Part One: This Place Has Electricity!

by Paul Schatzkin

The story of television begins in Rigby, Idaho in the spring of 1919, as a small wagon train reaches the crest of a hill overlooking a humble, turn-of-the-century homestead. The family of Lewis and Serena Farnsworth has arrived at their new home, after an arduous journey over the mountains from their native Utah.

Philo T Farnsworth Birthplace Seated at the reins of one of the three covered wagons was the oldest child, Philo, age 11 and named after his grandfather, who came west with BrighamYoung. As the boy surveyed the scene before him he noticed one detail which th erest of the family missed: on the farm below, he could see wires nunning between the different buildings and shouted excitedly, "This place has electricity!"

With this discovery, the family left the ridge and began their descent into a new life on the frontier of the Twentieth Century. Little Philo was about to come face-to-face for the first time with the mysterious force he had only read about in books ,that invisible power that could drive great machines and turn darkness into light. Though he was about to encounter electricity for the first time at age 11, he would prove to be one of the great masters of that mysterious force before he was 21.

A few weeks after his arrival in Rigby,Philo had figured out all by himself what made the electrical system work. Lewis Farnsworth realized that his son had a natural affinity for the system when Philo stepped in one day to repair the disabled generator while all the adults stood around wondering what had gone wrong. Thus, the boy-electrician became officially installed as the chief engineer of the Farnsworth farm, and the electrical system became his own very special domain.

With encouragement from his father, Philo found a dozen new uses for his invisible friend. He built motors from spare partsand used them to run his mother's washin gmachine and some of the farm machines.The time he saved by automating these chores he spent thinking about better things. In the attic above the house, Philo created his own world to explore electricity in whatever books or journals his father could afford. The loft became his hide-away, where with each succeeding page, his imagination was fired by stories of science and the modern day sorcerers who unraveled its mysteries. To Philo, inventors of all kinds seemed to possess a special power that allowed them to see deep into the mysteries of nature and use her secrets to ease the burden for allmankind. He confided in his father his own heart's desire: that he, too, had been born an inventor.

Rigby High School In the fall of 1921, Philo entered high school as a freshman but soon found the material too dull, and cajoled his way into the senior chemistry class. When even that advanced course proved inadequate for the youngster's thirst, the chemistry teacher, a bespectacled and slightly passed- middle-age gentleman named Justin Tolman, took extra time after class each day to tutor his young prodigy. It became quickly apparent to Tolman that he was tutoring perhaps the smartest student he would ever meet in his life.

One cold night in January, 1922, Philo was particularly anxious to finish his chores after school and hurry back to the books and magazines in his attic hideaway. As he turned the pages, he stumbled upon an article about something very new: "Pictures That Could Fly Through the Air." The writer described an electronic magi ccarpet, a marriage of radio and movies, that would carry far-off worlds into the home in simultaneous sight and sound. Philo was instantly captivated by the idea. He reread the article several times, convinced that he had stumbled onto a problem that he was uniquely equipped to solve.

When Philo determined to learn everything he could about the subject, he stepped into a Jules-Vernian world where scientists were trying to convert light int oelectricity with the aid of whirling discs and mirrors. Farnsworth realized right away that those discs and mirrors would never whirl fast enough to transmit a coherent image, and searched for a device that could travel at the speed of light itself. He found the solution in his invisible new friend, the electron.

Philo, age 13 While the great minds of science, financed by the biggest companies in the world, wrestled with 19th century answers to a 20th century problem, Philo T. Farnsworth, age 13, was chained to a horse-drawn harvesting machine, crisscrossing the fields endlessly, row by row, harvesting the crops and dreaming about television to relieve the monotony. As the open summer sun blazed down on him, a daring idea fermented in this boy's brain: He dreamed of trapping light in an empty jar and transmitng it one-line-at-a-time on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons.

This principle still forms the heart of modern television.Though the essence of the idea is extraordinarily simple, it eluded the most prominent scientists of the day. Yet here it had crystallized in the mind of a 13-year-old boy.

It seems quite unlikely that an unknown boy with little education, no money, and no equipment could steal the race from the greatest electrical companies in the world, but that is precisely what Farnsworth set out to do. His father advised Philo not to discuss his idea with anyone. Ideas, he reasoned, were too valuable and fragile, and could be pirated easily. But Philo had to talk to someone he needed to hear from somebody besides his father that his idea would work

Late one afternoon in March of 1922, Justin Tolman was startled to see a complicated array of electrical diagrams scattered across the blackboard in his classroom. At the front of the room stood his gangling young prodigy, chalking in the last few figures of the last equation and turning to his teacher.

Blackboard Sketch "What has this got to do with Chemisttry?" Tolman asked.

"I've got this idea," Farnsworth calmly replied. "I've got to tell you about it because you're the only person I know who can understand it." The boy paused and took a deep breath. "This is my idea for electronic television."

"Television?" Tolman said, "What's that?"

Farnsworth spent many hours with Tolman elaborating upon his idea. Weeks later, when the semester ended, both Farnsworth and Tolman were convinced that the scheme would work. Neither one would venture a guess when or how he could get a chance to prove it .

Hard times forced the family to leave the farm in Rigby in 1923 for more fertile soil near Provo, Utah. Philo's father found work hauling freight over the mountains in mule-driven wagons.

Philo employed the same tenacity that had marked his career in high school in order to be admitted as a special freshman to Bringham Young University. With the vast resources of a major university at his disposal, he did his own private research about cathode ray tubes and vacuum tubes. Still, with no money at his command there was little he could do to build an operative model of the device that he could see so clearly in his mind's eye

Lewis Farnsworth On one of his jobs just before Christmas 1923, Lewis Farnsworth was caught in a violent snowstorm and contracted pneumonia. Philo was beckoned to his father's death bed and charged with the responsility for taking care of the family. Now calling himself "Phil" (the onslaught of manhood had compelled him to start using a more conventional spelling of his name) he was forced to leave BYU and take whatever jobs he could find. The likelihood of developing his television ideas seemed remote at best.

The Farnsworth family moved into half of a two family house in Provo. The other half of the house was occupied by the Gardner family. Cliff, the oldest of the Gardner boys, was nearly the same age as Philo and since the two boys shared a common interest in radio and things electrical, they became close friends.

Along with two brothers, Cliff's family included six daughters. The prettiest of them was Elma --everyone called her Pem-- who was only a year younger than Phil.

Phil & Pem What time Farnsworth had to himself in the following months he spent with Pem. It soon became apparent to both that they were meant to spend their lives with each other. Phil proposed to Pem on her birthday in February, 1926, but their youth and the uncertainty of their lives forced them to postpone setting a wedding date.

Phil and his future brother-in-law, Cliff, both subscribed to a correspondence course in Radio maintenance, and in the spring of 1926 the two boys ventured off to Salt Lake City to start their own business installing and repairing radios.

Unfortunately, in what was perhaps a precursor of things to come, Farnsworth's first attempt at running his own business did not fare well Out of desperation, Phil told Cliff that he was thinking about writing up his television ideas and submitting them to Popular Science Magazine. He thought that he might be able to make $100 if he worked it right. Cliff was familiar with Phil's daring ideas and shocked that he would consider disclosing them so publicly. He cautioned Phil that publishing might be a mistake he would regret. So Cliff returned to Provo and Phil signed up with the University of Utah placement service in hopes that they might find him work.

End of Part One

Continue with :

Part 2: The Daring of This Boy's Mind!

 


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