facts about the invention
of the television by Philo
T. Farnsworth in 1927.
In 1921 the 14-year-old Mormon
had an idea while working on his father's Idaho farm. Mowing hay in
rows, Philo realized an electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal
lines, reproducing the image almost instantaneously. This would prove to
be a critical breakthrough in Philo Farnsworth's invention of the
television in 1927.
|Earlier TV devices had been based on
an 1884 invention called the scanning disk, patented by Paul Nipkow. Riddled with holes,
the large disk spun in front of an object while a photoelectric cell recorded changes in
light. Depending on the electricity transmitted by the photoelectric cell, an array of
light bulbs would glow or remain dark. Though Nipkow's mechanical system could not scan
and deliver a clear, live-action image, most would-be TV inventors still hoped to perfect
Not Philo Farnsworth. In 1921 the 14-year-old Mormon had
an idea while working on his father's Idaho farm. Mowing hay in rows, Philo realized an
electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal lines, reproducing the image almost
instantaneously. It would prove to be a critical breakthrough.
But young Philo was not alone. At the same time, Russian immigrant
Vladimir Zworykin had also designed a camera that focused an image through a lens onto an
array of photoelectric cells coating the end of a tube. The electrical image formed by the
cells would be scanned line-by-line by an electron beam and transmitted to a cathode-ray
Rather than an electron beam, Farnsworth's image dissector device
used an "anode finger" -- a pencil-sized tube with a small aperture at the top
-- to scan the picture. Magnetic coils sprayed the electrons emitted from the electrical
image left to right and line by line onto the aperture, where they became electric
current. Both Zworykin's and Philo's devices then transmitted the current to a cathode-ray
tube, which recreated the image by scanning it onto a fluorescent surface.
|Farnsworth applied for a patent for his image
dissector in 1927. The development of the television system was plagued by lack of money
and by challenges to Farnsworth's patent from the giant Radio Corporation of America
(RCA). In 1934, the British communications company British Gaumont bought a license from
Farnsworth to make systems based on his designs. In 1939, the American company RCA did the
same. Both companies had been developing television systems of their own and recognized
Farnsworth as a competitor. World War II interrupted the development of television. When
television broadcasts became a regular occurrence after the war, Farnsworth was not
involved. Instead, he devoted his time to trying to perfect the devices he had designed.
|David Sarnoff, vice president of the
powerful Radio Corporation of America, later hired Zworykin to ensure that RCA would
control television technology. Zworykin and Sarnoff visited Farnsworth's cluttered
laboratory, but the Mormon inventor's business manager scoffed at selling the company --
and Farnsworth's services -- to RCA for a piddling $100,000. So Sarnoff haughtily
downplayed the importance of Philo's innovations, saying, "There's nothing here we'll
In 1934 RCA demonstrated its
"iconoscope," a camera tube very similar to Farnsworth's image dissector. RCA
claimed it was based on a device Zworykin tried to patent in 1923 -- even though the
Russian had used Nipkow's old spinning disk design up until the time he visited Philo's
The patent wars had truly begun -- and Phil, as the grown-up
Farnsworth preferred to be called, was in a bind. He could not license his inventions
while the matter was in court, and he wrestled with his backers over control and direction
of his own company. The men in Farnsworth's loyal "lab gang" were fired and
rehired several times during his financial ups and downs, but retained confidence in Phil.
When Farnsworth's financiers refused his request for a broadcasting studio, the inventor
and a partner built a studio on their own.
Meanwhile back at RCA, Sarnoff had spent more than $10 million on a
major TV R & D effort. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, Sarnoff announced the launch
of commercial television -- though RCA's camera was inadequate, and the corporation didn't
own a single TV patent. Later that same year, the company was compelled to pay patent
royalties to Farnsworth Radio and Television.
By the time World War II began, Farnsworth realized that commercial
television's future was in the hands of businessmen -- not a lone inventor toiling in his
lab. With his patents about to expire, Phil grew depressed, drunk and addicted to
painkillers. In 1949 he reluctantly agreed to sell off Farnsworth Radio and Television.
Philo T. Farnsworth was always an outsider, a bright star blazing in
the dawn of a new electronic age. His romance with the electron was a private affair, a
celebration of the spirit of the lone inventor.
TO LEARN MORE
IRELATED INFORMATION:Farnsworth also invented
the first cold cathode ray tubes and the first simple electronic microscope.
It took the telephone 75 years and
television 13 years to acquire 50 million users. It has taken the
Internet five years. Today, more than 500 million people around the
world are connected to the Internet.
Farnsworth Biography from
The Great Idea Finder
from The Great Idea Finder
History of Household Items from The Great Idea Finder
ON THE BOOKSHELF:
The Stories of Twenty American Kid Inventors
by Tom Tucker, Richard Loehle / Paperback - 144 pages / Sunburst (1998)
The stories of twenty ingenious young Americans who have filed patents with the
United States Patent Office, including Chester Greenwood who invented ear muffs, Ralph
Samuelson, originator of water-skiing, and Vanessa Hess who created colored car wax.
by Travis Brown / Paperback - 224 pages / Scarecrow Press (September
Eighty stories of America's first inventions. Each includes a sketch of the invention, a
profile of the inventor and a glimpse of how the invention has found its way into American
TV's Forgotten Hero: The Story of Philo Farnsworth
by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson / Library Binding (October 1996) / Carolrhoda Books
Interestingly reconstructing the drama of Farnsworth's life, McPherson
incorporates anecdotes that personalize the precocious youth and inventive adult. A
generous supply of photographs punctuates a very readable biography.
Please Stand by: A Prehistory of Television
by Michael Ritchie / Paperback (September 1995) / Penguin USA (Paper)
A nostalgic look at the earliest days, 1920-1948, of the medium that would define
and change the 20th century. Presents interviews with television inventors, station
owners, actors, and crews reliving television firsts such as the first commercial, the
first soap opera, and the first sportscast.
The Last Lone
Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television
by Evan I. Schwartz / Paperback: 352 pages / Perennial (May 1, 2003)
Vividly written and based on original research, including interviews with surviving
Farnsworth family members, The Last Lone Inventor tells the story of the struggle between
two utterly mismatched but equally determined adversaries, one a genius inventor and the
other, a diabolically clever businessman, and how this fight symbolized a turning point in
the culture of innovation.
The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story Of Inspiration, Persistence,
And Quiet Passion
by Paul Schatzkin / Paperback: 296 pages / Tanglewood Books (September
Philo T. Farnsworth, age 14, dreamed of trapping light in an empty jar
and transmitting it, one line at a time, on a magnetically deflected
beam of electrons. In 1930, Farnsworth was awarded the fundamental
patents for modern television.
ON THE SCREEN:
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
See how the computing capacity of World-War II era room-sized computers
is now surpassed by hand-held devices; visit Zenith to see a
side-by-side comparison of regular television and HDTV; discover how a
Cold War era NASA program is transforming personal photography, and get
the inside story about MP3s.
Television - Window to the World
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
/ Also VHS
Chronicles the incredible story of television, from the vision of Philo
Farnsworth, a Utah farm boy who developed the first working system in
1925, to the technological breakthroughs that are transforming the
medium as we head into the 21st century.
ON THE WEB:
The Farnsworth Chronicles
A true and compelling story of the forgotten genius who invented electronic
Pilgrimage to the birthplace of Electronic Television.
Invention Dimension -
Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual
awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
Featured Farnsworth for his invention of the Electronic Television.
Inventors Hall of Fame
Located at Inventure Place, the online home of creative minds. Philo Farnsworth
was inducted in 1984 for his Television System, Patent Number 1,773,980.
A listing of the patents issued to Philo Farnsworth at this site dedicated to his memory.
Engineer - Philo Farnsworth
The key to the television picture tube came to him at 14, when he was still a farm boy,
and he had a working device at 21.From Time Magazine: 100 Greatest Scientists &
Thinkers Lots of COOKIES.
American Experience:Big Dreams, Small Screens
Charts the development of TV and the technology behind it. From the PBS series.
Eye of the World: John Logie Baird and Television
Baird's choice of mechanical scanning as the most effective way of
achieving true television required the use of spinning discs -- which of
financial necessity were made of hatboxes and mounted on a coffin lid.
Article by Adrian R. Hills.
Paul Gottlieb Nipkow
In 1884, university student Paul Nipkow of Germany proposed and patented
the world's first electromechanical television system.
fundamental and crucial work in creating the iconoscope and the
kinescope, inventor Vladimir Zworykin is often described as "the father
DID YOU KNOW?:
- Research tells us that 99% of homes in the US have a television set.
Sixty-nine percent have two or more. And, 33% have three or more! Television is a part of
our daily culture, and serves as a window to the world for many families and young
Sources in BOLD Type
This page revised March 30, 2006.
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