Milton Berle was known as "Mr. Television" but the father of television is Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was born Aug. 19, 1906 in a log cabin in Beaver, UT.
His family moved to a ranch in Idaho and during his youth he became interested in electricity through a farm lighting system and electric machinery. He was a voracious reader of scientific literature and read about a thing called television. He was also intensely interested in the properties of the electron. At the age of fourteen Farnsworth saw the idea for electronic television in the parallel lines of his father's potato field. He began brainstorming the notion that images could be scanned line by line using electrons to project the image onto a photosensitive surface.
It was years later that he was able to fulfill his dream.
While applying for a job in Salt Lake City he met Leslie Gorrell and George Everson of San Francisco and after learning about television from Farnsworth they agreed to finance the idea. A laboratory was set up in Los Angeles
and in Oct. 1926 with additional financial assistance they established Crocker Research Facilities in San Francisco.
Farnsworth applied for his two basic patents, one for the electronic television camera and one for a compatible reception set. His secret was reported by the Chronicle and picked up by wire services around the world.
David Sarnoff head of RCA at the time was very interested in television. Sarnoff had a strangle-hold on every facet of radio, from the initial patents to the the distribution of programming. In 1930 the Department of Justice charged RCA with using its patent portfolio to restrain competition. Further investigation led to the formation of the FCC. During the 1920s radio grew from a few thousand hobbyists to a regular fixture in most homes. To get a closer look at what Farnsworth had, Sarnoff secretly hired Vladimir Zworykin from Westinghouse to pay Farnsworth a visit. Farnsworth welcomed the visit since he hoped that Westinghouse might license his patents. Zworykin returned to RCA and began trying to reverse engineer what he had seen at Farnsworth's lab. Zworykin had filed for a theoretical patent on television but had no working model. After a year and a $100,000 grant from Sarnoff he still had no working model.
Sarnoff decided to pay Farnsworth a visit himself. Farnsworth was away on business but one of his financial backers, George Everson, agreed to show him around. Sarnoff left with the idea that he could build TV without infringing on Farnsworth's patents but to no avail. Sarnoff offered to buy Farnsworth out for $100,000 but the offer was rejected and considered an insult by Farnsworth's backers even though they were anxious to sell because of the Depression. Farnsworth's rejection brought out the full fury of Sarnoff and he decided to break Farnsworth in patent court. Sarnoff and his team of lawyers started a legal offense with the objective of turning Farnsworth's patents over on appeal. RCA had used this tactic successfully in the past with anyone who developed key radio inventions but refused to deal with them. The legal battle lasted nearly four years and it was another ten months before court examiners came up with a ruling. Farnsworth was the undisputed Inventor of television as we know it today.
Sarnoff may have lost the battle but he intended to win the war. He gathered the top scientists from RCA, Westinghouse, GE, and Victor Talking Machines and by the late 1930s he had an advanced working television system and had never paid Farnsworth a thing in licensing fees. He secured the rights to broadcast the opening ceremony of the 1939 World's Fair and introduced television to millions as a product of RCA. Farnsworth could have sued him but was still hoping to license the rights for producing television to RCA. He ended up selling them a license for $1 million. Farnsworth ended up having a nervous breakdown after years of severe stress. He was hospitalized and bedridden during the early part of WWII.
Television was put on hold as the government banned all nonmilitary electronics manufacturing.
After the war Farnsworth moved his family to Fort Wayne, IN where they began to manufacture television sets.
It was too late for Farnsworth as his key patents expired in 1947, just a few months before the sale of television sets went through the roof. RCA captured 80 percent of the market while Farnworth was forced to sell his assets to ITT. Farnsworth and Sarnoff both died in 1971. Farnsworth was 64, mostly unknown, broke, and severely depressed. Sarnoff was 80, well known and considered a pioneer and a visionary. While watching the moon landing with his wife Pem in 1969 Farnsworth commented that this made it all worthwhile.
Technology Review - September/October 2000
Wired - April 2002