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Story of The Book
Paul Schatzkin with
George Everson in 1975
"Genius is eternal patience."
book has taken more than twenty-five years to finish.
I first heard of Philo T. Farnsworth in
the summer of 1973. I had just graduated from a branch of Antioch College
near Baltimore, where I majored in communications. I was off to California
to seek my fortune in the television industry, when I happened across
the most recent issue of a publication called Radical Software-an obscure
underground periodical that promoted the use of portable video recorders
for social action. Originally published from New York City, this new
issue was published from San Francisco and called the "Videocity"
edition, in homage to the medium's origins. The issue included an elegy
to Farnsworth, "The Electromagnetic
Spectrum Blues" by Max Crosley.
Lamenting the lack of TV coverage of Farnsworth's
death on March 12, 1971, Max wrote:
The electro-magnetic spectrum has the blues,
And not one of you has been unaffected by this man.
THEY OWE IT ALL TO HIM ...but they never said a word.
HE GAVE ALL
As they nothinged him right into nothing.
When Picasso was wildly experimenting with deco cement
THIS MAN WAS DRAWING WITH ELECTRONS,
You all know he went through here,
Whether you know his name or not.
HE RIGHT NOW IS COMMANDING YOUR LIVING ROOM MIND.
Until that chance encounter in the pages of a rather obscure publication,
I had never given the origins of television much thought. But there
was a quality to the illustrations that accompanied the poem, the photos
of the young Farnsworth holding his tubes and standing by a crude wooden
camera box in the 1920s, that filled in a piece of history that I did
not even know was missing.
A few weeks later, rummaging through the
stacks at the Santa Monica library, I stumbled across The Story of Television:
The Life of Philo T. Farnsworth by George Everson. Everson, I learned
from this book, was the man who discovered Farnsworth in 1926, helped
arrange his financing, and remained one of his primary supporters until
the company was restructured in the late 1940s. I read the book quickly,
from cover to cover.
Still later that same summer, my former
college roommate, Tom Klein (now a Hollywood TV producer) and I took
a trip up the Pacific Coast Highway and stopped in Santa Cruz to visit
with a fellow I remember only as "Johnny Videotape"-a pseudonym
he'd adopted for his public-access cable video work. Johnny knew Phil
Geitzen, who had edited the "Videocity" issue of Radical Software,
and Geitzen knew Philo Farnsworth III, the TV inventor's oldest son.
It was through this chain of connections, on a hill overlooking the
Pacific in Santa Cruz in the summer of 1973, that I first heard the
word "fusion." The apocryphal way Johnny Videotape conveyed
the story sent chills through me that has kept me connected to this
story for more than two decades.
For some reason, I guess I've always had
a thing for inventor stories. When my mother was trying desperately
while I was in the third grade to get me to read, she took me to the
library and I picked out a Signature Series biography of Thomas Edison.
The next year, when we all got to pick a character to portray in the
fourth grade play, I chose to play Edison, and attempted to invent the
lightbulb in front of the entire Forrestdale School in Rumson, New Jersey.
Unfortunately, my lightbulb did not work quite as well as Edison's.
But a seed was planted when I read my first book about Edison; a seed
that took root that summer when I stumbled upon these stories of Philo
In the spring of 1975, I'd found work
with Videography, Inc., a small video production house in Hollywood.
I was in charge of promoting the company's computerized video editing
services, and suggested to the owner, Bob Kiger, that we issue a "video
buck" to our prospects, each coupon worth one free hour of editing.
In place of George Washington on our facsimile dollar bill, I suggested
we place a portrait of Philo T. Farnsworth.
"Who is Philo T. Farnsworth,"
Bob asked, half laughing at the name.
I explained, "He's the father of
television ...he invented it ..." and proceeded to lay out the
story I'd read in Everson's book of the farm boy who had dreamed up
"That's a great story," Bob
said, "that would make a great movie for television!"
With that seemingly reasonable suggestion,
I was off on an odyssey that has woven in and out of my life for more
than twenty-five years, which continues even with the completion of
Bob and I (accompanied by my future-ex-wife,
Georja Skinner) tracked down George Everson-by then well into his nineties
but still quite coherent-in the rugged foothills of Mendocino County,
and we acquired an option on his book. From there, we located the Farnsworth
family in Salt Lake City and made similar arrangements for the movie
rights to the then-unfinished book that Farnsworth's widow, Pem, was
researching and writing at the time. We never did get a movie made for
television, but the Farnsworth family has remained a near constant presence
in my life ever since.
The material in this book is drawn largely
from interviews I conducted with Pem Farnsworth and Philo T. Farnsworth
III between July 1975 and September 1977. Those interviews, and supporting
material I dredged up in the stacks of the UCLA Research Library, were
first compiled into the treatment that Bob Kiger and I used in our efforts
to interest the television networks in our project. Bob dropped out
of the project in 1976, but my then-future-ex-wife, Georja Skinner,
and I continued to carry the torch.
In 1977, in concert with the 50th anniversary
of Farnsworth's first successful electronic video experiments, the material
I had gathered was published in another obscure "alternate media"
journal based in Washington, D.C. called TeleVisions. I worked closely
with the editor of that publication, Nick DeMartino, to clean up the
narrative I'd written for the TV treatment to make it suitable for publishing
in four installments through the course of the anniversary year. The
celebration culminated with a re-enactment of Farnsworth's successful
September 7, 1927 experiment that was covered by two of the three major
networks in their nightly newscasts.
The publication of that material in TeleVisions
was the first effort of any consequence to compare the Farnsworth family's
recollections with the existing historical record, much of which had
been dictated over the course of the previous four decades by the public
relations departments of those companies that survived the shakeout
from television's early years. It has been suggested by some observers
that the reclaiming of Philo T. Farnsworth's true legacy began with
the 50th anniversary celebration and the publication of those four installments
It's nice to know that I had some role
in setting the record straight. In the two-and-a-half decades since,
a number of publications and media productions have basically confirmed
and echoed the themes first expressed in those four TeleVisions installments.
Most notable among them is Pem Farnsworth's own book, Distant Vision:
Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier. When it was published
in 1990, Distant Vision culminated fifteen years of Pem's own research
and writing on the subject. I was privileged to work closely with Pem
and her son, Kent Farnsworth, in the completion and publication of that
book, and added substantially to my knowledge of the subject matter
as a result of that experience. I recommend Pem's book to any reader
who desires a more intimate, firsthand interpretation of the material
contained in the pages of The Boy Who Invented Television.
Another volume that is indispensable for
any serious student of Farnsworth's life is Philo T. Farnsworth: Father
of Television, written by Dr. Donald Godfrey, a professor at the Walter
Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University
of Arizona, and published in 2001. Godfrey's book is the most extensively
researched and documented volume on the subject of Philo T. Farnsworth
yet published, and sets the standard for journalistic excellence by
which all future efforts must be judged. I was pleased that Dr. Godfrey
saw fit to draw a little bit from the material I had published some
twenty years earlier. His scholarly research largely confirms the stories
I first wrote about in the 1970s.
I have taken the liberty of drawing on
both of these works in the rewriting of my original treatment for this
book. Wherever I have used direct quotations and excerpts from these
books, as well as others, I have included reference notes. In doing
so, I wish to recognize to the scholarship displayed by these authors,
who have likewise acknowledged my own earlier contributions. I would
like to think that my work stands on the shoulders of theirs, and by
so doing extends the thematic reach of all the material now in circulation,
which gets to the heart of the real issues that shaped the life of Philo
T. Farnsworth, his successes and his shortcomings.
I never met Philo Farnsworth II, the inventor
recalled in these pages. He died two years before I ever heard his name.
I did, however, become very close to his oldest son, Philo T. Farnsworth
III. Much of my understanding of the broader themes that challenged
the elder Philo I absorbed during the time that I was privileged to
spend with "P3" in the late 1970s. Philo III was cut from
the same cloth as his father, but lived his life in a manner much like
a mirror image. Philo III was a reluctant inventor in his own right,
reluctant because of what he had seen the process of invention do to
his father. From his experience, I came to understand the eternal clash
between invention and industrial capitalism, and the impact that had
on the health, wealth, and well-being of both father and son.
In 1987 Philo III left this world through
the same dark corridor that accounted for many of the detours in his
father's life. I sorely miss him. But I am fortunate that much of the
time we shared together was recorded on audiotape. I returned to those
tapes during the rewriting of this book and discovered a rich vein of
material that had been necessarily overlooked in the original preparation
of what at the time was a movie treatment. Listening to the interviews
I conducted with Philo III and Pem during the seventies was like opening
a time capsule. Where Pem provided most of the "play by play"
based on her personal recollections of the events she experienced with
her husband, Philo III provided all the "color commentary."
His attitudes, philosophies, vocabulary, and vision infuse practically
every paragraph of this text. Given the similarities of his character
to that of his father, I would like to think that this book is how the
story might have come across had his father had the opportunity-or the
desire-to tell it himself.
Wherever possible, the stories in these
pages are conveyed precisely as Pem and Philo III relayed them to me.
I have cross-referenced their accounts with my own additional research
and the work of Godfrey, Everson, and others, always striving to provide
as much reliable historical accuracy as possible. It has always been
important to me to create a narrative based on fact, with as little
"documentary bio-drama" as possible. I don't want readers-or
viewers, if ever there is a movie made-to sit and wonder if a particular
scene really happened. I have tried not to invent scenes or storylines.
All the scenes portrayed in this book really happened, to the extent
that memory and ancient texts can reliably recall. I have taken the
liberty of embellishing some scenes with suggestions of dialog and action,
but the scenes themselves are derived from first or secondhand accounts
of the actual events.
My own material languished in the years after its first
publication in 1977. A second effort at organizing a feature film or
movie for television after the publication of Pem's book suffered the
same fate as the first effort in the 1970s. Then in 1995, as the Internet
started bubbling into consciousness, I started an Internet business.
I remember waking up one Saturday morning in 1995, the week after I'd
purchased a flatbed scanner, thinking, "Hey, I can put all my Philo
stuff on the Web!" Over the course of the next two years, I serialized
my original text and published it online as The Farnsworth Chronicles
(http://farnovision.com). I'm pleased that the site has received tens
of thousands of visitors, and that the legacy of Farnsworth's contribution
to our daily lives has spread via this new medium, which is also predicated
in part on his contribution.
It is no exaggeration to say that it has
taken twenty-five years to write this book. When I first met the Farnsworths
in 1975, and for many years thereafter, the family was quietly reluctant
to talk much about Farnsworth's fusion work. It was not until I worked
with Pem on the completion of Distant Vision in 1989 and '90 that some
of the compelling details of those years began to surface. Still, there
was not enough to effectively trace the arc of events and ideas that
truly tell the story of this man's life and struggles.
An unexpected benefit rose out of the
material I posted to the Web in 1998, when I created an online discussion
board (http://fusor.net) and discovered that there is a small number
of individual enthusiasts around the world who are experimenting with
the work Farnsworth left unfinished in the 1960s. From the online discussions,
I encountered Richard Hull, a "high energy" amateur experimenter
from Richmond, Virginia, who has done his own extensive research into
Farnsworth's last twenty years.
Richard's interest in fusion is equal
to mine, and he had interviewed many of Farnsworth's co-workers from
the fifties and sixties when our paths crossed. In the summer of 2001,
I joined Richard for some follow-up interviews with Farnsworth's fusion
team, which provided further insight into what was really going on at
the Pontiac Street lab in Fort Wayne. In the past two years I have also
found Pem and Kent Farnsworth much more willing to discuss Phil's fusion
experiments. Thus, it has only recently become possible to reconstruct
Farnsworth's last decade in such a way that much of the mystery surrounding
his fusion work can be stripped away.
There are still many unanswered questions
about the Fusor, and just what really happened while Farnsworth was
with ITT. On the one hand, nobody can say for certain that the Fusor
was ultimately capable of producing a self-sustaining fusion reaction
or delivering a practical power plant. On the other hand, nobody can
say for certain that it was not. What we do know is that the political
and financial obstacles that Farnsworth faced were at least as daunting
as the technical obstacles, if not more so.
Richard Hull has graciously allowed me
to use here some of the material he has gathered, without which it would
be impossible to complete the arc of the Farnsworth story that appears
in these pages. Thanks to Richard's research, we now have a much better
idea exactly what transpired during those "missing years."
Publishing my original material to the
World Wide Web had one other unintended side-effect: this book. I first
met Bruce Fries at an Internet music conference in 1999; when we encountered
each other online again through an e-mail discussion group, I asked
him to take a look at my website, to see if he thought there might be
a book in there somewhere. When he said "yes," I was on my
way to the culmination of twenty-five years of work. I fought Bruce
a lot along the way, but in the end I can see that his suggestions were
instrumental in strengthening and finding the true heart of this material.
I am grateful to Bruce for his patience with me, and also to Chris Roerden,
the editor whose suggestions have gone a long way toward shaping this
I am also immensely indebted to Kent Farnsworth
for his tireless assistance in assembling the illustrations for this
volume, and for his passionate fellowship over the past twenty-plus
years. I also want to thank Kent's wife, Linda Farnsworth, for her personal
strength and help through some of the challenging parts of the process.
Finally, I will consider it one of the great privileges of my life to
have befriended Elma Farnsworth, and to have assisted her in whatever
way I could in the preservation of her husband's legacy. I can only
hope that Pem feels I have done justice to the full sweep of their story.
As the 75th anniversary of the first-ever electronic television transmission
approaches in the fall of 2002, I expect there will be another wave
in the mounting resurgence of interest in this man whose work so dramatically
affected the course of our civilization. I hope that this volume, and
all the years that have gone into its making, will add some texture
and meaning to that celebration.
© 2002 by Paul Schatzkin - TeamCom Books / All Rights
Philo T. Farnsworth III photo by Kent M. Farnsworth, courtesy Philo
T. Farnsworth Archives
George Everson, Pem Farnsworth photos by Georja Skinner
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