Philo Farnsworth, TV's invisible inventor, was born 100 years ago
NEW YORK - 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. And the deeper our immersion becomes, the less likely
it seems we'll poke our heads above the surface and see there must have
been life before someone invented TV.
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 of him being recognized.
In this media-savvy
age, not only should his name be as widely known as Bell's or 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 man-made contraption, but a natural resource. Nonetheless,
it was Philo Farnsworth who conducted the first successful demonstration
of electronic television.
The setting: 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 like 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.
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 had already made a fundamental breakthrough, charting a
different course from others' ultimately doomed mechanical systems that
required a spinning disk to do the scanning.
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,
Farnsworth took home $80 and a carton of Winston cigarettes. In 1971,
Philo Farnsworth died at age 64. But 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 98.
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,''
Pem Farnsworth stood in the audience for applause on her husband's behalf.
It was a skimpy challenge to the stubborn misconception that the Radio
Corporation of America was behind TV's creation.
This is a version
of history RCA was already promulgating as its president, David Sarnoff,
was plotting to crush the lonely rival who stood in his way.
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,
Sarnoff waged a war not just of engineering one-upmanship, but also
dirty tricks, propaganda and endless litigation. In 1935 the courts
ruled that Farnsworth, not Zworykin, was the inventor of electronic
But that didn't
stop Sarnoff, who 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 Sarnoff,
money woes and the lost years of World War II (which put TV broadcasting
on hold), the clock ran out on Farnsworth's patents before he could
profit from them. Now, few even working in the industry that Farnsworth
sparked know who he is.
But 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, which premieres
next month on NBC). A decade ago, Sorkin briefly considered scripting
a Farnsworth biopic.
Later on, he opted
to write a screenplay that instead would focus on the battle between
Farnsworth and 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
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, Farnsworth won:
The force unleashed as television was his doing, however blind the world
may be to what he did.
by Frazier Moore
Reprinted from www.ap.com
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