RCA. RCA 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 a modern-day case. That case was between Microsoft and Netscape. But that story ended with a large settlement from Microsoft.
There was another similarity to 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.”