Saturday, August 19, 2006

Happy Birthday Philo T. Farnsworth

August 19, 2006 is the 100th birthday of Philo T. Farnsworth.

For those of us who are children of television, and really that's most of us, Farnsworth might rightly be described as our grandfather because Philo T. Farnsworth is generally acknowledged as the father of television. Or at least the father of television as we know it. The British inventor John Logie Baird developed the first practical television device, a mechanical system using a spinning disk to scan the image in the 1920s. In fact the first television transmission in Canada took place in Saskatoon in 1930 using a mechanical system modelled on Baird's. When the BBC began scheduled broadcasts in 1936 they were using both a Baird mechanical system and an electronic system. However mechanical television was a Neanderthal thoroughly outclassed by Cro Magnon, in the form of electronic television, and the heart of electronic television was Philo T. Farnsworth's invention, the Image Dissector.

Philo T. Farnsworth was born in Beaver Utah and grew up in Rigby Idaho. He became fascinated with electronics from the time that he made his first long distance telephone call. At high school he excelled in chemistry and physics, but although he enrolled at Brigham Young University he was forced to leave to help his mother before he completed his degree. Farnsworth had developed the basic idea of the Image Dissector when he was a 14 year old high school student and completed the first operational tube in 1927 when he was 21. The way the Image Dissector worked is described in a Wikipedia article as follows: The image dissector sees the outside world through a glass lens, which focuses an image through the clear glass wall of the tube onto a special plate which is coated with a layer of caesium oxide. When light strikes caesium oxide, the material emits electrons, somewhat like a mirror that reflects an image made of electrons, rather than light (see photoelectric effect). These electrons are aimed and accelerated by electric and magnetic fields onto the dissector's single electron detector so that only a small portion of the electron image hits the detector at any given moment. As time passes the electron image is deflected back and forth and up and down so that the entire image, portion by portion, can be read by the detector. The output from the detector is an electric current whose magnitude is a measure of brightness at a specific point on the image. The Image Dissector was not a perfect device. It had pure light sensitivity. However it was the idea of scanning that was a major breakthrough. The basic television camera tube until the 1960s was the Image Orthicon Tube, which was a combination of Farnsworth's Image Dissector tube with Vladimir Zworykin's Iconoscope tube (which had great light sensitivity).

Philo T. Farnsworth never got rich from developing the Image Dissector even though it was essential in creating the Image Orthicon Tube, largely because he ran into David Sarnoff of RCA and NBC. In 1930 Sarnoff sent Vladimir Zworykin who was working with Westinghouse but would soon be employed by RCA, to spend three days at Farnsworth's lab under false pretenses. Zworykin was so impressed with Farnsworth's work that he integrated it into his own without acknowledging Farnsworth's patents. Farnsworth sought royalty payments from RCA at which point Sarnoff reportedly said "RCA doesn't pay royalties, we collect them." The RCA claim was that Zworykin had patented his Iconoscope in 1923 and this superceded Farnsworth's 1926 patents. However RCA was unable to prove that Zworykin's device produced "an operable television transmitter" and Farnsworth was able to produce evidence - including a drawing he had made for his high school science teacher when he was 15 - that proved that he had the idea first. Farnsworth's claims were upheld in 1934 but Sarnoff (who was really one of the last great robber barons) continued to fight in the courts over specific details for a number of years. Farnsworth would eventually sell his television patents to RCA for $1 million. Most television cameras until at least the 1960s used at least six of Farnsworth's patents.

Unfortunately Farnsworth's later life was plagued by deteriorating health, depression, and financial setbacks although he continued to invent. He served as a Vice President of research at ITT from 1949 until the early 1960s and worked on fusion research both at ITT and at a company he established himself, Philo T. Farnsworth Associates. He died in 1971 of emphysema at age 64, shortly after his company went into bankruptcy due to lack of financing.

What did Philo T. Farnsworth think of his child, Television? His youngest son Kent claimed that his father told him “There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet” but this was apparently not a quote but Kent's summation of his father's feelings on the matter (Zworykin apparently held similar feelings: "I hate what they've done to my child...I would never let my own children watch it."). And his views may have changed a bit after one special event, the moon landing. According to a 1996 interview with Farnsworth's widow Elma (Pem) done by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences "We were watching it, and, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Phil turned to me and said, 'Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.' Before then, he wasn't too sure."

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