Summarized by Vickie Speek
Mormon Inventor of Television Remembered
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- Way back during the birth of broadcasting, a
largely forgotten, but significant battle raged between a lone
inventor, Philo Farnsworth, a Mormon farm boy, and David Sarnoff, the
domineering head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Sarnoff, held an iron grip on every aspect of radio, from the patents
on the device itself to the creation and distribution of programming.
By 1930, he was extending his monopoly to the new frontier of
transmitting moving pictures through the air. He plotted to capture
the next big thing, television, and to destroy Farnsworth, the
ambitious young man behind the new technology.
Farnsworth, born in 1906, in a log cabin in Utah, taught himself
physics, and Einstein's theories from borrowed books and magazines
that he read late into the night. At the age of 14, while he drove a
horse-drawn plow down the rows of a potato field at the family's new
farm in Idaho, Farnsworth dreamed up the idea for an electronic
television. As he plowed the field in straight, parallel lines, he
envisioned a system that would break an image into horizontal lines
and reassemble those lines into a picture at the other end.
Farnsworth's idea grew into an all-out obsession. In 1926, at age 20,
he and his wife set up a makeshift television lab in an old warehouse
in San Francisco. Two years later, a story about Farnsworth and his
invention hit the news service nationwide. Sarnoff saw it, and became
determined to obtain the invention.
Sarnoff hired a spy, Vladimir Kosmo Zworykin, to get a closer look at
Farnsworth's invention. Zworykin tried to reverse-engineer what he
had seen, but did not make much progress. In April 1931, Sarnoff paid
a surprise visit to Farnsworth himself. Farnsworth was out of town
on business, so one of his associates showed Sarnoff around, and gave
him a special demonstration. A short time later, Sarnoff tried to buy
Farnsworth's company and patents for $100,000, but Farnsworth
rejected the offer, feeling that the low-ball offer was an insult.
Sarnoff decided to break Farnsworth in patent court by launching a
legal assault, which would tie up Farnsworth emotionally and
financially for years. The case lasted nearly four years, slowed the
development of television, and its introduction to the public, and
drove Farnsworth to drink. But, his patents withstood the challenge,
and Farnsworth became the undisputed inventor of television, at the
age of 29.
Sarnoff lost the battle, but won the war. He orchestrated a massive
public-relations campaign promoting RCA televisions, and RCA was able
to capture nearly 80 percent of the television market.
Reeling from years of severe stress, Farnsworth suffered a nervous
breakdown. He relocated to Indiana and began to produce television
sets, but time ran out. His key patents expired in 1947, forcing him
to sell the assets of his company.
Just a few months later, television began a rapid rise in popularity
that took the invention from just 6,000 sets nationwide to tens of
millions by the mid-1950s.
Who Really Invented Television?
Technology Review Sep/Oct00 P2
By Evan I. Schwartz