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Big Dream - Small Screen

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The Story of the Invention of Television.

A biography of Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the television.

In 1921 the 14-year-old Mormon had an idea while working on his father's Idaho farm. Mowing hay in rows, Philo realized an electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal lines, reproducing the image almost instantaneously. This would prove to be a critical breakthrough in Philo Farnsworth's invention of the television in 1927. Source: pbs.org & Google Video
From the series: American Experience [53:32]

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Big Dream, Small Screen Transcript

DAVID MCCULLOUGH, SERIES HOST: Good evening, and welcome to The American Experience.

I'm David McCullough. Who was Philo T. Farnsworth? If you're drawing a blank, that's understandable. He's not exactly a household word. There's no familiar product bearing his name, no place on the map, not a Farnsworth Institute or University, nor even passing mention of him in the usual history books, though there should be all of that. Philo Farnsworth effected change so profound and far-reaching that we're still incapable of knowing the half of it. For his was the genius that transformed electrons into visual images. His was the genius that gave birth to television, and it is a story so compelling, so very American, as to seem the stuff of myth. Like Abraham Lincoln, he was born in a log cabin. Like such other American giants of science and invention as Franklin, Edison, the Wright brothers, he sprang from the most obscure beginnings and without formal training. He was an American original, brilliant, idealistic, undaunted by obstacles, and so steadfast in the faith that nothing was impossible that others of like spirit gladly risked everything out of faith in him. Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect in the part, and particularly in the inevitable showdown with the corporate juggernaut of the day, RCA. In a now-famous lecture in praise of patent laws, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the importance of protecting and encouraging the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things. Once having seen tonight's film about the fire of genius as manifested on one twentieth century farm boy, I doubt that any of us will ever again have trouble with the question, "Who was Philo T. Farnsworth?"

NARRATOR: While plowing a field in 1921, a fourteen-year-old Mormon boy named Philo T. Farnsworth began to think about an idea that would change the world. He wanted to send pictures over the air, like sound over radio. As the story goes, he had a vision in a potato field. He looked down at the tracks left by his disc harrow and imagined tiny electrons creating a similar picture, line by line. His epiphany in the field inspired him to invent the first working electronic television, a feat that most engineers at the time thought was impossible. This is the kind of legend that usually guarantees an inventor worldwide fame and fortune, yet the name Philo T. Farnsworth has long been forgotten.

GARRY MOORE: Now, we're not going to identify this contestant, panel. We will call him simply "Dr. X." Now, Doctor, if you will whisper your secret to me, we will show it at the same time to the folks out there. All right. To help to classify Dr. X's secret, I'll tell you it concerns something he did. And we'll start with Bill Cullen, please.

BILL CULLEN: Do doctors use this object? Is this some kind of a machine that might be painful when it's used?

PHILO FARNSWORTH: Yes. Sometimes it's most painful.

GARRY MOORE: You're a wise man.

HENRY MORGAN: Are you a dentist?

PHILO FARNSWORTH: No, no. I'm not a dentist.

SKEE FARNSWORTH: No one knew who Philo Farnsworth was. People in the industry knew, particularly the older people that were actually around when he was demonstrating television in 1930. When I was a kid it was in the '40s. There wasn't any television happening. So, if you said, "My father was an inventor and invented television," people would say, "That's nice. What is it?"

GARRY MOORE: This is Dr. Philo T. Farnsworth who invented electronic television.

KENT FARNSWORTH: I suppose you could say that he felt he had created kind of a monster, a way for people to waste a lot of their lives.

HENRY MORGAN: Doctor, truthfully. Are you sorry?

PHILO FARNSWORTH: No, no. I'm not.

HENRY MORGAN: Well, it's up to you.

GARRY MOORE: I asked him the same question, and he said, "Sometimes." He said, "Sometimes."

KENT FARNSWORTH: Through my childhood, his reaction to television was, "There's nothing on it worthwhile, and we're not going to watch it in this household, and I don't want it in your diet, your intellectual diet."

GARRY MOORE: Unfortunately, television being what it is, it's your baby and we're out of time. So, here are your Winstons, sir, the money that you won, and our eternal gratitude. I'd be out of work if it weren't for you. Thank you very much.

ROSE KAPLIN, SKEE FARNSWORTH'S PARTNER: He was out there all alone, all the time, and had been since the time he was a child. I mean, can you imagine being a child and hearing about all these things, and then thinking about them, and then getting ideas, and starting to work them out, and learning how to put them into mathematical terms, and not having anyone to really talk with about it? I just visualize him as being more and more and more and more alone intellectually, reaching a point where it never even occurred to him that there might be other people who could think at the same level that he did.

NARRATOR: Philo was born in a log cabin in Indian Creek, Utah in 1906. The oldest of five children, he was soon put in charge of his younger sisters, Laura and Agnes.

AGNES LINDSAY: We always lived in remote, remote areas.

LAURA PLAYER: In a log cabin.

AGNES LINDSAY: In a log cabin with no --

LAURA PLAYER: We calcimined it.

AGNES LINDSAY: -- with no modern facilities. And so, he had no -- Really, was never exposed to any of these ideas.

NARRATOR: The family were Mormon settlers who eked out a living in Utah's barren valleys. They were always loading their wagons in search of better land.

LAURA PLAYER: Papa was born before the railroad came to Utah, and he had the pioneer spirit. He was hunting for good soil. We used to move so much that we used to say that every time we harnessed a horse, the chickens laid down to have their legs tied, just automatically, because we were going to move again.

NARRATOR: Eventually, when Philo was twelve, the family settled on a small ranch in the Snake River Valley of Idaho. At their new home, Philo found unexpected treasure. Hidden in the attic were stacks of science and radio magazines. His imagination was fired by Einstein and Marconi and the fantasies of science fiction writers. In 1919, the future was approaching fast, and Philo was out there, trying to join in. For the first time in his life, there was electricity on the ranch, so he began devising new gadgets to hook up to the power generator.

PEM FARNSWORTH, PHILO FARNSWORTH'S WIFE: Philo had the job of pushing the handle for the hand-operated washing machine, and he decided that his time was too precious. He rewound an armature, which is a very difficult thing to do, and he made a motor and attached it to his mother's washing machine and made it run so that he didn't have to push the handle all the time.

LAURA PLAYER: We had quite a few children around, and Phil had a habit of lining us all up and showing us how electricity travels. He would shock somebody at one end and then we'd touch each other, and that electricity would go right down the line. And it was -- It was tickling, but it was not serious. It wasn't going to hurt us. But, we were a little bit afraid of what he was going to do. Phil would just build the future for us. He would just tell us all the things that we were going to have. We were going to have a car. We were going to have a refrigerator that ran.

AGNES LINDSAY: An indoor bathroom.

LAURA PLAYER: Yeah. We were going to have all these things that eventually we did get. But, Phil knew what was going to happen years and years ahead. And of course, he was going to invent. He decided he was going to be an inventor.

NARRATOR: As a child, his heros were Edison and Bell, the pioneers of a new frontier. Sending messages down wires or across airwaves was familiar to most children, but Philo was curious about the next challenge: a new idea called television. Converting moving images into electrical signals was a much tougher proposition. Crude mechanical devices, using rotating disks, produced the first flickering pictures, but even at the age of fourteen, it was obvious to Philo that this technology was doomed. Philo realized there was a more elegant approach to the problem. If he could harness electrons, those tiny particles that travel at the speed of light, it might be possible to reproduce much better pictures with no moving parts. His electronic vision was far too complicated to share with his friends. But one day, he tried it out on his science teacher after school.

ERIK BARNOUW, MEDIA HISTORIAN: He amazed his teacher by drawing on a blackboard a long series of diagrams and explaining that he'd been reading about some mechanical system that people were working on in the east, where it involved a spinning wheel, and that would never work in the long run. And it could be done with electrons. And he knew it could be done, and this is the way he thought it might be done.

NARRATOR: His idea was to have a camera which would focus light onto a light-sensitive surface that would emit a stream of electrons. The ingenious part of his device divided the picture up into lines of light and shade that could be read like words on a page. A rapidly-changing electro-magnetic field would scan the picture line by line. The electrons collected at the far end of the camera tube would then form a stream of electric pulses that would be transmitted over the airwaves to an antenna. Inside the receiver, the pulses would be converted back into a series of lines and the picture reconstituted on the television screen. This fourteen-year-old had the blueprint for an electronic television system. Unknown to Phil Farnsworth, there were other inventors working on the same problem. On the other side of the country, a Russian emigre had recently arrived in New York. Vladimir Zworykin was well ahead with his plans to produce electronic television and would become a formidable rival.

SUSAN DOUGLAS, BROADCAST HISTORIAN: Zworykin was very different from Farnsworth. He had a PhD in electrical engineering. When he was still in Russia before the revolution, he was studying under someone who was already doing work on the cathode ray tube, one of the key elements of television. So, he came to this country highly trained, having already worked in a very sophisticated technology, and was working at Westinghouse. This is a very different situation to use as a launching pad than a farm in Idaho.

NARRATOR: Phil started college in Utah, but his education ended at eighteen when his father died. To support his family, he took a job delivering radios for a furniture store in Salt Lake City. Radio was becoming increasingly popular across America, but in Utah, it was still a novelty. On weekends, he borrowed radios and organized parties so his friends could hear the new stations. As he flicked across the wavebands, one young girl became intrigued by Philo.

PEM FARNSWORTH: He had very expressive deep blue eyes, and he looked every bit the eagle scout that he was. But the thing that really drew us together was music. He sort of liked the syncopated type music. He was very difficult to follow, and this may have been why I got more of his dances, because I could follow him, and we really had a good time. We danced and learned new steps all the way home on the sidewalk.

NARRATOR: By 1925, Philo was impatient to realize his plans for electronic vision. He described his idea for television to two small-time California businessmen, George Everson and Les Gorrell. He assured them it was going to be bigger than radio, and they believed him. They agreed to invest six thousand dollars so he could build a prototype.

DAVID E. FISHER, AUTHOR: He's a nineteen-year-old boy doing all this. The force of his personality must have been absolutely incredible to achieve this. He convinced them to back him with what was, in effect, their life savings. It was five thousand dollars that Everson had saved up, and this was his rainy day money. And Gorrell actually had to promise money. He had nothing to put in. So, their entire life savings go into the story told by this nineteen-year-old boy who transformed himself before their eyes into a visionary.

PEM FARNSWORTH: He could foretell just what television was going to do for the world. It would make the world a smaller place because we could watch what other people's lives were like, and they, in turn, could watch us. And, of course, as he said when he gave me my engagement ring, was that he didn't want me to be ashamed of it when we were rich, and we would be rich.

NARRATOR: Phil was ready to leave Utah, to realize his dreams in California, and he persuaded Pem to accompany him. She got her first taste of his obsession as she lay alone in bed on her wedding night.

PEM FARNSWORTH: Phil had to go see the people who were putting up the first money, and he was gone for a long time. I went through all kinds of fantasies as to what could possibly be keeping him this long. So finally, when he came, he said, "Pem, I have to tell you there's another woman in my life." Well, before I could faint, he said, "And her name is Television. And the only way I can see that we'll have as much time together as I'd like us to have is if you work with me. How about it?"

NARRATOR: The newlyweds left Salt Lake City for Los Angeles in 1926. Philo was nineteen, Pem eighteen. And the future of television lay before them.

PEM FARNSWORTH: We were two green kids from the country. Movie struck. We just loved movies. And when they would have an opening, the search lights would be all over the sky. And of course, we got there ahead of time so that we joined the throngs that were watching these movie greats come in with their jewels and furs and top hats and tails and all this.

NARRATOR: In a small house in Hollywood, they set up a makeshift laboratory in their dining room. Les and George were eager to help the Farnsworths prepare for their first experiments.

DAVID FISHER: They were out in the back yard working for him, winding the magnetic coils and working on the dining room table, they put together the components. They were running around town buying things, scrounging things. They became his assistants, his disciples. It was all just a family coming together to work as a unit of Philo Farnsworth's vision.

NARRATOR: There were no ready-made optical or electrical components. Everything had to assembled from scratch. Les and George found a glassblower to start making a vacuum tube for the television camera. After three months of round-the-clock effort, Farnsworth was ready to try out his first camera tube.

PEM FARNSWORTH: Les and George were all there for the big occasion, and Phil stood back and pushed the button that turned it on, and --BANG! -- everything went up. The power surge come through just starting the generator up had blown the whole shebang, the tube and everything. Well, Phil's face was ashen and I could just see what was going in his mind. Les said, "Well, heck, Phil. It's not the end of the world!"

NARRATOR: At the flick of a switch, he was back to square one. George Everson went to San Francisco in search of more capital. He packed Phil off to a tailor to smarten himself up. This time, the nineteen-year-old kid would have to dazzle hard-nosed bankers with his "electronic vision."

PEM FARNSWORTH: One of them had said that it was damn fool idea, but someone should put some money in it. And they decided that they would put up $25,000, and Phil said, "If you do that, I will have you a picture within a year." Anyone with any engineering experience at all would have called that a crazy thing to say, because, actually, he ran into a lot more blank walls than he thought he would.

NARRATOR: Phil Farnsworth seemed oblivious to the magnitude of his plan. He had to build a camera tube which would turn an image into a stream of electrons and a television tube that could turn a stream of electrons back into a picture. Many had talked about electronic television, but to actually build a working system was a daunting task. In a converted second-floor loft, he gathered an enthusiastic band of family and friends around him. Phil's energy was contagious. You didn't work for Farnsworth; you worked with him, as Rom Rutherford discovered.

ROMILLY RUTHERFORD, FARNSWORTH'S TECHNICAL ASSISTANT: Phil's office was always open. You could always to in and ask him anything you wanted to. He was always looking for the best, and he tried to bring out the best in you. Oh, I don't doubt for one minute that he was a genius. I mean, to me, he just personified that. Because he -- Everything he would get on, he could stay on something. In other words, this was his thing. If he got an idea, he wanted to follow it clear on down to the minutest detail.

NARRATOR: As the ideas poured off the page, the circuits became more and more complex. Early on, it was hard going to produce an image in the first prototype camera tubes.

ROM RUTHERFORD: The point was, there was nothing you could get off the shelf. I can remember machining up some things that may take you three hours to get a piece of metal down to the right thickness. But if that's what you needed, that's what you did.

PEM FARNSWORTH: They found out I was useful for more than sweeping floors and cleaning windows, because they taught me to use the precision spot welder for making tube elements. And then I did the drawings in Phil's journals. I told him his hand-made sketches were much better than my drawings, and he says, "Well, we're all just learning, you know. You'll get better."

NARRATOR: Each day's progress was meticulously recorded. These notebooks would be his only protection when the patent battles began. Over on the East Coast, Farnsworth's rival, Zworykin, was struggling. His early efforts to produce electronic television were treated with barely-disguised scorn by the Westinghouse research chiefs.

ERIK BARNOUW: Because he had been doing these experiments and asked for a chance to carry them on, they let him do it, although they were -- felt very dimly about it. And when he performed his first demonstrations in the 1920s, many of the people who -- of the Westinghouse people who watched, thought it was hopeless, you see. And so the mechanical system of television continued to be used while these visionaries carried on.

NARRATOR: Throughout the late '20s, mechanical television still seemed like the safe option for investors. The images may have been crude shadows on a wall, but they attracted enormous public interest. When the first television drama, "The Queen's Messenger" was broadcast, the actors had no need to fear recognition in the streets. And over at the BBC in London, John Logie Baird was demonstrating his success with spinning disks.

JOHN LOGIE BAIRD: This apparatus was shown to members of the Royal Institution and others on January 27, 1926, and showed two television images in light and shade for the first time. This is the scanning disk with its lenses. This is the second disk by which the light is further divided and passes into the light cell.

NARRATOR: The picture was barely visible, but at least they had an image. Farnsworth's financiers were starting to get impatient.

AGNES LINDSAY: At night when he would come home, we would feel this tension, this terrible tension that he was under. He had promised them, as he stood in front of these bankers, that he would have something to show them in a year.
LAURA PLAYER: He was very optimistic. Very optimistic.

NARRATOR: On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth got a signal. The first all-electronic transmission of television was a straight line. It would be another year before he had something more encouraging to show his investors.

AGNES LINDSAY: The bankers were so eager to see some return for their money, that Phil decided to play a trick on them. So, he invited them to the lab and got them in the room where the broadcast would be received. And they had drawn on a piece of paper, a dollar sign. And as they were sitting, eager to receive this picture, on came this dollar sign, and this was his way of telling them that they would get their money back. And so, that was when this Mr. Gorrell, who was one of the backers, said, "The damn thing works!"

NARRATOR: The image was only the size of a postage stamp, but it was an amazing achievement. When news of his triumph broke, Hollywood moguls and movie stars, like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, flocked to meet the man who might challenge cinema.

PEM FARNSWORTH: After his first press conference, things really looked better because it went all over the world. It was a big thing, you know. It was the first time anyone had ever transmitted an all-electronic transmission of television.

NARRATOR: Farnsworth, still only twenty-two, was eager to move on. But to take this fragile prototype on to the next stage would require much more money than he could raise. The financiers began to think he needed the resources of a big corporation.

KENT FARNSWORTH: The financiers were starting to get nervous. They were constantly on the lookout to sell, to sell Phil and the whole deal, so as he began to get a productive lab staff, trained people, he had to constantly consider the fact that this could all be thrown away, this could all be disassembled, and changed within a matter of weeks. And, indeed, he might be just sold off to the -- You know, to RCA or somebody like that.

NARRATOR: In New York City, high up in his corporate suite of offices, a giant was stirring. David Sarnoff had risen through the ranks of the Radio Corporation of America from office boy to head of the most powerful electronics company in the world. RCA controlled the medium of radio by owning everything, the transmitters, the studios, and the license to build radios. Sarnoff had masterminded this coup by buying off small inventors and ensuring that RCA owned all radio patents. No company could manufacture radios without paying a license fee to RCA. It was a brilliant strategy, which Sarnoff was now trying to apply to the new medium of television. So, when Zworykin contacted him from Westinghouse, he was more than happy to talk, and the seeds of Farnsworth's downfall were sown.

KENNETH BILBY, SENIOR RCA EXECUTIVE: At the time, Sarnoff was general manager of RCA. Zworykin had heard about him, called and arranged a meeting. That took place in 1929, and in RCA annals, that was the most fateful meeting in the history of television. Zworykin told him what he was doing about electronic scanning devices for television. He told him that he'd need $100,000 to get the job done, to deliver a good television system. And Sarnoff, without going to his board of directors or anybody else, said, "You've got it."

NARRATOR: Sarnoff realized Zworykin would have to work fast to catch up with Farnsworth, who already had a working camera.

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Sarnoff understood the importance of time. He was always racing against time, because he wanted to be first. And so, he did want to get this launched as soon as possible and used Zworykin to accelerate the process as much as possible. Zworykin, at this time, was still having problems with his prototype television. There were sensitivity problems where you couldn't get images if the light was too low, and Zworykin was working very hard to correct this. So, as soon as they heard about Farnsworth, of course, they were curious and terrified at the same time and wanted to see what he had and also figure out how to circumvent him as soon as possible.

NARRATOR: In the spring of 1930, Sarnoff sent Zworykin to the West Coast to investigate this maverick inventor who could be a threat to RCA's plans. Farnsworth was happy to demonstrate his camera. He'd run out of funds and was hoping RCA might finance further work and save the company.

ERIK BARNOUW: Zworykin looked around, was impressed, was amazed, said some very nice things about it. Said, "That's a beautiful tube. I wish I had invented it," and so on. And then said he didn't think there was anything here he would need.

ROM RUTHERFORD: At that time, we were all too naive. He was in here just to find out anything he could possibly, and when he got hold of Phil Farnsworth, well, Phil was the other way around: "Here's some ideas. People should use them. We should have television. It's something that maybe will help mankind." And Zworykin, after he went up to his hotel room, he then sent it --had a telegram sent. Seven hundred words describing, in detail, the desector tube.

NARRATOR: When Zworykin returned back east, a copy of Farnsworth's camera tube awaited him. He wanted to see if he could adapt his own primitive camera without infringing Farnsworth's patents.

KENNETH BILBY: My guess is that RCA entire effort in the laboratories was to invent around Farnsworth's transmission devices. And as much as they could, to simply ignore them and go ahead with it.

NARRATOR: In the summer of 1930, Farnsworth's first television patent was issued, and Sarnoff was quick to realize the danger. From his earliest radio days, Sarnoff had understood the importance of owning patents. He hated the idea of RCA paying royalties to anyone, so in dealing with Farnsworth, he had two options: buy him out, or challenge his patents in court.

ERIK BARNOUW: Sarnoff ends up by offering Farnsworth $100,000 for the patent, and his services, and the whole business. And this is not Farnsworth's idea. Farnsworth thinks of himself as an inventor, and he wants to get paid on a royalty basis for his invention.

NARRATOR: When Farnsworth rejected the offer, Sarnoff decided to unleash the RCA lawyers, who tried to pretend that Zworykin had demonstrated electronic television before Farnsworth. They hoped to grind him into submission at a time when he could ill afford costly litigation. In 1931, Farnsworth found a company that agreed to license his television technology. In an old brick building in Philadelphia, Farnsworth signed a secret deal with a radio company called Philco that wanted to get a head start in television. They agreed to his terms and offered to fund his research if he would bring his lab to Philadelphia. The move was shrouded in secrecy, because Philco wanted to hide their plans from RCA.

ROM RUTHERFORD: One of the deals was that we had to eat in the executive dining room. We were treated, I thought, very royally. I didn't realize at the time that it was just so we wouldn't talk to anybody.

NARRATOR: RCA and Philco were only a couple of miles apart on opposite sides of the Delaware River. So, when Philco started test transmissions, they were picked up by RCA. Soon, both companies were monitoring each other's experimental broadcasts, and the race to produce commercial television gathered pace. Sarnoff pumped in more funds, and by the early 1930s, had a brilliant team of engineers and patent lawyers in place.

KENNETH BILBY: During the early days of television at our laboratories in Camden, Sarnoff would frequently go down there. He'd get in his shirtsleeves, stick a cigar in his mouth --the inevitable cigar -- and get down there under the hot lights and follow what the scientists were doing and encourage them. It was the type of hands-on encouragement of science that I think was unique in American industry.

NARRATOR: Over at Philco, Farnsworth was trying to run his lab much like he had out west.

ROBERT RUTHERFORD, JR., FAMILY FRIEND: There was kind of a sense of a race. On the long summer nights, why, the people would be back there working. It wasn't an overtime situation or anything like that. They were just trying to get television developed and to get it going, and the Farnsworth group was very much like an extended family. They had all come from California together, they were living together, they hadn't made any substantial local friends, and we grew together because of that.

NARRATOR: Still only twenty-six, Phil was fizzing with ideas, and Pem continued to support him. But, tragedy was about to strike the family. After months of being high on adrenalin, Phil and Pem were plunged into grief. Their thirteen-month-old son Kenny died from a throat infection.

PEM FARNSWORTH: We didn't want to bury him in the east. And Philco said that they were in too tight a schedule to spare Phil, because the fastest you could get across the continent was four days each way. And so, Phil was very upset about it, and he said, "Well, I guess you'll have to go alone." And it was the hardest thing I ever did.

NARRATOR: Pem travelled back west to Utah with baby Kenny's body in the boxcar. Phil and Pem had been driven apart, and they would remain divided for months afterwards. It slowly dawned on Phil that he had a stark choice: Pem or Philco. Phil decided to leave Philco and set up on his own again in Philadelphia. With the family reunited, the pioneering spirit of the San Francisco days was rekindled. After over a year of non-stop effort, Phil was ready to stage the first public demonstration of electronic television. The venue would be Philadelphia's prestigious new science museum, the Franklin Institute. The grandfather of American invention looked on approvingly as curious minds gathered to catch their first glimpse of electronic vision. It was a milestone event that would break attendance records at the museum.

PEM FARNSWORTH: Huge crowds gathered and we had a small auditorium that would only take fifty people. We had then a viewing screen about a foot in diameter. So, they didn't all get a very good view, but they were all excited about it. And our problem was to keep some live entertainment in front of the camera. The sensitivity of the cameras was not anything like we have today, so that we had to have a lot of light. And it was very hot, and it was hard to stay in them very long. We had a gentleman playing the cello. And the finish on the cello started to blister, and Phil got something else in front of the camera real fast and got him out of the way.

NARRATOR: A year after this sensational demonstration, Farnsworth won his first patent victory against RCA. Sarnoff, still stalling for time, told the press that commercial television was years away and ordered his lawyers to fight the patent decision in the Appeals Court.

KENT FARNSWORTH: We have this enormous corporate entity, which is RCA, bearing down with all of their resources on Phil. Phil is essentially standing alone with one patent attorney.

SUSAN DOUGLAS: These patent struggles between inventors were fight-to-the-finish battles. They were battles for recognition. They were battles for money. They were enormously draining and stressful.

SKEE FARNSWORTH: My father was very much of a racehorse. He saw obstacles and he cleared them. And when you take a racehorse, no matter how good it is, but you keep jumping higher hurdles, eventually, you come to a hurdle that the horse would jump, except this is not a jumpable hurdle. And I think in my father's case, this was coming smack up against corporate America of the '30s.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Farnsworth sailed to England for meetings with John Logie Baird, the architect of mechanical television. If he was able to sell a license to Baird, he could save the company from bankruptcy. On arrival in London, he set up a demonstration of his electronic system. After seeing it, Baird was silent. Mechanical television was finished. The following day, Phil Farnsworth and Baird signed a contract. Back home in America, he decided to launch his own experimental television station. In the summer of '36, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, W3XPF went on the air. It was one of a small number of experimental stations broadcasting to a handful of people across the nation.

VOICE: Max Factor, Jr. has developed a new type makeup for television photography. The photoelectronic camera being super-sensitive to red causes that color to be absorbed. Thus, red is applied to hollows and depressions of the face to eliminate heavy lines and also to produce highlights, while blue, which reproduces darkly, is used as eyeshadow. The new television makeup may give the camera a break, but the wearer's first view of herself is likely to break her heart, unless she has a sense of humor.

LAURA PLAYER: It was pretty exciting having a studio in Philadelphia. And Phil said, "OK. You be in charge of the makeup." We were having guests come from all parts of the world, and they went in there for great experience of being televised. They loved being televised, and they wanted to know how they looked, you know, and if the picture was good. And some days, it was good; sometimes it wasn't so good.

NARRATOR: Despite the thrill of early television, hardly anyone was watching. The public was not buying televisions because the companies were producing incompatible sets. Each brand of television could only receive its own station. Before the introduction of broadcast standards, it was chaos. Farnsworth had bought a manufacturing facility to start making television sets, but until the patent dispute with RCA was resolved, everything was on hold. For Phil, these were frustrating times. He was losing control of his dream, and he began to drink. The flame of invention that had fired him for a decade was starting to flicker.

LAURA PLAYER: Every night, he was planning ahead or solving a problem. And you can't go on working forever. The body requires sleep, and he couldn't turn it off. He could not turn that -- That was his problem all his life. He just couldn't turn it off.

NARRATOR: Phil Farnsworth had focused on each new problem with such intensity that by the age of thirty, he was almost burned out. The early years of television had finally caught up with him. He decided to leave Philadelphia to retreat to Maine, leaving his television company in the hands of his managers.

SKEE FARNSWORTH: At that time, something was definitely wrong with my father. Some bearing had started to scratch very badly. I think my father had a real alcohol problem when he came to Maine. I think it was evident by then. He drank and debilitated himself to the point of being hospitalized several times up here, and it worried me.

NARRATOR: After arriving in Maine, he decided to transform a small stream into a four and a half acre trout pond. This was typical Farnsworth. A daunting project with huge practical obstacles, but it occupied his troubled mind at a time when he needed to forget television.

SKEE FARNSWORTH: I think this idea of this pond leapt into his mind fully formed the first time he visited this property. He decided to put a dam right there, from that tree to that tree. Well, it's got wings that go way back. This is a mammoth piece of concrete. It goes way down. There's a big base. To do this project, he had a crew here that was probably drawn from about five towns around here. They all still remember it. And this went on day and night I don't know how many days. This was back in the days of little put-put cement mixers. And this gave my father, I think, instant notoriety. I'm sure that every man working on the project thought that this guy was a thirty-year-old nut.

NARRATOR: While Philo filled his trout pond, David Sarnoff was finally ready to unveil RCA television to America. The history books would say that television was born in 1939 at the New York World's Fair. Farnsworth's first public demonstration in Philadelphia, five years earlier, was forgotten.

VOICE: 1939. Television is ready to make its official public debut. The setting could hardly be more perfect: the New York World's Fair, where on April 29, 1939, David Sarnoff stated, "We have added radio sight to sound."

DAVID SARNOFF: It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in a troubled world.

ERIK BARNOUW: Anybody who went to RCA to ask how television was invented got a long story from them, which involved Sarnoff and Zworykin, but never involved Farnsworth.

DAVID SARNOFF: Do you recall your estimate?

VLADIMIR ZWORYKIN: Of course I remember. I asked something like $100,000.
DAVID SARNOFF: Your estimate missed by quite a bit. It cost RCA more than $50 million to create, develop, and introduce America's first all-electronic television system.

ERIK BARNOUW: That kind of spirit or ruthlessness, Farnsworth didn't have. He was a sort of a gentle person. He wanted to invent. He didn't want to -- He didn't want to -- He didn't understand public relations. He didn't understand manipulating the public. He didn't understand manipulating. He didn't want to manipulate. He wanted to invent.

NARRATOR: After seven years of crippling litigation, Farnsworth finally won his case against RCA. In October, 1939, Sarnoff was forced to admit defeat. For the first time in RCA's history, royalties would be paid to an outside inventor.

PEM FARNSWORTH: The didn't realize who they were dealing with here, with Philo Farnsworth, because he had a lot of determination, and he never gave up. He always said nothing is impossible. It just takes longer.

NARRATOR: The small inventor had dared to take on the giant corporation, and he had won. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

SUSAN DOUGLAS: There's this apocryphal story that the RCA lawyer had tears in his eyes as he signed this agreement agreeing to pay Farnsworth this cross-licensing money. So, he won his principle. He won the principle that he was not going to sell out his patents to RCA. But, he lost, also, because in the end, he was shoved aside and RCA, the corporation, was the one that got the credit for developing and presenting television to the American people.

NARRATOR: Farnsworth's patents were set to make him a fortune, but just as television sales were about to take off, production was suddenly halted by the government.

VOICE: 1941. A fateful year. War and the beginning of a four-year blackout for commercial TV.

NARRATOR: During the war, television technology was needed for radar and defense research. His company contributed to the war effort, but because his key patents would expire in 1947, his hopes of making money from television were shattered.

PEM FARNSWORTH: He realized that the clock was ticking on his patents. They had only seven years. There was no way that his patents would outlast the war and be of any help to him. Phil could see what was coming down the pike. He was not going to be able to have a role in bringing television to the people, which was his goal. And so, he really -- He had a nervous breakdown, and he wanted to die. He just said, "I'm too tired. I can't go on."

NARRATOR: In 1947, the Farnsworth home was destroyed in a forest fire. By now, Phil was so dispirited, it hardly seemed to matter. His research lab had exploded. It was all over. For his last twenty years, Farnsworth devoted his life to the study of nuclear fusion, which he believed would ultimately solve the world's energy problems. He never admitted defeat. After all, the experts had said electronic television was impossible. Unfortunately, this time, most scientists remained skeptical.

AGNES LINDSAY: When he saw all of his dreams falling apart, he just gave up. He went to bed and just didn't want to get up. This is a heartbreaking experience for me, because I saw this brother that we all idolized and knew that he could do anything that he set his heart to, but what an end to a brilliant, brilliant man that was our brother.

NARRATOR: Farnsworth finally received the recognition that his family had fought for when a statue was erected in the Capitol building in Utah and in Washington, DC. Philo T. Farnsworth was always an outsider, a bright star blazing in the dawn of a new electronic age. His romance with the electron was a private affair, a celebration of the spirit of the lone inventor.


Major funding for this program
is provided by the
National Endowment for the Humanities

Written and Directed by
David Dugan

Alison Trinkl

Executive Producers
Frederick Zollo
Nicholas Paleologos

Paul Shepard

Original Score
Wilfred Josephs

Liev Schreiber

Robert Hanna

Additional Cinematography
Ron Hill
Mike Cole
Buddy Squires

Richard Patterson
Charles Meyer
Scott Simper

Assistant Camera
Jack Reichert
Richard Comrie
Mary Ann Ganke
Todd Liebler

On-Line Editors
Mike Curd
Dave Allen

Sound Editor
Mark Bygraves

Sound Mixer
Rob Butler-Biggs

Rostrum Camera
Zephyr Films

Keith Greig

Studio Production Manager
Patricia Wrobel

Set Designer
Philip Barber

Studio Construction
Roy Appleby

Production Administrator
Terry Bezant

Post-Production Coordinator
Jayne Johnston

Production Accountant
Sue Harvard

Erik Barnouw
David E. Fisher
Marshall Jon Fisher

Special Thanks
Albert Abramson
Castle Rock Entertainment
Eva J. Ceccotti
Kyle Farnsworth
Louis and Veloy Farnsworth Family
Franklin Institute Science Museum
Robert V. Giusti Family
Don McLean
Timothy and Camille Moulton
Stephen Paul Ramsey

John E. Allen, Inc.
Archive Films
Arizona State University Library
BBC Worldwide Americas, Inc.
Brigham Young University Special Collection
BYU Archive
CBS, Inc.
Everett Collection
Farnsworth Family Archive
Film/Audio Services, Inc.
Franklin Institute Science Museum
Grinberg Libraries
Hall of History Foundation
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Hot Shots Cool Cuts, Inc.
Image Bank
ITT Archive
L.D.S. Historical Department
Library of Congress
Los Angeles Public Library
NBC News Archives
David Sarnoff Research Center
Sears, Roebuck and Company
Special Collections, University of Utah Libraries
Stock Yards
UCLA Film & Television Archive
Urban Archives
Utah State Historical Society
Wells Fargo Bank Historical Services
Wide World Photos
The WPA Film Library


Post Production Supervisor

Post Production Assistant

Field Production

Series Designers

Title Animation
Wave, Inc.

On-line Editors

Series Theme

Series Theme Adaptation

Unit Manager

Project Administration


Coordinating Producer

Series Editor

Executive Consultant

Executive Producer

A Windfall Films production

is a production of WGBH/Boston.

WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved

program transcript | web and photo credits


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