The father of television grew to hate his own invention — until one miraculous day

The year was 1957, the game show was called “I’ve Got A Secret” and the guest had a highly mysterious and ominous name: Dr. X

Because the premise of “I Have a Secret” required contestants to guess an unknown fact about the show’s guests (Dr. X was joined that night by popular comedian Buster Keaton), contestants examined Dr. X immediately details. When one of them asked if he had invented a machine that is painful to use, the soft-spoken Dr. X made the audience laugh by replying, “Yeah, sometimes it’s the most painful.”

As it turned out, Dr. X Philo Farnsworth – inventor of electronic television when he was a teenager. While television is now widely lauded for providing us with great works of art (it has even passed through golden and platinum ages), in Farnsworth’s day it was viewed by many with the same disdain that reserved new forms of entertainment media in all eras was. However, Farnsworth had additional and personal reasons for being bitter towards television.

He had lived the American dream by making a great invention all by himself, and then suffered because he was woefully ill-prepared to take on the highly competitive, often cruel business world that defines American capitalism.

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Like a character in a Horatio Alger story, Farnsworth was born in 1906 in a log cabin his grandfather built in southwest Utah. From an early age he showed a talent for science and voraciously read magazines like popular science and science and invention, taught himself physics and the works of Albert Einstein, and tinkered with machines whenever he found them (he even installed electricity in his rural farmhouse). In 1922, Farnsworth worked with his high school chemistry teacher Justin Tolman on a sketch for what he called an “image dissector” vacuum tube that essentially created the technology for modern television.

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Before most people even decided on a career path, Farnsworth had already discovered that the most effective way to transmit images long distances is to send them as a beam of electrons, which is then reproduced line by line along a light-sensitive screen. He actually did this at the age of 14 while plowing his family’s farm and visualizing beams of electrons patterned like the furrows he had created. With this revelation, Farnsworth solved a persistent problem that had existed with previous television attempts, which used a more primitive and less reliable method.

Farnsworth had the right ideas, but lacked the economic fortune to make the most of them in a capitalist society. Although Farnsworth was admitted to Brigham Young University at age 16 (his grandfather had been a supporter of the original Young), he eventually withdrew because the unexpected death of his father meant he could no longer afford tuition. However, Farnsworth refused to let his dream die with his formal education and raised money for his invention, although he supported his family with a full-time public service job in Salt Lake City. By September 7, 1927 (the same year as the release of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer), Farnsworth and his team of engineers successfully transmitted television images of a line and triangle to impressed investors. His last picture, a dollar sign, was met with amusement — and, more importantly, additional funding.

The funding Farnsworth desperately needed. While revolutionizing television technology, he still struggled with image sharpness and other technical problems. He wasn’t the only one developing new ideas about image transmission; Among others, an engineer named Vladimir Zworykin worked with electronics company Radio Corporation of America (RCA) President David Sarnoff to one day become the so-called “Fathers of Television”. In 1930, Zworykin met Farnsworth at his San Francisco laboratory (Farnsworth believed it was a bona fide fact-finding visit), observed and expressed admiration for his improved image decomposer, then returned to his own facility in Camden, New Jersey to make an even better camera tube known as an iconoscope.

That’s where Sarnoff comes in — a man who was later dubbed “the Bill Gates of his day” by one of RCA’s successor companies for his insistence on “having a stranglehold on an entire sector of the economy.” Unable to put Farnsworth out of business through fair competition, Sarnoff paid a surprise visit to Farnsworth’s shop in 1931 and shortly thereafter offered to buy Farnsworth out. When Farnsworth refused, Sarnoff concocted a phony lawsuit and filed frivolous patent lawsuit after frivolous patent lawsuit to tie him up in court. Although Farnsworth ultimately prevailed, the ordeal broke him both physically and mentally. He soon developed severe depression and alcoholism. Although Farnsworth’s legal victory in 1939 technically meant RCA had to pay him to manufacture televisions, World War II temporarily stifled the television market. By the time the general public actually became interested in television, Farnsworth’s patents had expired. He went out of business soon after.

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If there is any consolation in this story, it is that Farnsworth continued to invent in his later years. While stumbling over the contents of “I’ve Got A Secret” (he won a carton of cigarettes and $80, or roughly $843.19 by modern standards), Farnsworth’s name would soon become in Zworykin and Sarnoff’s minds of the population as the main inventor of television. Before his death from pneumonia in 1971, Farnsworth even somewhat revised his earlier gloomy views of television, which reminded his children that he was downright verbally abused during their childhood. His widow, Elma Farnsworth, later told historians that when he saw Neil Armstrong land on the moon on July 20, 1969, he finally believed that his own contribution to sharing the event with the world would be somewhat worthwhile.

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