The Forgotten Farm Kid Who Invented TV

Farnsworth holds an early electron gun that was the heart of his prototype TV.

How an Idaho high schooler helped change the world

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Philo T. Farnsworth was an American inventor and is widely recognized as the unlikely pioneer who conceived of and later went on to invent the technology that made television possible.

It would be hard to imagine a more amazing story than a farm kid with little formal education coming up with one of the greatest inventions of his or our time. 

Field of Dreams

Farnsworth first conceived of the idea of a screen displaying moving images as a 14-year-old farm boy plowing a potato field in Idaho in 1920. Surveying the parallel rows of crops and dirt, he saw a way to use electrons to paint images onto a screen, line by line.

It was no fleeting notion. Farnsworth chipped away at the concept until, at the age of 21, he generated the first electronic television broadcast from his San Francisco laboratory in 1927. 

Humble Beginnings

Farnsworth’s interest in electronics began at a young age, and as a teenager he converted his family’s home appliances to electric power and connected them to the grid when it became available.

It was in a high school chemistry class that Farnsworth sketched out his idea for transmitting and projecting images electronically. He harkened back to the vision he had while plowing fields, hypothesizing that a moving picture could be generated by a system of tiny horizontal lines that together composed a larger image. Although his teacher did not fully comprehend the concept, he meticulously copied the boy’s ideas from the board to a notebook. Those notes would later become a key piece of evidence in a bitter patent feud.

After dropping out of college, Farnsworth continued to obsess over his notion until he found an investor who set him up in a laboratory to begin working on the concept. The following year, he unveiled his all-electronic television prototype — the first of its kind — made possible by a video camera tube or “image dissector.” It was essentially the same device that Farnsworth had sketched on the chalkboard as a teenager. 

Spoiler Alert

This story lacks a storybook ending. After proving his concept, Farnsworth spent most of his life defending his television patents and fighting corporate behemoths like RCA over his intellectual property, and ultimately died broke. Sadly, Farnsworth never reaped the financial rewards or the recognition he deserved for his contributions to such a seminal achievement, but we will get to that later.

David vs. Goliath

The RCA Corp. quickly got wind of Farnsworth’s project and his success. Determined to launch its own version of television, RCA sent its top engineer to Farnsworth’s lab on a mission of corporate espionage. They returned to RCA and copied Farnsworth’s system behind closed doors. The fight was on. 

Over the next few years, a drawn-out series of patent lawsuits followed, with Farnsworth victorious in every case. The evidence of the drawings presented by Farnsworth’s high school chemistry teacher lent credence to his claim that he came up with the concept first. Beginning in 1939, RCA reluctantly began paying Farnsworth royalties.

Farnsworth and game show host Gary Moore on “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1957.

Won the Battle, Lost the War

While Farnsworth did ultimately prevail in court, it was his archrival RCA that had the money and influence to bring television to the masses. By the time Farnsworth had his system working and was ready to mass produce TV sets, the Great Depression was crippling the nation and seed capital had dried up. 

Farnsworth showed the world that individuals lacking paper credentials are capable of monumental achievements. His experience also demonstrates how happenstance can derail a success story. Had he kept his invention under wraps or developed his inventions a bit earlier or later, he may have gained much greater fame and fortune.

Ironically, Farnsworth appeared only once on TV. In 1957 he was a mystery guest on the CBS quiz show “I’ve Got a Secret” hosted by Gary Moore. In the show, a panel tried unsuccessfully to guess his secret (“I invented TV”). For his appearance and stumping the panel, he received $80 and a carton of Winston smokes.

Man on the Moon

As TV devolved into an omnipresent time-killing boob tube, Farnsworth became more disenchanted with his invention and even forbade his children from watching it. Still, there were a few moments of pride. When Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first step on the moon in 1969, Farnsworth reportedly turned to his wife and said, “This has made it all worthwhile.”

Sad Demise

Farnsworth eventually capitulated to his rivals and sold his company. Ultimately the stress of work and the epic battles he waged caught up with him. Already battling depression for decades, he turned to alcohol in his final years and died penniless in 1971. Never receiving the recognition he rightfully deserved, he quickly became a forgotten footnote to history. 

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