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


COMMENTS (49)
  • Maxena J-rud
    11/27/2018 - 11:38 a.m.

    I have had a big idea while doing a simple task, I was coloring on a piece of paper, and thought that maybe there could eventually be a such thing as flying motarcycles. I was thinking that since people are always thinking of cars, I could think up something different.

  • Sabina-E2
    11/28/2018 - 10:47 a.m.

    I think it is really cool that it was a farm-boy who invented the television.
    I believe he was only 22 (maybe not).
    the question is "Have you ever had a big idea while doing a simple task?" and the answer is yes.
    my idea was to have a phone that hovers and the reason why is because, one day I was in Peru and I was waiting for a call from my friend and at the time it was very important. I was folding laundry when the phone finally rang i had my hands full and I couldn't reach for my phone. It was then that I realized, that scientists needed to invent a hovering phone that went straight to your ear. (plus then you could just be sitting on the couch and wanting your phone but you didn't wan't to get up, so your phone just hovers to you!)

  • Haileym-kor2
    11/28/2018 - 01:54 p.m.

    The boy who lives on a farm had came up with an invention and made a tv. I think personally this is cool because you would think about a farmsboy would just be out side playing or helping on the farm, but instead had came up with an idea to invent a tv.

  • Sarah-E2
    11/29/2018 - 10:32 a.m.

    The Farm boy who invented television.

    This article was interesting. The reason it was interesting was because when you think about it a farm boy that invented television is quite remarkable. I think that we should keep inventing. I think we should keep moving forward.

  • Tannerw-eic
    11/30/2018 - 10:18 a.m.

    yes it i was thinking about building a new astronaut suit

  • Emmah-eic
    11/30/2018 - 10:31 a.m.

    I think that this is pretty awesome that a television was invented by a farm boy. It would be so had to do that.I would never be able to to that or even invent something.

  • Haydenb-eic1
    11/30/2018 - 10:53 a.m.

    Am so glad that that he made the Tv because if he did not I do not know what i would be like.Some times tv is life. So am glade that he was smart because I would not be able to make this.

  • Adrian-E2
    12/03/2018 - 04:15 p.m.

    I thought that this article was really cooool. This article was about a farm boy who built the TV. I really liked this article because i watch a lot of TV. And trust me i watch A LOT of TV!

  • Lupe G-rud
    12/04/2018 - 11:37 a.m.

    The idea that I had while doing a simple task was to have a robot that could help you clean your house.

  • Lupe G-rud
    12/04/2018 - 11:45 a.m.

    Once I when I was 7,I had a idea. I wanted to build a robot that could help me with my chores! But I did not know how to build one. So I just started with cardboard. When I finished,It just broke apart.I did not care.

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