Part 11: "Tears in His Eyes"

by Paul Schatzkin


Prologue to the Conclusion:

Sometime in 1927....

One night, going home on the ferry, Phil led me out on the deserted back deck. The sky was clear for San Francisco, and the stars were brilliant. Phil put an arm around me as shelter from the ever­present wind. Looking skyward, he asked if I thought there was life out there.

"I haven't thought much about it," I confessed.

"Don't you think it pretty egotistical to think that we, on this tiny planet we call Earth, are the only intelligent creatures in this immense universe?"

"Now that I think about it, I guess it is."

"I think there are beings out there who have far surpassed us in development, mentally and otherwise. I intend to take an expedition out there some day and find them."

"That sounds very ambitious to me."

"It is ambitious. We would need a carefully picked group of people, hopefully couples, each well trained in some phase of science or medicine. The spaceship would have to be large enough to be entirely self­sufficient. We would take animals for food and grow our own vegetables in hydroponic gardens, because we would be gone for a very long time. In fact, it might be up to our children or even our grandchildren to bring the ship back."

"You keep saying "we"; I hope you aren't expecting me to go along."

"I had hoped you would. I hate to think of going anywhere without you." I was glad he felt that way. Certainly, if he left this earth, I didn't want to be left behind.

"I get goose bumps just thinking about it, but when it comes right down to it, I'd rather die with you in space than live on earth without you."

"That's my girl. I knew I could count on you. Anyway, we have much to do before we could take on such a project-it may take longer than we think to get television to the commercial stage."

"Trust you to think big."

from Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on the Invisible Frontier
by Elma G. (Pem) Farnsworth

And now.... the conclusion...


It took nearly two years to hammer out the details of the deal that would put Farnsworth in the electronics manufacturing business. George Everson and other officers of the company spent most of that time in New York, working closely with Kuhn, Loeb, and other Wall Street contacts, while Philo monitored the progress from the lab in Philadeiphia, where he had picked up the new work that preoccupied him when the lab gang was fired.

The deal began to take shape when Kuhn, Loeb learned of a plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that was being sold as part of the liquidation of the Capehart Company, once regarded as the most elegant name in automatic record changers and jukeboxes. The company slid into bankruptcy when one of its most expensive mechanisms developed a habit of breaking the records it was supposed to change.

Once Capehart's creditors accepted the Farnsworth offer, other components of the deal began to fall into place, and new faces began to play an increasingly important role in Farnsworth's life. Curiously enough, many of the men who joined Farnsworth as executives of the new company were defectors from RCA. For men like E. A. Nicholas, who left a lucrative post as a marketing manager with RCA to accept the position of president in the new company, the move provided opportunities that could never exist at RCA so long as David Sarnoff remained in command.

Though the move presented obvious risks, Nicholas felt that they were justified, since working with Farnsworth presented him with a chance to build from the ground up an enterprise that could conceivably rival his former employer.

Early Farnsworth TV As much as ironing out the business affairs of his company was now the province of financiers, so too the remaining technical chores were the province of engineers and product designers. As an inventor, Farnsworth thrived on the more rarefied atmosphere of conceptual research, where an invention is not so much an end in itself as a way of proving something, in order to advance the theoretical base of scientific knowledge.

At the laboratory, Farnsworth engaged himself in taking a mental inventory of all the work he was doing in hopes of resuming where he left off, once things were rolling in Fort Wayne. In the meantime, he spent a good deal of time with Pem and Cliff and his wife, Lola, trout fishing in streams from the Carolinas to Maine.

Both Cliff and Pem felt that Phil needed the rest, for he had never fully regained his health since the debilitating days after his second trip to Europe in 1936. He never seemed to exhibit quite the same vitality of years before, and especially since the firing, he was tense and edgy and found it quite difficult to relax. Forever the man possessed by his work, Phil was reticent about spending so much of his time on the end of a fish pole. Still, with the realization that there was not much to do until the lab was set up in Fort Wayne he decided to take off and spend sometime with his wife and family. To his pleasant surprise, he found that fishing put him in just the right frame of mind for the time, and presented an unhampered opportunity to reflect at length on what had transpired during his many years in the field of science.

It was during these fishing trips in 1938­39 that Farnsworth began seriously thinking about what should come next. After nearly 10 years of devotion to a single pursuit, his internal compass seemed to tell him that it was time to do something different.

After one of their fishing trips in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Trail, Phil and Pem stopped in Brownsville, Maine to look in on a property that George Everson had acquired in a foreclosure deal during the depression. The house was a little run down, but Phil became instantly captivated by the place and wasted no time burning up the wires to San Francisco, asking George to sell enough of his stock so that he could buy the 80 acre farm.

In the ensuing months, the Farnsworths returned to Maine several times, and Phil began devising big plans for the place. In the back of his mind, he began building the nest in which he would begin the next phase of his life.

All the contracts and notes that would finalize the plans first outlined in Farnsworth's living room were ready to be ratified in March 1939, and comprised, in George Everson's words, "a volume somewhat thicker than the New York telephone directory."

Among other things the papers included provisions for floating $3,000,000 worth of Farnsworth stock for the purchase of the Capehart facilities and for initial operating capital for the new corporation.

The papers were held in abeyance for weeks, while 'he Wall Street people waited for weak market conditions to subside before floating their issue. When the market stiffened, March 31 was set as the closing date. In the final moments before closing, everyone involved knew that the slightest last minute failure could bring the carefully planned deal toppling down on them. When the documents were all signed, George was handed a check for $3,000,000, and the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation was open for business.

The following day Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

Phil and Pem stayed in Maine while the Philadelphia lab was crated and hauled to Indiana. Meanwhile, new pages in the history of television were written every day, and public interest in the imminent arrival of the new medium continued to intensify.

The 1939 World's Fair

In a display that was designed both to capitalize on the public's curiosity and lend historical credence to the event, David Sarnoff arrived at the opening of the New York World's Fair on April 30, 1939. His entourage included Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became the first President of the United States to appear on television in a ceremony staged especially for the benefit of RCA's television cameras.
In his opening remarks, Sarnoff announced the opening of an epoch: "Now we add sight to sound," he proclaimed, though there was no mention of any of the individuals who were directly responsible for that accomplishment. The event was televised to an audience on the fairgrounds, and was broadcast to a handful of receivers in the New York area.

Later that week, television receivers went on sale in limited quantities at a few department stores in New York. These first commercial sets used the 441 line/30 frame standard proposed to the FCC by the Radio Manufacturers Association, a group that numbered virtually ail major contenders in the marketplace. Other companies announced that they would soon be selling receivers as well. The industry was anxious to follow RCA's plunge. ignoring the FCC's delay on formalization of signal standards, they also overlooked the FCC's denial of licenses for anything other than the experimental use of television.

Not even the mighty RCA had permission to sell commercial time to advertisers to support television broadcasting. Sarnoff wanted the World's Fair opening to go down in history as the arrival date for commercial television. Knowledgeable observers regarded the event in more sanguine terms: rather than opening the market for commercial television, the event only signaled the beginning of another phase of experimentation, one in which the public would be allowed to participate through the availability of a handful of receivers. Television's commercial payoff was still years away. Fortune Magazine published a broad assessment of television to coincide with the Fair opening, which described the new medium as Sarnoff's "Thirteen Million Dollari "IF."

Meanwhile, RCA and Farnsworth were still at loggerheads in their negotiations for a patent license that would permit RCA to put its market power behind Philo's invention. RCA had already conceded that it was not possible to produce electronic video without employing techniques that were covered by Farnsworth's patents. That portfolio included all phases of electronic scanning and synchronization, electrostatic and magnetic focusing, electron multiplication, the saw-tooth wave, blacker-than­black horizontal blanking-in short, all the fundamentals of manipulating electrons to send pictures through the air. By 1939 Farnsworth had obtained more than 100 patents. But RCA was still unwilling to pay Farnsworth a continuing royalty for the use of his patents.

The negotiations bogged down when RCA proposed a clever variation of its now­familiar trading philosophy. Instead of paying a continuing royalty, RCA proposed to pay all the royalties in advance, and then proceeded to insist on a rather meager figure-something in the low six figures. Farnsworth's lawyers flatly rejected the proposal and sent RCA back to the drawing boards.

Employees of Farnswsorth Television and Radio Shortly after the opening of the World's Fair, Philo and his family moved to Indiana where he assumed his position as Vice President and Director of Research for Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation. Despite his own misgivings about assuming such a role, Farnsworth became actively involved in assembly line engineering and product design.

It wasn't long, however, before his mind went back to the subjects with which he was preoccupied earlier. Once again his mind ventured toward the unknown. Product engineering became tedious and boring, but he considered it part of his personal obligation to finish what he had started. So he spent most of his days working with engineers at the plant, and his evenings working over the ideas and equations that had always been his primary interest.

The final chapter

The final chapter in the struggle for television was written in December of 1939 in a conference room high above the sidewalks of Rockefeller Center. A handful of relative strangers were assembled to finalize the long­awaited cross­license between RCA and Farnsworth.

Ironically, none of the principals in the story were present. Neither Sarnoff, Zworykin, nor Farnsworth. Instead, the transaction was conducted by lawyers for both sides, who had included in the agreement a historic precedent: after Donald Lippincott, Farnsworth's longtime patent attorney, authorized the agreement. Otto S. Schairer, RCA's vice president in charge of patents, sat down to affix his signature to the first contract that ever required RCA to pay patent royalties to another company.

Legend has it that Mr. Schairer had tears in his eyes as he signed the document.

The importance of the occasion was accompanied by very little fanfare. It passed virtually unnoticed except within the industry. It is understandable that RCA was not particularly anxious to publicize the terms of the agreement, lest the industry be given the impression that RCA was handing out licenses and royalties for the asking. To the contrary, RCA's capitulation to Farnsworth strengthened the company's resolve that such a license would never happen again.

If television was just around the corner-as David Sarnoff started saying back i n 1936-then the corner turned out to be World War II, which provided the sort of economic and technical mobilization necessary to support television on a large scale. Development of most domestic communications-including television-was suspended during the war as the electronics industry geared its assembly lines to produce radar equipment and military communications gear. When the war ended, those factories converted easily to producing television receivers, which the commodity starved public was eager to buy in mounting numbers.

The remainder of Farnsworth's life could fill another volume. This one ends at the point where the inventor and his first invention begin to travel separate paths.

While the public became preoccupied with an invention that had first appeared 20 years earlier, the inventor was now projecting his own imagination 20 years farther into the future.

Even as the RCA license was being finalized, Farnsworth was drawing up plans for new lines of research which he first proposed to the Board of Directors of Farnsworth Television and Radio in the summer of 1940. The Board rejected his proposals, saying that the company was too involved in gearing up for mass production of televisions to devote arty resources toward unrelated research.

Philo sympathized with the Board's point of view, but he could not go back to fitting all the tubes into a cabinet and reducing the number of knobs. In the spring of 1940 he packed his jourrials and retreated to the pastoral isolation of his farm in Maine. Almost the moment he arrived he started pacing out the foundation of a laboratory he was going to build adjacent to the house, which served as his private retreat throughout WWII.

Farnsworth Television and Radio did quite well on defense contracts during the war, and seemed to be in an excellent position to capitalize on the market for television receivers that was booming after the war. But clumsy management caused the company to falter. Farnsworth returned to Fort Wayne in 1948 in hopes that his presence might keep the company solvent, but even he was surprised when he learned the true severity of the company's position.

Ironically, the company lost its footing at just the time that demand for its principal product was beginning to soar. The company was sold to International Tele phone and Telegraph in 1949 for an exchange of stock, and Farnsworth Television and Radio disappeared from the New York Stock Exchange.

Portrait of Farnsworth Farnsworth remained in Fort Wayne until 1967, when he resigned from his position with ITT and moved back to Salt Lake City, where he died in March, 1971.

In its obituary on March 12, the New York Times described Philo T. Farnsworth as as "a reserved, slender, quiet and unassuming man tirelessly absorbed in his work. At the age of 31 he was rated by competent appraisers as one of the 10 greatest living mathematicians."

In the course of the past two centuries, many names have been associated with the inventing of television - Nipkow, Baird, Jenkins, Zworykin, and dozens of others. None of these names would be remembered today if Philo Farnsworth hadn't breathed life into the dream that obsessed them all. Recalling Farnsworth's place in the process provides a point of demarcation between the dream of sending pictures through the air and the reality that now occupies living rooms around the world.

Television seemed like a logical extension of all the technological developments that preceded it. Modern communications began with the telegraph and the telephone. Radio made it all wireless, and film made it possible to record images. Television was the long­awaited, much anticipated culmination of these developments. Early attempts to transmit images tried to use existing technology. The leap from photomechanical processes to magnetic deflection and electron scanning, however, was not a matter of mechanics, but of theory; not a matter of degree but a full order of magnitude.

Farnsworth's direct involvement in the development of television dropped off after 1940, largely because of his interest in moving on to higher levels of theoretical research. Nevertheless, he always kept a watchful eye on his brainchild as it swept across the nation and the world. Although he was absorbed in his own work in the 50's and 60's he saw enough of commercial broadcasting to be disappointed in what he viewed. He felt that the medium's more constructive applications had been neglected, and wondered aloud at times if all the energy he spent on television was worth the effort.

Such uncertainty ended in July, 1969 when Philo and Pem sat in their living room in Salt Lake City and watched in awe as the first blurry pictures flickered down to Earth from the surface of the moon. They smiled knowingly at each other when the near-speechless Walter Cronkite regained his composure long enough to comment that, amazing as the lunar landing itself was, even more amazing was the fact that the entire world witnessed the event on television.

Man on the Moon - 1969 That night, Philo's invention turned one man's lunar stroll into an expression of global awakening, a moment in which the entire planet became involved in the unfolding of its own evolution. For Philo Taylor Farnsworth, the event provided a long-absent moment of personal triumph which erased any doubts about the value of his contribution. Just seeing with his own eyes that his invention made it possible for the entire world to witness those historic steps was enough to make him turn to his wife and say:

"This has made it all worthwhile."


The End


Farnsworth & While this is the final installment of The Farnsworth Chronicles, it is hardly the end of the story. It is really only the end of what those of us familiar with Farnsworth's life like to call "Chapter 1" of an epic that continues well into the latter half of the 20th century.

After he finished his contributions to television, Farnsworth went on to even more rarified realms of scientific research. Specifically, he spent the 1950's and 60's developing a radical approach to nuclear fusion, the holy grail of modern scientific exploration.

Based on a phenomenon he observed in his "Multipactor Tube" -- an amplifier tube he developed in the 1930's to boost the weak signal from his Image Dissector tubes -- Farnsworth developed an approach to fusion that -- like his approach to television -- was radical, elegant, and astonishing. The results he produced, as measured by something called "neutron counts," far exceeded anything that any other researchers in the field have ever come close to. Unfortunately, his approach was SO radical that funding was hard to come by, and Farnsworth took the secrets to his grave when he died in 1971.

Click here to read more about "Chapter 2" in the Life of Philo T. Farnsworth

If you would like to share any comments about this story with its author, please follow this link to the guestbook. If you would like to share your thoughts in a public forum, follow this link to the Philo Message Center.

Finally, those of you who would like to learn more about Farnsworth should consider obtaining a copy of Pem Farnsworth's biography Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on the Invisible Frontier. The book can be ordered directly from the Official Philo T. Farnsworth Archives website


There are a number of supplemental installments
you might also like to read:

Restoring Philo's Place In History
-- 0bserving the 50th Anniversary of the First Video Transmission

TeeVee Honors Its Patron Saint
Farnsworth's appearance on the 1950s TV game show,
"I've Got a Secret"

 

"Who Invented What and When"
a detailed assessment of the historical record of the origins of electronic television

 

 


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