The farmboy who invented television
The farmboy who invented television Farnsworth (center) talks to politicians about the difficulties of gaining and maintaining patents as an independent inventor in 1939. (Library of Congress/Pixabay)
The farmboy who invented television
Lexile: 560L

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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.”

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Have you ever had a big idea while doing a simple task? What was the idea?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • JayR-hol
    11/30/2018 - 09:57 a.m.

    Yes it was when i was just playing a game and i had a idea that i can use different actions on my game like using a hook to yank the enemies over the ledge.

  • DylanH-hol1
    11/30/2018 - 10:00 a.m.

    Yes I have had a big idea while doing a simple task. The big idea was how about I make a zip line from my trash can to outside. That way if I is freezing outside I don't have to go out side anymore. I thought of this idea while taking out the trash one day.

  • TaylorM-hol2
    11/30/2018 - 10:00 a.m.

    I have never had an idea while doing a simple task. I am not a very creative thinker on that aspect. I think it is very neat how people can come up with such a bug thing while doing that simple of a task.

  • HavenH-hol
    11/30/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    Yes, I have thought of an idea while doing a simple ask before. So usually often my mother tells me to clean my room, so I do that. Usually, my other room and bathroom are dirty as well, so while I am already AT CLEANING MY ROOM, I SHOULD JUST CLEAN MY OTHER ROOMS TO MAKE IT LOOK NICE AS WELL! It only takes about an hour long, and my rooms need a cleaning once in a while because they can get dirty. My mom is always happy with the outcome of my room to see that I also cleaned my room and bathroom. So the simple tasks were cleaning my room, and I made it into a big task by cleaning more than 1 room.

  • RileyN-hol
    11/30/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    I can not recall having a big idea while doing a simple task. If I did, then I can not remember it because it was not important enough for me to remember it.

  • MackenzieS-hol1
    11/30/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    yes, i've had many big ideas while doing simple tasks to make them easier and more easy. One idea I had has never been used to my knowledge at least, i found a way to play uno with a regular deck of cards.

  • ChaseJ-hol1
    11/30/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    Yeah I was playing football with my family a couple years ago then I got a idea.That idea was instead of playing for fun we are going to have a bowl game.My team was Ohio State and the other team was TTUN.My team one the first turkey bowl in my family and it was my best idea I made.

  • SophiaK-hol
    11/30/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    I have have had a big idea while doing a task. I was trying to eat chips without getting my fingers all gross. I then decided to take a fork and scoop the chips out of the bag. I thought there should be an invention for something that could help with this.

  • PeytonA-hol
    11/30/2018 - 10:02 a.m.

    I have had a big idea before, I was sitting on my couch one day watching tv when I got up and realized the remote was gone. I looked everywhere for the remote but could not find it. when I realized it was in my pocket the whole time. I came up the idea to make a remote with a tracker on it. the remote would have an app on it that allows you to track your remote.

  • MaddieS-hol
    11/30/2018 - 10:03 a.m.

    Yes I've done this many times. I always think wow someone should make this or this but then I forget what it is. One that I can think of is a pencil that you don't have to flip around to get the eraser. Instead you push a button and boom the eraser id there no flipping.

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