Philo who? Un­known changed world

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Fra­zier Moore

NEWYORK— Fish don’t know they’re liv­ing in wa­ter, nor do they stop to won­der where the wa­ter came from.

Hu­mans? Not much bet­ter, as we share a world en­gulfed by television. The deeper our im­mer­sion be­comes, the less likely it seems that we’ll poke our heads above the sur­face and see that there must have been life be­fore some­one in­vented TV.

That in­vis­i­ble some­one was Philo T. Farnsworth, who was fated to live and work, then die, in sad ob­scu­rity. Now, on the cen­ten­nial of his birth on Aug. 19, 1906, his in­ven­tion plays an in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful role in our lives — with less chance than ever that he will be rec­og­nized.

How ironic. In this me­di­asavvy age, not only should his name be as widely known as Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell’s or Thomas Edison’s, but his long, lean face with the bul­bous brow should be as familiar as any pop icon’s. He should be the pa­tron saint of ev­ery couch potato. In­stead, we re­gard TV not as a man­made con­trap­tion, but a nat­u­ral re­source.

None­the­less, it was Mr. Farnsworth who con­ducted the first suc­cess­ful demon­stra­tion of elec­tronic television.

The set­ting: Mr. Farnsworth’s mod­est San Fran­cisco lab, where on Sept. 7, 1927, the 21-year-old self-taught ge­nius trans­mit­ted the im­age of a hor­i­zon­tal line to a re­ceiver in the next room.

It worked — just as Mr. Farnsworth had imag­ined as a 14-year-old Idaho farm boy and math whiz al­ready stew­ing over how to send pic­tures, not just sound, through the air. He had been plow­ing a field when, with a jolt, he re­al­ized an im­age could be scanned by elec­trons the same way: row by hor­i­zon­tal row.

The prodigy at his plow al­ready had made a fun­da­men­tal break­through, chart­ing a dif­fer­ent course from oth­ers’ ul­ti­mately doomed me­chan­i­cal sys­tems that re­quired a spin­ning disk to do the scan­ning. Yet Mr. Farnsworth would be de­nied credit, fame and re­ward for de­vel­op­ing the way TV works to this day.

Even TV had no time for him. His sole ap­pear­ance on na­tional television was as a mys­tery guest on the CBS game show “I’ve Got a Se­cret” in 1957. He fielded ques­tions from the celebrity pan­elists as they tried in vain to guess his se­cret (“I in­vented elec­tronic television”). For stump­ing them, Mr. Farnsworth took home $80 and a car­ton of Win­ston cig­a­rettes.

In 1971, Philo Farnsworth died at age 64.

His wife, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, who had worked by her hus­band’s side through­out his tor­tured ca­reer, con­tin­ued fight­ing to gain him his right­ful place in his­tory un­til her death ear­lier this year at age 98.

Fleet­ing trib­ute was paid on the 2002 Emmy broad­cast to mark TV’s 75th an­niver­sary. In­tro­duced by host Co­nan O’Brien as “the first wo­man ever seen on television,” Mrs. Farnsworth stood in the au­di­ence for ap­plause on her hus­band’s be­half.

It was a skimpy chal­lenge to the stub­born mis­con­cep­tion that the Ra­dio Corp. of Amer­ica was be­hind TV’s cre­ation. This is a ver­sion of his­tory RCA al­ready was pro­mul­gat­ing as its pres­i­dent, David Sarnoff, was plot­ting to crush the lonely ri­val who stood in his way.

Ul­ti­mately, Mr. Farnsworth would go head to head with RCA’s chief television en­gi­neer, Vladimir Zworykin, and a vast com­pany whose boss had no in­ten­tion of los­ing ei­ther a fi­nan­cial wind­fall or eter­nal brag­ging rights. With that in mind, Mr. Sarnoff waged a war not just of en­gi­neer­ing one-up­man­ship, but also dirty tricks, pro­pa­ganda and end­less lit­i­ga­tion.

In 1935, the courts ruled that Mr. Farnsworth, not Mr. Zworykin, was the in­ven­tor of elec­tronic television.

That didn’t stop Mr. Sarnoff, how­ever. He courted the pub­lic by erect­ing a wildly pop­u­lar RCA Television Pavil­ion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and, af­ter an­nounc­ing that the RCA-owned Na­tional Broad­cast­ing Co. would ex­pand from ra­dio into TV, trans­mit­ted scenes from the fair to the 2,000 TV re­ceivers through­out the city.

Thanks to Mr. Sarnoff, money woes and the lost years of World War II (which put TV broad­cast­ing on hold), the clock ran out on Mr. Farnsworth’s patents be­fore he could profit from them.

Even among those work­ing in the in­dus­try that Mr. Farnsworth sparked, few know who he is. One who does is Aaron Sorkin, the play­wright, screen­writer and cre­ator of “The West Wing” (as well as “Stu­dio 60 on the Sun­set Strip,” a TV drama that probes the in­ner work­ings of a fic­ti­tious TV se­ries and pre­mieres next month on NBC).

A decade ago, Mr. Sorkin briefly con­sid­ered script­ing a Farnsworth biopic. Later, he opted to write a screen­play that in­stead would fo­cus on the bat­tle be­tween Mr. Farnsworth and Mr. Sarnoff.

Then he de­cided a play would be the bet­ter form for this tale. The re­sult, “The Farnsworth In­ven­tion,” will have a work­shop pro­duc­tion at Cal­i­for­nia’s La Jolla Play­house next win­ter, with a pos­si­ble New York stag­ing in fall 2007.

It’s un­likely such a theater piece will make Philo Farnsworth a house­hold name, but as Mr. Sorkin wrote in a re­cent e-mail: “The story of the strug­gle be­tween Farnsworth and Sarnoff seemed like a nice way to in­voke the spirit of ex­plo­ration against the broad can­vas of the Amer­i­can Cen­tury.”

The strug­gle be­tween them was fierce and un­fair, but in his sad fash­ion, Mr. Farnsworth won: The force un­leashed as television was his do­ing, how­ever blind the world may be to what he did.

Meet the man: Philo T. Farnsworth, seen here in 1930, in­vented the elec­tronic television.

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