About the Program
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In 1921, a 14-year-old boy working in a potato field in Idaho had a vision of
sending pictures in waves over the air, like sound waves for radio. His
epiphany inspired him to invent the first electronic television--a feat that
most engineers of the time thought was impossible.
"Philo Farnsworth was a terribly optimistic, creative man who believed he could
accomplish anything," says producer David Dugan. "Farnsworth's genius burned so
bright that by age thirty, he had nearly spent himself. When the trajectory of
his ambition collided with the plans of a corporation with deep pockets, the
result for the lone inventor was tragic."
In 1924, Farnsworth's father died; to support the family,
Philo took a job delivering radios for a furniture store in Salt Lake City.
Impatient to realize his plans for electronic television, within a year he had
convinced two California businessmen, George Everson and Les Gorrell, to invest
their life savings--a total of $6,000--so he could build a prototype. Soon
after, Phil set up a lab in Los Angeles and started work on a camera tube that
could turn an image into a stream of electrons, and a television tube that
could turn the same stream of electrons into a picture.
Finally, after another 18 months, Philo's creation produced an image the size
of a postage stamp. When news of his achievement broke, Hollywood flocked to
meet the 22-year-old inventor who might challenge cinema. But his investors
were still nervous: to take the fragile prototype to the next stage would
require another significant influx of cash. Perhaps Farnsworth's idea could be
sold, and inventor and investors alike could get a modest profit out of the
At that time, RCA president David Sarnoff was determined to control emerging
television technology as tightly as he did existing radio technology. In the
spring of 1930, Sarnoff sent Vladimir Zworkin to the West coast to investigate
the maverick inventor who held more than a dozen television patents--and the
potential to ruin RCA's plans. Zworkin, a Russian emigré, was also
working to develop electronic television.
"Zworkin was in here just to find out anything he possibly could," says Rom
Rutherford, who worked in Farnsworth's lab. "And Phil was the other way
around--`Here's some ideas.'"
After his visit to Farnsworth's lab, Zworkin sent a 700-word telegram back
East, describing Farnsworth's disssector tube in detail. When he returned, a
copy of Farnsworth's camera awaited him.
Over the next few years Sarnoff and Farnsworth would battle in the laboratory
and in the courts. In 1939, Farnsworth's hopes were raised when the courts in
the patent dispute sided with him. For the first time in its history, RCA would
have to pay royalties to an outside inventor. With only seven years until the
patents expired, Farnsworth worked to capitalize on his invention. But, just as
sales were set to take off, the government declared a blackout for commercial
television as part of the World War II defense effort.
Farnsworth had pursued his dream of electronic television for most of his life.
When he realized that his patents would not outlast the war, he was despondent.
"I think my father was very much of a racehorse," says Farnworth's son, Skee.
"He saw obstacles and he cleared them. And when you take a racehorse, no matter
how good it is but you keep jumping higher hurdles, eventually you come to a
hurdle that the horse would jump except this is not a jumpable hurdle. And I
think in my father's case, this was coming smack up against corporate America
of the '30s."
Written and Directed By: David Dugan
Executive Producers: Frederick Zollo and
Producer: Alison Trinkl
Editor: Paul Shepard
Original Score: Wilfred Josephs