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Fascinating facts about the invention
of the
television by Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927.
In 1921 the 14-year-old Mormon had an idea while working on his father's Idaho farm. Mowing hay in rows, Philo realized an electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal lines, reproducing the image almost instantaneously. This would prove to be a critical breakthrough in Philo Farnsworth's invention of the television in 1927.
Earlier TV devices had been based on an 1884 invention called the scanning disk, patented by Paul Nipkow. Riddled with holes, the large disk spun in front of an object while a photoelectric cell recorded changes in light. Depending on the electricity transmitted by the photoelectric cell, an array of light bulbs would glow or remain dark. Though Nipkow's mechanical system could not scan and deliver a clear, live-action image, most would-be TV inventors still hoped to perfect it.

Not Philo Farnsworth. In 1921 the 14-year-old Mormon had an idea while working on his father's Idaho farm. Mowing hay in rows, Philo realized an electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal lines, reproducing the image almost instantaneously. It would prove to be a critical breakthrough.

But young Philo was not alone. At the same time, Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin had also designed a camera that focused an image through a lens onto an array of photoelectric cells coating the end of a tube. The electrical image formed by the cells would be scanned line-by-line by an electron beam and transmitted to a cathode-ray tube.

Rather than an electron beam, Farnsworth's image dissector device used an "anode finger" -- a pencil-sized tube with a small aperture at the top -- to scan the picture. Magnetic coils sprayed the electrons emitted from the electrical image left to right and line by line onto the aperture, where they became electric current. Both Zworykin's and Philo's devices then transmitted the current to a cathode-ray tube, which recreated the image by scanning it onto a fluorescent surface.

Farnsworth applied for a patent for his image dissector in 1927. The development of the television system was plagued by lack of money and by challenges to Farnsworth's patent from the giant Radio Corporation of America (RCA). In 1934, the British communications company British Gaumont bought a license from Farnsworth to make systems based on his designs. In 1939, the American company RCA did the same. Both companies had been developing television systems of their own and recognized Farnsworth as a competitor. World War II interrupted the development of television. When television broadcasts became a regular occurrence after the war, Farnsworth was not involved. Instead, he devoted his time to trying to perfect the devices he had designed.

Television Patent No. 1,773,981
David Sarnoff, vice president of the powerful Radio Corporation of America, later hired Zworykin to ensure that RCA would control television technology. Zworykin and Sarnoff visited Farnsworth's cluttered laboratory, but the Mormon inventor's business manager scoffed at selling the company -- and Farnsworth's services -- to RCA for a piddling $100,000. So Sarnoff haughtily downplayed the importance of Philo's innovations, saying, "There's nothing here we'll need."

In 1934 RCA demonstrated its "iconoscope," a camera tube very similar to Farnsworth's image dissector. RCA claimed it was based on a device Zworykin tried to patent in 1923 -- even though the Russian had used Nipkow's old spinning disk design up until the time he visited Philo's lab.

The patent wars had truly begun -- and Phil, as the grown-up Farnsworth preferred to be called, was in a bind. He could not license his inventions while the matter was in court, and he wrestled with his backers over control and direction of his own company. The men in Farnsworth's loyal "lab gang" were fired and rehired several times during his financial ups and downs, but retained confidence in Phil. When Farnsworth's financiers refused his request for a broadcasting studio, the inventor and a partner built a studio on their own.

Meanwhile back at RCA, Sarnoff had spent more than $10 million on a major TV R & D effort. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, Sarnoff announced the launch of commercial television -- though RCA's camera was inadequate, and the corporation didn't own a single TV patent. Later that same year, the company was compelled to pay patent royalties to Farnsworth Radio and Television.

By the time World War II began, Farnsworth realized that commercial television's future was in the hands of businessmen -- not a lone inventor toiling in his lab. With his patents about to expire, Phil grew depressed, drunk and addicted to painkillers. In 1949 he reluctantly agreed to sell off Farnsworth Radio and Television.

Philo T. Farnsworth was always an outsider, a bright star blazing in the dawn of a new electronic age. His romance with the electron was a private affair, a celebration of the spirit of the lone inventor.


Philo Taylor Farnsworth Biography   from The Great Idea Finder
Communication History   from The Great Idea Finder
History of Household Items    from The Great Idea Finder

Brainstorm!: The Stories of Twenty American Kid Inventors
by Tom Tucker, Richard Loehle / Paperback - 144 pages  / Sunburst (1998)
The stories of twenty ingenious young Americans who have filed patents with the United States Patent Office, including Chester Greenwood who invented ear muffs, Ralph Samuelson, originator of water-skiing, and Vanessa Hess who created colored car wax.
Popular Patents
by Travis Brown / Paperback - 224 pages / Scarecrow Press (September 1, 2000)
Eighty stories of America's first inventions. Each includes a sketch of the invention, a profile of the inventor and a glimpse of how the invention has found its way into American culture.

TV's Forgotten Hero: The Story of Philo Farnsworth

by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson / Library Binding (October 1996) / Carolrhoda Books
Interestingly reconstructing the drama of Farnsworth's life, McPherson incorporates anecdotes that personalize the precociou
s youth and inventive adult. A generous supply of photographs punctuates a very readable biography.
Please Stand by: A Prehistory of Television

by Michael Ritchie / Paperback (September 1995) / Penguin USA (Paper)
A nostalgic look at the earliest days, 1920-1948, of the medium that would define and change the 20th century. Presents interviews with television inventors, station owners, actors, and crews reliving television firsts such as the first commercial, the first soap opera, and the first sportscast.
The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television
by Evan I. Schwartz / Paperback: 352 pages / Perennial (May 1, 2003)
Vividly written and based on original research, including interviews with surviving Farnsworth family members, The Last Lone Inventor tells the story of the struggle between two utterly mismatched but equally determined adversaries, one a genius inventor and the other, a diabolically clever businessman, and how this fight symbolized a turning point in the culture of innovation.

The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story Of Inspiration, Persistence, And Quiet Passion
by Paul Schatzkin / Paperback: 296 pages / Tanglewood Books (September 30, 2004)
Philo T. Farnsworth, age 14, dreamed of trapping light in an empty jar and transmitting it, one line at a time, on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons. In 1930, Farnsworth was awarded the fundamental patents for modern television.

DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
See how the computing capacity of World-War II era room-sized computers is now surpassed by hand-held devices; visit Zenith to see a side-by-side comparison of regular television and HDTV; discover how a Cold War era NASA program is transforming personal photography, and get the inside story about MP3s.

Television - Window to the World
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
Chronicles the incredible story of television, from the vision of Philo Farnsworth, a Utah farm boy who developed the first working system in 1925, to the technological breakthroughs that are transforming the medium as we head into the 21st century.

The Farnsworth Chronicles
A true and compelling story of the forgotten genius who invented electronic video.
Modern Television
Pilgrimage to the birthplace of Electronic Television.

Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Featured Farnsworth for his invention of the Electronic Television.
National Inventors Hall of Fame
Located at Inventure Place, the online home of creative minds. Philo Farnsworth was inducted in 1984 for his Television System,  Patent Number 1,773,980.

Farnsworth Archives
A listing of the patents issued to Philo Farnsworth at this site dedicated to his memory.
Electrical Engineer - Philo Farnsworth
The key to the television picture tube came to him at 14, when he was still a farm boy, and he had a working device at 21.From Time Magazine: 100 Greatest Scientists & Thinkers Lots of COOKIES.
The American Experience:Big Dreams, Small Screens
Charts the development of TV and the technology behind it. From the PBS series.

Eye of the World: John Logie Baird and Television
Baird's choice of mechanical scanning as the most effective way of achieving true television required the use of spinning discs -- which of financial necessity were made of hatboxes and mounted on a coffin lid. Article by Adrian R. Hills.
Paul Gottlieb Nipkow
In 1884, university student Paul Nipkow of Germany proposed and patented the world's first electromechanical television system.
Vladimir Zworkkin
For his fundamental and crucial work in creating the iconoscope and the kinescope, inventor Vladimir Zworykin is often described as "the father of television".


  • Research tells us that 99% of homes in the US have a television set. Sixty-nine percent have two or more. And, 33% have three or more! Television is a part of our daily culture, and serves as a window to the world for many families and young children.
  • Farnsworth also invented the first cold cathode ray tubes and the first simple electronic microscope.
  • It took the telephone 75 years and television 13 years to acquire 50 million users. It has taken the Internet five years. Today, more than 500 million people around the world are connected to the Internet.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised March 30, 2006.

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