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Big Dream Small Screen poster image
Aired February 10, 1997

Big Dream Small Screen

Film Description

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 deal.

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 
Nicholas Paleologos

Alison Trinkl

Paul Shepard

Original Score
Wilfred Josephs