Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 19 - November Issue - Year 2018
A Farmboy From Utah

An image dissector tube

The young man slowly passed his handkerchief over his face and neck before returning to the plow where his horse was patiently waiting. He had been at work since sunrise, hoping to finish before the onslaught of the midday heat, but he continued to be distracted by the long furrows to his left. Why did this sight fascinate him so much?


Philo Farnsworth was born in Utah in August 1906. When he was twelve years old, his family moved to a relative’s ranch in Idaho, where he helped with various farming chores. Philo’s technical curiosity was piqued when he discovered that his new home was wired for electricity. In the attic he found a stack of science magazines, which he read avidly, and he quickly learned to solve mechanical and electrical problems around the house. At school he excelled in chemistry and physics. Philo’s attention soon turned to a new technology called “television”, on which various scientists had been working since the previous century. He read that the biggest problem was how to transmit image data. Up until that moment, an image was captured and transmitted by mechanical means, much too slow to produce an intelligible picture.
Philo’s moment of inspiration came while he was plowing a field. When he stared at the furrows in the ground, he envisioned an electronic system that would break an image into horizontal lines and reassemble those lines at the receiving end. He was only fourteen years old when he had this "eureka" experience. It’s likely that Philo’s solution was influenced by the ideas of Scottish engineer Alan Campbell-Swinton, who described a two-cathode ray tube system in an article that appeared in a 1915 issue of the popular American magazine Electrical Experimenter, a copy of which Philo may have found in his attic. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that he developed his idea on his own. Farnsworth moved back to Utah in 1923 and, while at high school, showed his science teacher several sketches and diagrams illustrating his proposal. He further developed his ideas at the university where he continued his studies.
In 1926, two investors from California agreed to fund further research and set up a laboratory for him in Los Angeles. In September 1927, Farnsworth made the world’s first all-electronic television transmission, an image of a horizontal white line, which his “image dissector”, precursor to the modern TV camera, transmitted to a receiver in the next room. He filed his first television patent that same year. Philo continued to work on his invention and in 1928 gave a demonstration to the press, which hailed the achievements of the “young genius”. In 1929, Philo’s wife became the first human image to be transmitted by television.
Not all of the attention attracted by Farnsworth’s success was positive. The RCA Corporation, which held a virtual monopoly on radio transmissions in America, saw Philo’s invention as a potential danger to its market position and to its own attempts to develop a viable television system. There followed a period of about ten years marked by legal challenges brought by RCA, whose deep pockets could afford to pay an army of lawyers that Farnsworth could not possibly match. The regular court hearings prevented Philo from successfully developing his television system on a commercial level and also took their toll on his health, leading him to alcoholism and depression. In 1939, RCA finally agreed to a licensing agreement based on Farnsworth’s 1927 patent by which RCA would pay Philo one million dollars over a period of several years. Unfortunately for Farnsworth, the beginning of the Second World War halted television production, as many industries were requisitioned for the war effort and royalty payments were suspended. By the time the war ended, Farnsworth’s patent was due to expire two years later, and RCA got away with paying very little before it could freely use Philo’s invention.
In 1951, Philo sold his company to ITT. Farnsworth went on to work as a researcher for ITT, where he developed several groundbreaking ideas, including radar calibration, submarine detection devices, and an infrared telescope. Perhaps his most important invention was the PPI Projector, an improvement of the circular sweep radar display that became the basis of today’s air traffic control systems. ITT also funded Farnsworth’s nuclear fusion research. Unfortunately Farnsworth and his team could not get the reaction to last more than thirty seconds, and the funding was cancelled. In his lifetime, Philo Farnsworth held three hundred U.S. and foreign patents.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN

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