Part 6: Nothing Here We'll Need

by Paul Schatzkin

Perplexing as the Zworykin visit was, the matter was set aside when the Bell Labs announced that they had discovered a new form of cesium with a higher photo electric output than the formula that Farnsworth was using. Farnsworth was worried about the low output of his photoelectric surfaces, and the new cesium sounded like something that would noticeably improve the performance of the Image Dissector. Phil went East to see if the new substance would be useful.

While Phil was out of town, George Everson received an unexpected request for a visit to the Farnsworth labs: David Sarnoff wanted to see Farnsworth's invention for himself.

It is unclear why a man with Sarnoff's preoccupations would seek out an obscure address clear across the country; perhaps he felt that if there was anything important on Farnsworth's bench, then his own presence would be sufficient to execute an incisive deal on his own terms. It seems more likely that he could no longer suppress his own intense curiosity, that he went to San Francisco to see something that he could not see anywhere else in the world.

Once inside the lab, Sarnoff looked all around to get his bearings, but as the system hummed to life, his gaze settled on the face of the receiver. Sarnoff studied the image with the chilling silence of a man who had confronted his own chosen future. It was startling enough that he was seeing true television for the first time; what concerned Sarnoff more was that he had expected to see it first under his own roof.

When he had seen all that he needed to see, Sarnoff drew Everson aside and quietly offered to buy the entire enterprise for an unthinkable figure, something on the order of $100,000. Sarnoff insisted however that the deal include the services of Mr. Philo Farnsworth. George assured Sarnoff that such a deal was not possible .

"Well, then," Sarnoff said, confidently dismissing the entire matter, "there's nothing here we'll need." With that, Sarnoff quickly departed, before George could ask him why he'd offered $100,000 if he didn't really need it.

The Farnsworth company found an established ally on more favorable terms in the Spring of 1931, when the Philco Radio Corporation in Philadelphia, PA became their first bonafide licensee. Philco was a respectable firm that did a fair share of the radio business during the Twenties for which they paid the usual patent royalties to RCA. Still Philco survived on the periphery of the "Radio Trust," in which large companies like RCA, AT&T and General Electic all pooled their patents. Perhaps hoping to surmount this junior partner status in the big leagues of radio, Philco agree to pick up me tab for Farnsworth's ongoing research. In exchange, Farnsworth agreed to move his entire operation to Philadelphia to get Philco started in the television business.

The job of breaking Philco into television was supposed to take six months. Pem hated the idea of leaving their new house in San Francisco, but Phil eased her anxiety by assuring her that they would be back in San Francisco in the fall.

The lab in Philadelphia was very different from the familiar home-spun loft of San Francisco. The delicate necessities of life under the wing of a large corporation presented quite a change for the Farnsworth lab gang. Among the starch-collared, book-educated Philco engineers, Phil and his boys were regarded as mavericks, a gang of crazy cowboys from California. Patience often wore thin, as when the intense summer heat turned Farnsworth's uninsulated top floor lab into a virtual oven. On one extremely uncomfortable day. Phil and his men abandoned protocol, and their ties and shirts, a circumstance which drove the well-heeled executives downstairs to a point of hysteria.

Despite the difficulties of adjusting to their new environment, the lab gang continued to perfect Phil's invention. The image rendered in Farnsworth's tubes improved steadily as the work continued, emerging as you might expect from a crystal ball -- first misty and blurred, slowly focusing, the haze burning off until the picture seems to jump out of the screen vivid and real as life itself. Six months turned into two years.

In that time, Farnsworth obtained an experimental license from the FCC to conduct over-the-air television transmissions. He set up a prototype receiver in his home, and little Philo III became the first charter member of the "television generation." His usual program diet consisted of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Steamboat Willy" which ran over and over again through the film chain at the laboratory several miles away. While little Philo watched, his father and the engineers at Philco made adjustments and tuned the circuits.

The problems that worried Farnsworth the most involved the sensitivity of the Image Dissector tube. He devoted a lot of his time and money into testing new materials for the photoelectric surface. In the back of his own mind, Phil was devising a radical new way of boosting the power of the feeble output. He was interested in an electrical phenomenon called "secondary emissions," and was certain he could find a way to make some use of this effect. But his thinking, which was ordinarily original and accurate, was distracted by other matters.

Phil realized that the original agreement had dragged on much longer than intended when Philco began to "manage" his research budget. It was clear that Philco had grown tired of paying all the bills without owning any of the patents, and suddenly it dawned on him that Philco and McCargar must have been renegotiating the arrangement behind his back.

But all of his troubles with Philco took a back seat when a personal tragedy struck the Farnsworth family. In the winter of 1932 Phil and Pem's second son, Ken, was stricken with a virulent case of strept throat and died, these being the days before penicillin and sulfa drugs. The anguished parents arranged to have their child buried in Salt Lake City and Phil informed his superiors at Philco that he would need time off to accompany his wife to the funeral. Philco flatly refused Phil's request for a short leave of absence. They claimed that "he was too essential to their investment and could not be spared." And so Pem was forced to make the tearful trip to Utah alone.

This insensitive treatment convinced Farnsworth that he could no longer depend on either McCargar or Philco to protect his interests. His suspicion became so intense that he felt compelled to stop taking notes in his journal, so that no one at Philco could claim that they owned any new work that he described in his notes. Consequently, he was forced to work out his complex amplification ideas without the aid of any written records.

When he could stand the strain of a restricted operation no longer, Phil called Jess McCargar in San Francisco and simply told him that he was leaving Philco. McCargar responded with rage.

Regardless of what clever behind-the scenes deal had been killed by Farnsworth's departure, McCargar was less than thrilled by the prospects of peddling stock in a speculative venture in the midst of the Great Depression. Making things even worse, Phil refused to move his lab back to San Francisco as Jess suggested, because he felt that the East Coast was closer to the center of the action.

As the seriousness of Farnsworth's intentions became apparent, McCargar thought that he could discourage Farnsworth by refusing to raise funds, threatening to cut him out altogether. "Where are you gonna get the money?" McCargar's voice crackled over the wires.

But a good inventor, like any good card player, is not easily separated from his principals. "If you can't find the money, then I will," Phil answered firmly and hung up.

No sooner did the line go dead than Jess and George piled onto the transcontinental express and headed for Philadelphia. By the time Jess and George arrived, Farnsworth had already removed what equipment he could from Philco's facility and was looking for a new place to set up shop. The equipment was scattered chaotically about the Farnsworth living room, where George, Phil and Jess assembled in the early Summer of 1933.

When me emotions were all played out and the discussion settled down to business, McCargar agreed to resume raising operating funds so that the job of perfecting Phil's invention could proceed. Phil reluctantly accepted the concessions that McCargar demanded, the most painful of which meant mat Phil would have to pare down his staff. That meant letting go of some of the men who had come with him from San Francisco when the Philco arrangement began. Some of those people had been fired before, in San Francisco, the first time the funds were shut off, when McCargar had first taken over the enterprise. Farnsworth hated to let those people down again. But most everyone agreed to stick it out in Philadelphia until Phil got back on his feet and rehired them again.

Shortly thereafter the venture was reincorporated once again, this time under the name of Farnsworth Television. Phil found a suitable location at 127 East Mermaid Lane, in a suburban neighborhood near Philadelphia, and with the underpaid help of Cliff Gardner and Tobe Rutherford, began rebuilding. Their task was formidable. Most of the important equipment that they needed for their work was the property of Philco and had to be left behind. They were building from scratch again.

This time the system that Farnsworth was building was a far cry from the crude wooden boxes he built back in the days of 202 Green Street. This system incorporated all the ingenious improvements that Phil and his "lab gang" had invented over the years: an electron multiplier coupled to the output of the Image Dissector greatly increased its sensitivity and signal strength; the nagging persistence of smudge and blur was overcome by inventing a new wave form, the now familiar "sawtooth:" a horizontal blanking signal eliminated ghosting; and the magnetic deflection coils improved to the point that camera and picture tube were each producing an impressive 220 lines per frame.

As a result of these and many other patented inventions, the Farnsworth patent portfolio grew rapidly; the stable clarity of the picture that took shape at 127 Mermaid Lane proved that all the work had been worthwhile. Even the cabinetry had taken on the air of precise sophistication that made the advent of full scale commercialization look like just another step away.

Unfortunately for Farnsworth, the Radio Corporation was not so favorably disposed. The competition began intensifying early in 1934, when RCA began demonstrating their own new electronic television system which Zworykin succeeded in producing three years after his visit to Farnsworth's lab.

RCA's praise of Zworykin's contribution was extensive, although parts of his camera device can be traced to work done in Europe by Kalman Tihanyi, J.D. McGee and others. RCA went on to claim that this new camera tube, dubbed the ''Iconoscope" was essentially the same device that Zworykin tried to patent in 1923. RCA stood by this assertion despite the fact that Zworykin worked with spinning discs and mirrors all through the late 20's--right up until the time he visited 202 Green Street.

RCA's praise for Zworykin exceeded the limits of corporate chest-beating when they further claimed that the Iconoscope and the Image Dissector performed the same function in a similar manner. RCA was, in effect, asserting that Zworykin had invented the Image Dissector in 1923, and that Farnsworth was violating Zworykin's priority. To Farnsworth, this was the opening salvo in a barrage of legal maneuvers aimed at crushing the very heart of his work -- the patent portfolio.

As a result, in 1934, the giant Radio Corporation of American and little Farnsworth Television, Inc. became engaged in the same sort of patent interference litigation which had reduced dozens of similar fledgling companies to rubble in the previous decade. David Sarnoff was clearly manuvering to bring Farnsworth's patent portfolio under RCA's domination. In other words, the very art that Sarnoff said he "didn't need," which he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain under his own untenable terms, he would now try to wrestle away through the byazantine procedures of the U.S. Patent Office.

End of Part Six

Continue with:

Part 7: "Suspended Animation"

 

 


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