Farnsworth in the National Statuary Hall Collection
|Born||Philo Taylor Farnsworth
August 19, 1906
Springville, Utah, U.S.
|Died||March 11, 1971 (aged 64)
Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.
|Resting place||Provo City Cemetery,
Provo, Utah, U.S.
|Known for||Inventor of the first electronic television, over 300 United States and foreign patents|
|Religion||The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints|
|Spouse(s)||Elma "Pem" Gardner|
Philo Taylor Farnsworth (August 19, 1906 – March 11, 1971) was an American inventor and television pioneer. Although he made many contributions that were crucial to the early development of all-electronic television, he is perhaps best known for inventing the first fully-functional all-electronic image pickup device (video camera tube), the "image dissector", the first fully-functional and complete all-electronic television system, and for being the first person to demonstrate such a system to the public.
In later life, Farnsworth invented a small nuclear fusion device, the Farnsworth–Hirsch Fusor, or simply "fusor", employing inertial electrostatic confinement(IEC). Although not a practical device for generating nuclear energy, the fusor serves as a viable source of neutrons.
Farnsworth was born on August 19, 1906 to Lewis Edwin and Serena Amanda Bastian Farnsworth, a Mormon couple then living in a log cabin built by Lewis's father in a place called Indian Creek near Beaver, Utah. The family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho in 1918, where Lewis supplemented his farming income by hauling freight with his horse-draw wagon. Philo was excited to find his new home was wired for electricity, with a Delco generator providing power for lighting and farm machinery. He was a quick study in mechanical and electrical technology, repairing the troublesome generator, and upon finding a burned out electric motor among some items discarded by the previous tenants, proceeding to rewind the armature and convert his mother's hand-powered washing machine into an electric-powered one. Philo developed an early interest in electronics after his first telephone conversation with an out-of-state relative and the discovery of a large cache of technology magazines in the attic of the family’s new home.
Farnsworth excelled in chemistry and physics at Rigby High School, and produced sketches and prototypes of electron tubes. One of the drawings he did on a blackboard for his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, was recalled and reproduced for a patent interference case between Farnsworth and Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Philo took violin lessons from Reuben Wilkins in Ucon, Idaho.
In the fall of 1922 the Farnsworths moved to Provo, Utah. But Philo stayed behind to work for the railroad in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, saving enough money to begin classes at Brigham Young University (BYU) when he rejoined his family in the fall of 1923. The family had moved into the first floor of a large two-story house, renting the top floor to BYU students. In early January of the following year, Lewis Farnsworth died of pneumonia, leaving sixteen-year-old Philo to care for his mother, two sisters and two brothers.
Looking for a way to pay for school, he joined the Navy, where he was recruited with a second-highest in the nation score the year he entered in 1924. However, he was already thinking ahead to his television projects and upon learning the government would own his patents if he stayed in the military he sought and received an honorable discharge, returning to Utah to continue to help support his mother.
Philo quit school to find work, while his sister Agnes, the older of the two, took charge of the family home and the second floor boarding house (with the help of a cousin then living with the family). The Farnsworths later moved into half of a duplex, with family friends the Gardners moving into the other side when it became vacant. Philo developed a close friendship with Cliff Gardner, who shared Farnsworth's interest in electronics. The two moved to Salt Lake City to start a radio repair business.
The business failed and Gardner returned to Provo. But Farnsworth remained in Salt Lake City, and through enrollment in a University of Utah job-placement service became acquainted with Leslie Gorrell and George Everson, a pair of San Francisco philanthropists who were then conducting a Salt Lake City Community Chest fundraising campaign. They agreed to fund Farnsworth's early television research, and set up a laboratory in Los Angeles for Farnsworth to carry out his experiments. Before relocating to California, Farnsworth married Gardner's sister, Elma “Pem” Gardner Farnsworth (February 25, 1908 – April 27, 2006), and the two traveled to the West Coast in a Pullman coach.
A few months after arriving in California, Farnsworth was prepared to show his models and drawings to a patent attorney who was nationally recognized as an authority on electrophysics. Everson and Gorrell agreed that Farnsworth should apply for patents for his designs, a decision which proved crucial in later disputes with RCA.
Most television systems in use at the time used image scanning devices ("rasterizers") employing rotating "Nipkow disks" comprising lenses arranged in spiral patterns such that they swept across an image in a succession of short arcs while focusing the light they captured on photosensitive elements, thus producing a varying electrical signal corresponding to the variations in light intensity. Farnsworth recognized the limitations of the mechanical systems, and that a all-electronic scanning system could produce a superior image for transmission to a receiving device.
On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth's image dissector camera tube transmitted its first image, a simple straight line, at his laboratory at 202 Green Street in San Francisco. The source of the image was a glass slide, backlit by an arc lamp. An extremely bright source was required because of the low light sensitivity of the design. By 1928, Farnsworth had developed the system sufficiently to hold a demonstration for the press. His backers had demanded to know when they would see dollars from the invention, so the first image shown was, appropriately, a dollar sign. In 1929, the design was further improved by elimination of a motor-generator, so the television system now had no mechanical parts. That year, Farnsworth transmitted the first live human images using his television system, including a three and a half-inch image of his wife Elma ("Pem"), with her eyes closed because of the blinding light required.
Many inventors had built electromechanical television systems prior to Farnsworth's seminal contribution, but Farnsworth designed and built the world's first working all-electronic television system, employing electronic scanning in both the pickup and display devices. He first demonstrated his system to the press on September 3, 1928, and to the public at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on August 25, 1934.
In 1930, Vladimir Zworykin, who had been developing his own all-electronic television system at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh since 1923, but which he had never been able to make work or satisfactorily demonstrate to his superiors, was recruited by RCA to lead its television development department. Before leaving his old employer, Zworykin visited Farnsworth's laboratory and was sufficiently impressed with the performance of the Image Dissector that he reportedly had his team at Westinghouse make several copies of the device for experimentation. But Zworykin later abandoned research on the Image Dissector, which at the time required extremely bright illumination of its subjects to be effective, and turn his attention to what would become the Iconoscope. 
In 1931, David Sarnoff of RCA offered to buy Farnsworth's patents for $100,000 (USD), with the stipulation that he become an employee of RCA, but Farnsworth refused. In June of that year, Farnsworth joined the Philco company and moved to Philadelphia along with his wife and two children. RCA would later file an interference suit against Farnsworth, claiming Zworykin's 1923 patent had priority over Farnsworth's design, despite the fact it could present no evidence that Zworykin had actually produced a functioning transmitter tube in 1923. Farnsworth had lost two interference claims to Zworykin in 1928, but this time he prevailed and the U.S. Patent Office rendered a decision in 1934 awarding priority of the invention of the image dissector to Farnsworth. RCA lost a subsequent appeal, but litigation over a variety of issues continued for several years with Sarnoff finally agreeing to pay Farnsworth royalties. Zworykin eventually received a patent for his 1923 design, issued in 1938 by the Court of Appeals on a non-Farnsworth related interference case, and over the objection of the Patent Office.
In 1932, while in England to raise money for his legal battles with RCA, Farnsworth met with John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor who had been the first to give a public demonstration of a television system using mechanical imaging systems, and was seeking to develop electronic television receivers. Baird demonstrated his mechanical system for Farnsworth, and explained "the superiority of his system". But after watching several minutes of Farnsworth's version, he left the room without a word, "having realized the futility of his efforts." Baird's company directors pursued a merger with Farnsworth, paying $50,000 to supply electronic television equipment and provide access to Farnsworth patents. Baird and Farnsworth competed with EMI for the U.K. standard television system, but EMI merged with the Marconi Company in 1934, gaining access to the RCA Iconoscope patents. After trials of both systems, the BBC committee chose the Marconi-EMI system, which was by then virtually identical to RCA's system. The image dissector scanned well, but had poor light sensitivity compared to the Marconi-EMI Iconoscopes, dubbed "Emitrons".
In March 1932, Philco denied Farnsworth time to travel to Utah to bury his young son Kenny, placing a strain on Farnsworth's marriage, and possibly marking the beginning of his struggle with depression. In May 1933, the Philco Corporation severed their relationship with Farnsworth because, in George Everson's words, "it [had] become apparent that Philo's aim at establishing a broad patent structure through research [was] not identical with the production program of Philco." Many sources paint this breakup as Philco's idea, but Everson made it sound as though the decision was mutual and amicable.
Farnsworth returned to his lab, and by 1936 his company was regularly transmitting entertainment programs on an experimental basis. That same year, while working with University of Pennsylvania biologists, Farnsworth developed a process to sterilize milk using radio waves. He also invented a fog-penetrating beam for ships and airplanes.
In 1938, Farnsworth established the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with E. A. Nicholas as president and himself as director of research. In September 1939, after a more than decade long legal battle, RCA finally conceded to a multi-year licenseing agreement concerning Farnsworth's 1927 patent for Television totaling $1 million. RCA was then free, after showcasing electronic television at The New York World's Fair on April 20, 1939, to sell electronic television sets to the public. (The World's Fair showcase was based upon the inferior designs of RCA in-house engineer Vladimir Zworykin; Farnsworth's designs--specifically for his camera--were needed to make television of sufficient quality to commercialize it.)
Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation was purchased by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in 1951. During his time at ITT, Farnsworth worked in a basement lab known as “the cave” on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne. From here he introduced a number of breakthrough concepts, including: a defense early warning signal, submarine detection devices, radar calibration equipment and an infrared telescope. “Philo was a very deep person – tough to engage in conversation because he was always thinking about what he could do next,” said Art Resler, an ITT photographer who documented Farnsworth’s work in pictures. One of Farnsworth's most significant contributions at ITT was the PPI Projector, an enhancement on the iconic "circular sweep" radar display, which allowed safe control of air traffic from the ground. This system developed in the 1950s was the forerunner of today’s air traffic control systems.
In July 1957, Farnsworth appeared on the CBS quiz show I've Got A Secret, hosted by Garry Moore. Moore identified Farnsworth as "Dr. X" and his secret ("I invented of electronic television") flashed on television screens. The panel failed to guess his secret. Moore then spent a few minutes discussing with Farnsworth his research on such projects as high definition television, flat screen receivers, and fusion power.
In addition to his electronics research, ITT management agreed to nominally fund Farnsworth's nuclear fusion research. He and staff members invented and refined a series of fusion reaction tubes called "fusors". For scientific reasons unknown to Farnsworth and his staff, the necessary reactions lasted no longer than thirty seconds. In December 1965, ITT came under pressure from its board of directors to terminate the expensive project and sell the Farnsworth subsidiary. It was only due to the urging of President Harold Geneen that the 1966 budget was accepted, extending ITT's fusion research for an additional year. The stress associated with this managerial ultimatum, however, caused Farnsworth to suffer a relapse. A year later he was terminated and eventually allowed medical retirement.
In the spring of 1967, Farnsworth and his family moved back to Utah to continue his fusion research at Brigham Young University, which presented him with an honorary doctorate. The university also offered him office space and an underground concrete bunker for the project. Realizing the fusion lab was to be dismantled at ITT, Farnsworth invited staff members to accompany him to Salt Lake City, as team members in Philo T. Farnsworth Associates (PTFA). By late 1968, the associates began holding regular business meetings and PTFA was underway. Although a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was promptly secured, and more possibilities were within reach, financing stalled for the $24,000 in monthly expenses required to cover salaries and equipment rental.
By Christmas 1970, PTFA had failed to secure the necessary financing, and the Farnsworths had sold all their own ITT stock and cashed in Philo's life insurance policy to maintain organizational stability. The underwriter had failed to provide the financial backing that was to have supported the organization during its critical first year. The banks called in all outstanding loans, repossession notices were placed on anything not previously sold, and the Internal Revenue Service put a lock on the laboratory door until delinquent taxes were paid. In January 1970, PTFA disbanded. Farnsworth became seriously ill with pneumonia, and died on 11 March 1971.
Farnsworth's wife Elma Gardner "Pem" Farnsworth fought for decades after his death to assure his place in history. Farnsworth always gave her equal credit for creating television, saying, "my wife and I started this TV." She died on April 27, 2006, at age 98. The inventor and wife were survived by two sons, Russell (then living in New York), and Kent (then living in Fort Wayne, Indiana).
Farnsworth had been called "one of the ten greatest mathematical wizards of the day," according to Popular Science.
Farnsworth worked out the principle of the image dissector in the summer of 1921, not long before his fifteenth birthday, and demonstrated the first working version on September 7, 1927, having turned 21 the previous August. A farm boy, his inspiration for scanning an image as series of lines came from the back-and-forth motion used to plow a field. In the course of a patent interference suit brought by RCA in 1934 and decided in February 1935, his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, produced a sketch he had made of a blackboard drawing Farnsworth had shown him in the Spring of 1922. Farnsworth won the suit; RCA appealed the decision in 1936 and lost. Although Farnsworth was paid royalties by RCA, he never became wealthy. The video camera tube that evolved from the combined work of Farnsworth, Zworykin and many others was used in all television cameras until the late 20th century, when alternate technologies such as charge-coupled devices started to appear.
Farnsworth also developed the "image oscillite", a cathode ray tube that displayed the images captured by the image dissector.
The Farnsworth–Hirsch Fusor, or simply fusor, is an apparatus designed by Farnsworth to create nuclear fusion. Unlike most controlled fusion systems, which slowly heat a magnetically confined plasma, the fusor injects high temperature ions directly into a reaction chamber, thereby avoiding a considerable amount of complexity.
When the Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor was first introduced to the fusion research world in the late 1960s, the Fusor was the first device that could clearly demonstrate it was producing fusion reactions at all. Hopes at the time were high that it could be quickly developed into a practical power source. However, as with other fusion experiments, development into a power source has proven difficult. Nevertheless, the fusor has since become a practical neutron source and is produced commercially for this role.
At his death, Farnsworth held 300 U.S. and foreign patents. His inventions contributed to the development of radar, the infra-red night light, the electron microscope, the baby incubator, the gastroscope, and the astronomical telescope.
Although he was the man responsible for its technology, Farnsworth appeared only once on a television program. On July 3, 1957, he was a mystery guest ("Doctor X") on the TV quiz show I've Got A Secret. He fielded questions from the panel as they unsuccessfully tried to guess his secret ("I invented electronic television."). For stumping the panel, he received $80 and a carton of Winston cigarettes.
In the interview with host Garry Moore, Dr. Farnsworth said: "There had been attempts to devise a television system using mechanical disks and rotating mirrors and vibrating mirrors--all mechanical. My contribution was to take out the moving parts and make the thing entirely electronic, and that was the concept that I had when I was just a freshman in high school [in the Spring of 1921 at age 14]." When Moore asked about others' contributions, Dr. Farnsworth .agreed, "There are literally thousands of inventions important to television. I hold something in excess of 165 American patents." The host then asked about his current research, and the inventor replied, "In television, we're attempting first to make better utilization of the bandwidth, because we think we can eventually get in excess of 2000 lines instead of 525 ... and do it on an even narrower channel ... which will make for a much sharper picture. We believe in the picture-frame type of a picture, where the visual display will be just a screen. And we hope for a memory, so that the picture will be just as though it's pasted on there."
In a 1996 videotaped interview by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, available on YouTube, Elma Farnsworth recounts Philo's change of heart about the value of television, after seeing how it showed man walking on the moon, in real time, to millions of viewers:
A letter to the editor of the Idaho Falls-based Post Register disputed the single television appearance claim. Published in the December 10, 2007 edition (page A4, digital version requires subscription), Roy Southwick claimed "... I interviewed Mr. [Philo] Farnsworth back in 1953 - the first day KID-TV went on the air." KID-TV later became KIDK-TV, and was the first local broadcaster in southeast Idaho. The KID-TV affiliate is located a 15 minute drive from the Rigby area where Farnsworth worked in the potato fields and struck on his idea for electrons forming an image.
Farnsworth is sometimes quoted as telling his son Kent, with regard to television:
Yet, his family's website makes it clear that this is Kent's summation of his father's view, rather than a direct quote.