The Boy Who Invented Television by Paul Schatzkin


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This Place Has Electricity!



The Farnsworth homestead near Beaver Creek,
Utah where Philo T. Farnsworth was born in 1906


"The reasonable man looks at the world around him and tries to adapt himself to it. The unreasonable man tries to adapt the world around him to himself. All progress, therefore, is dependent on the unreasonable man."

--George Bernard Shaw


The story of television begins in Rigby, Idaho, in the spring of 1918, as a small wagon train reached the crest of a hill overlooking the Bungalow Ranch, a humble, turn-of-the-century homestead named for two small cabins that dominated the landscape. The family of Lewis and Serena Farnsworth and their five children were about to arrive at their new home, after an arduous journey over the mountains from their native Utah.

     Seated at the reins of one of the three covered wagons was the oldest child, Philo, age eleven, named after his grandfather, who'd come west to settle the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young. While the adults in the wagons around him commented on the contours of the countryside and the promise of fertile soil, young Philo noticed one detail that the rest of the family missed: strung between the buildings below he could see wires, and shouted excitedly, "This place has electricity!"

     With this observation, the family left the ridge and began their descent into a new life on the frontier of the 20th century. Philo T. Farnsworth was about to come face-to-face for the first time with the mysterious force he had only heard about; that invisible power that could drive great machines, carry voices over wires, and turn darkness into light. Though he was about to encounter electricity for the first time at age eleven, he would prove to be one its great masters before he was twenty-one.

The Farnsworth family was a poor but hard-working clan who had moved so many times in search of better land that the siblings often joked about how, once the horses were hitched to the wagons, the chickens and pigs would just lie down and put their feet in the air to be tied. This time, Lewis was bringing his family to Idaho to join forces with his brother Albert, who had enticed them with rosy stories about the rewarding future that awaited them-cultivating two-hundred-plus acres of sugar beets, potatoes, and hay in this rugged Idaho valley.

     Traveling in three covered wagons, it had taken the family more than five weeks to cross the terrain from southern Utah. Lewis and Serena drove the lead wagon. Along with the younger children, the wagon was stuffed with mattresses, homemade quilts, dishes, and other fragile household effects. Philo's older half-brother, Ronald, and his wife drove the second wagon, carrying the stove and kitchenware. Philo drove the third wagon, carrying crates of chickens and piglets and farm tools. The little caravan was followed by several cows and extra horses.

     Besides farming, Lewis Farnsworth often supplemented the family's income by taking on freighting jobs, using his horse-drawn wagon to haul produce and merchandise from the terminus of the railway to remote towns and settlements. Philo had a close relationship with his father, who often took him on his freighting trips. Though Lewis was not a schooled man, he had done all he could to educate himself, reading as many books as he could get his hands on-a trait that his oldest son was quick to emulate. On their freighting expeditions, Lewis and Philo often spent their nights under the open sky, and Lewis taught his son how to recognize the constellations and track the movement of the planets across the heavens. One time, Philo picked up a long stick and aimed it at the sky, wishing that he could touch a star. Seeing the dreamer in his son, Lewis often cautioned him, "It's okay to keep your eyes on the stars, son, but keep your feet on the ground."

     Before their move to the Bungalow Ranch, the family had little contact with the evolving world of machines and gadgets. The one modern luxury they did have was a hand-cranked Gramophone, and music was very much a part of their lives. Whatever else they knew of the changing world around them they learned from the Sears & Roebuck catalog, for so many families the great "wish book" of the day. The family was too poor to actually buy anything from the catalog, but the illustrations must have sparked young Philo's imagination about the world of science and invention. He had read about Erector sets, electric trains, and the small motors that ran them. At one point he had even thought about how he might make his own electricity, if that's what it would take to experience the stuff firsthand.

Once the family was settled in its new home, the budding boy electrician turned his attention to the ranch's Delco power system. He carefully watched the adults who operated the system until he learned all he could about how it worked. The power system was an indispensable part of the farm operations, providing power for the granary as well as lights for the house. There was just one minor problem-the system frequently broke down.

     On one such occasion, repairmen came to the ranch to get the system going, and Philo tried to get himself as close to the action as possible, peering over the adults' shoulders, forcing his way between them as they hovered over the broken down generator. When he noticed that they were using heavy oil to lubricate the system, he tried to pull his father aside to tell him that it was the wrong kind of oil, but the repairmen managed to get the system running again, and the boy's warnings went unheeded. No sooner had they left the ranch than the generator conked out again.

     This time, Philo would not take "no" for an answer. He told his father, "If you'll let me, I'll get it started again. I know what's wrong with it." As his elders all stood around in amazement, Philo very carefully disassembled the generator and meticulously cleaned each gunked-up part with kerosene. When he put it all back together, it started right up and ran smoothly, much better than the supposed experts had left it. After this episode, Philo was officially instated as the chief engineer of the Bungalow Ranch, and the electrical system became his own very special domain.

     With encouragement from his father, it wasn't long before Philo found more uses for his invisible new friend. Among his chores on the farm was to turn the handles on his mother's washing machine, a monotonous task he found terribly boring. Scattered around the grounds, in a pile of junk that the previous tenants had left behind, Philo found a burned-out electric motor. He found some wire and rewound the armature, then connected his new creation to the washing machine-and was done with his handle-turning chores forever. The motor worked so well on the washing machine, he then adapted it to his mother's sewing machine-the first electric sewing machine she'd ever had.

     The time he saved by automating his chores, Philo spent thinking about better things. The family had no money for books, but in an attic loft above one of the cabins, he discovered a treasure trove of magazines left behind by the previous occupants of the ranch, with titles like Popular Science, and Hugo Gernsback's Science and Invention. The loft quickly became his secret hideaway, his own private library. With each new page, the young boy's imagination became fired by stories of science. He read about Edison, Bell, Marconi, DeForest, and the other modern-day sorcerers who explored these hidden frontiers. 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 all mankind. He confided to his father his own heart's desire: that he, too, had been born an inventor.

It was in his attic loft, among the discarded electrical magazines and science journals, that Philo also encountered the controversial ideas of an obscure German patent clerk named Albert Einstein, who had set the scientific world on its ear in 1905 by reconciling conflicting theories about the properties of light with his "Special Theory of Relativity." More recently, in 1915, Einstein had published a second groundbreaking paper, his "General Theory of Relativity," in which he introduced even more unorthodox ideas about gravity and the structure of time and space. In this later work, Einstein postulated that space was like an elastic fabric that could be contorted by gravity. This notion of a stretchable universe was considered heresy in the fixed, mechanical world of Newtonian physics.

     Einstein had encountered tremendous resistance to his radical theories among the scientific establishment, but there was no such difficulty for an aspiring young scientist in the hills of Idaho whose imagination was not saddled with any preconceived notions of the workings of the physical universe.

     Philo's interest in Einstein's universe deepened during a visit to a neighboring ranch. There, he happened upon a newspaper article about an international expedition that had sailed to the coast of Africa in May 1919 to test Einstein's theories by observing a solar eclipse. Led by the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, the expedition arrived in Africa at a time when Europe was still reeling from the devastation of the Great War, yet scientists from both Allied and Axis nations had teamed up for the mission.

     Eddington and others reasoned that if space could be stretched, as Einstein suggested, then light could also be stretched, or curved, by the presence of a large gravitational mass like the Sun.

     When the eclipse had darkened the West African sky, Eddington's team photographed starfields around the Sun that were not visible during normal daylight. When these photos were compared with photos of the same starfields taken when the Sun was not present, Eddington found a difference in the apparent location of the stars-just as Einstein had predicted.

The Eddington expedition was recorded as a defining moment in 20th century science. It was also a defining moment for a young boy reading about it in a borrowed newspaper on a remote farm in rural Idaho. Though he was not yet a teenager, what Philo was learning of Einstein's theories resonated instinctively with his inquisitive intellect. How exciting to read that the expedition had proven Einstein's assumptions about the fabric of the universe were correct.

     Philo was even more inspired to read that the expedition to Africa included scientists from nations that were so recently at war with each other. He told his father that if scientists from warring nations could put aside their differences for the sake of discovery, then a scientist was a good thing to be.

 

With the fire of discovery burning in his young soul, Philo established a rigorous routine that would serve him the rest of his life, rising every morning at four, using the time when the house was quiet for his studies before starting his daily chores at five. After breakfast, he'd get his horses together to take the children to school-in a wheeled wagon in the warmer months, and in a sleigh during the winter, when the temperatures dropped as much as forty degrees below zero. Long hot summer days he spent tending the fields, planted mostly in hay and potatoes. Riding his horse-drawn mowing machine gave Philo plenty of time to think about the things he was reading. Nights he hurried through the last of his chores in order to get back to his attic hideaway, where he consumed anything about electrical science that he could get his hands on.

     One noteworthy night, Philo turned the pages of one of his magazines and encountered an idea that resonated with a chilling premonition of his own future. In an article about "Pictures That Could Fly Through the Air," the author described an electronic magic carpet, a marriage of radio and movies, that would carry far-off worlds into the home in a simultaneous cascade of sight and sound. Philo was instantly captivated by the idea. He reread the article several times, convinced that he had stumbled onto a challenge 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 into electricity with the aid of whirling disks and mirrors. During the first two decades of the 20th century, experiments with "vision by radio" drew largely on the technology of the day, as inventors and engineers tried to literally blend the mechanical contrivances of motion pictures with the electrical properties of radio. The resulting contraptions. were given fanciful names such as "radioscope," "teleramophone," "radiovisor," "telephonoscope," and finally "television."

     The latter term is attributed by some to a Frenchman, Constantin Perskyi, by others to Hugo Gernsback, whose first use of the term appeared in the early 1920s in his Science and Invention magazine-no doubt one of the magazines young Philo was reading that memorable night in his attic lair.

     Mankind's eternal desire to "see over the horizon" found its first practical stirrings with the discovery that tiny electrical currents are generated when light is shined on certain substances. This discovery is most often attributed to two English telegraph engineers, Joseph May and Willoughby Smith, whose 1873 experiment with selenium and light gave future inventors a way of transforming images into electrical signals. Over the next two decades, this "photoelectric effect" was also observed by Heinrich Hertz, one of the early pioneers of radio. Other scientists, most notably Max Planck and J.J. Thompson, added further insights on the subject. But it was not until Albert Einstein arrived on the scene in 1905 that the phenomenon was fully articulated and quantified. Einstein's paper on the photoelectric effectsupplied the fundamental math that future researchers would need to realize mankind's "most fanciful dream."


The "Telephonoscope" by 19th century artist Albert Robida


     Armed with their understanding of this photoelectric effect, the earliest television experimenters surmised that an image would have to be disassembled into its component parts of bright and dark elements. These individual picture elements could then be converted into an electrical current, the strength of which would fluctuate in accordance with the brightness of the picture elements. This current could be transmitted over wires or through the air, and the image would be reproduced on the receiving end by reassembling the original picture elements in precisely the same sequence in which they were collected.

     To accomplish this seemingly straightforward task, the first attempts at television employed a spinning disk, which was perforated with a spiral sequence of small holes. The earliest description of such a device was proposed by a German, Paul Nipkow, and is usually referred to as a Nipkow disk. As this disk spun, light filtered through the holes and fell upon a photoelectric cell coated with a substance such as selenium, which converted the light into electricity. Bright portions of the image would generate a stronger current than dark portions. The fluctuating current reproduced a semblance of the original image on a similar disk-and-photocell device on the receiving end.

 


Mechanical television: a Nipkow disk, ca. 1921


     Even at the tender age of thirteen, Philo Farnsworth knew enough to realize that those discs and mirrors could never whirl fast enough to transmit a coherent image. He knew he'd have to find something that could travel at the sort of velocities that Einstein described in other aspects of his theories-in other words, something that could be manipulated near the speed of light itself. He was fairly certain there was a solution to be found in his unseen new friend, the electron.

     When a fertile mind has found its way to the threshold of discovery, it thirsts for two things: more information, and somebody to talk to about it. The first, Philo found by securing a part-time job running the school wagon and applying his twenty-five-cents-per-week wages to the purchase of a set of encyclopedias. He also enrolled in a "Radiotrician" correspondence course with the National Radio Institute.

     Somebody to talk to showed up in the form of Justin Tolman, an avuncular, bespectacled, middle-aged gentleman who taught senior chemistry at Rigby High School. In the fall of 1920 when Philo enrolled as a freshman, he signed up for every math and science class the school would let him take, but he quickly found the material too elementary for his needs and set his sights on the senior chemistry class. Tolman, when first approached, laughed at the audacity of a freshman wanting to take a senior course. "We just don't allow that sort of thing," the teacher told Philo. "Come back when you're a senior."

     Philo wasn't about to wait that long. He went to the principal, then to the school board, to no avail. In the meantime, he learned that his freshman algebra teacher was having problems with his eyes, so he volunteered to serve as his assistant. Before the year was over, Philo was teaching the algebra class himself. At the same time, he was devouring all the material in his freshman science course. At the end of the semester he brought Tolman a note from his science teacher stating that he'd already finished the full year's course. Still, Tolman was reluctant to accept the young student in the senior class.

     "Well then," Philo persisted, "if I can't actually take the course, could I just sit in on the classes?"

     "Okay," Tolman conceded, "I guess there's no harm in that."

     So freshman Philo began sitting in on the senior chemistry class. Within a week he started taking part in the class discussions. When Tolman realized that his prodigy was already at the level of students who had been in the class all year, he offered to tutor him for an hour after class each day to get him entirely caught up. It quickly became apparent to Tolman that he was tutoring the smartest student he would probably ever meet in his life.

     In their after-class tutoring sessions, Philo asked Tolman dozens of questions. Tolman didn't know all the answers, but he had a pretty good idea of where to look, and he had lots of books to lend. Invariably, Philo absorbed them and came back for more. Tolman was amazed at his pupil's grasp of some of the most challenging concepts of the time. He was astounded one day when he ventured past a study hall and lingered in the doorway while Philo stood at the blackboard and delivered a detailed critique of Einstein's theories of relativity. It was, Tolman recounted later, "the most clear and concise description of relativity" he'd ever heard.

     Tolman's curiosity about this insatiable student was aroused. He knew there was something driving this thirst for knowledge, but he did not yet know what it was.

     The notion of television never stopped tugging at Philo's imagination. In his relentless pursuit of the subject, he learned more about the properties of electrons. He learned how they could be deflected by magnets. He also learned how certain substances could be caused to glow when bombarded by electrons within something called a "cathode ray tube." With those three elements-the electron, magnetic deflection, and the cathode ray tube-he began to believe he would find a solution.

     While the great minds of science, financed by the biggest companies in the world, wrestled with 19th century answers to a 20th century problem, the summer of 1921 found Philo T. Farnsworth, age fourteen, strapped to a horse-drawn disc-harrow, cultivating a potato field row by row, turning the soil and dreaming about television to relieve the monotony. As the open summer sun blazed down on him, he stopped for a moment and turned around to survey the afternoon's work. In one vivid moment, everything he had been thinking about and studying synthesized in a novel way, and a daring idea crystallized in this boy's brain. As he surveyed the field he had plowed one row at a time, he suddenly imagined trapping light in an empty jar and transmitting it one line at a time on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons.

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

     It seems quite unlikely that an unknown high school freshman with little education, no money, and no equipment could steal the race for television from the most accomplished engineers and the greatest electrical companies in the world, but with this flash of inspiration, that is precisely what Philo Farnsworth set out to do.
     
      When he told his father what he'd come up with, Lewis cautioned his son not to discuss his idea with anyone. Ideas, he reasoned, are 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 might work.


Rigby High School, Rigby, Idaho


     Late one afternoon in the spring of 1922-on the very last day of the school semester-Justin Tolman finally learned what was driving his young prodigy. After all the other students had left the building, Tolman returned to his classroom and was startled to see a complicated array of electrical diagrams scattered across the blackboard. At the front of the room stood the lanky Philo Farnsworth, chalking in the last figures of the final equation.

     "What has this got to do with chemistry?" Tolman asked.

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

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

     The young inventor spent several hours that afternoon with Tolman, elaborating upon his idea. Tolman could not fully understand what the boy proposed to do, nor how he would go about it, though he could grasp the magnitude of the idea. As the lengthening shadows of that Idaho afternoon stretched into dusk, Tolman could do little more than offer vague encouragement, trying to assure Philo that he could do whatever he put his mind to.

     Philo had adopted the habit of carrying a small pocket notebook with him wherever he went, so that he could easily jot down the ideas that came to him whenever inspiration struck. As the conversation with Tolman wound down, he pulled out his notebook and drew one more simple sketch of his idea.

     "Hang on to this," Philo said, handing the sketch to Tolman, "you never know when it might come in handy." Tolman nodded, folded the little piece of paper, and tucked it away inside the pocket of his coat. When their discussion ended, they walked out of the Rigby High School building together and said their good-byes. They would not see each other again for more than thirty years.

 

At the end of another harvest, in the fall of 1922, Lewis Farnsworth packed up his family and moved again, this time to Provo, Utah. Philo never did graduate from Rigby High School, but nevertheless turned his sights on the Brigham Young University, hoping to enroll in college level math, science, and physics courses. Unfortunately, since he lacked sufficient funds for the tuition, he chose instead to stay behind in Glenn's Ferry, Idaho while the family moved to Provo.

     With the help of his half brother Lewis and a foreman desperate to find a capable electrician, he found a good-paying job working for the railroad. Philo was barely sixteen years old when he applied for the job, but he didn't blink when the foreman looked him straight in the eye and said, "You're twenty-one, right?"

     Using what he'd learned from his correspondence courses with the NRI, he stayed on the job for nearly a year, earning enough money to start classes at BYU when he rejoined his family in Provo in the fall of 1923. Unfortunately, the authorities at BYU were not sympathetic to his desire to begin studying at the college level. He had neither a high-school diploma, nor sufficient English or history. So rather than college level math, science, and physics, Farnsworth was compelled to spend his hard-earned tuition money taking prep-level courses at the BYU High School.

     Eventually, he was granted "special student" status, and after completing his high school curriculum, was admitted to a higher-level math class. He also gained access to the university's glass lab, where he saw his first vacuum pump, traps, glass arcs, and other tools of the vacuum tube trade. Taking full advantage of the opportunities, he began developing the skills he would need to fabricate his invention-if he ever got the chance.

     In Provo, the family took up residence in a large two-story house, renting out the top floor to BYU students. Lewis Farnsworth had moved his family to Provo so the children would have access to better schools, but found that there was not enough work for him in the city. To supplement his income, Lewis resumed taking freighting jobs, often venturing out in harsh conditions in the mountains around Provo. In the late fall, he found steadier work at a resort in Warm Springs, Idaho, using his team and wagon to carry loads for construction projects around the grounds. On one such trip shortly before Christmas, while crossing the mountains in a freezing rain, Lewis contracted pneumonia and barely made it back to Provo with enough strength to fall, sick and exhausted, into his bed.

     His children had managed to raise enough money to buy their father a new suit for Christmas, but he never gained enough strength to get out of bed to try it on, or to participate in any other holiday festivities. Shortly after the New Year, gravely ill, Lewis summoned Philo to his bedside.

     "Son, I'm leaving you in charge of the family. Take good care of them."
Clutching desperately to his father's hand as he slipped away, Philo fought back the tears and promised, "I will Papa." Lewis Farnsworth was only fifty-eight. Philo was devastated at the loss. He had so many plans. He and his father had been so close. After the funeral, he walked four miles to his father's grave and tried to pull himself together.

     Besides losing his closest confidant, Philo-barely sixteen years old-suddenly found himself responsible for the care of two younger sisters, two younger brothers, and his grieving mother, who collapsed into a prolonged depression and took little interest in her surroundings for several months after her husband's passing. The older of the two girls, Agnes, together with a cousin living with the family, took charge of the domestic affairs, cooking and maintaining the family's quarters on the ground floor as well as the boarding house on the second floor. Philo was forced to leave BYU in search of whatever work he could find. The likelihood of developing his idea for television seemed discouragingly remote.

     At one point, Philo told a friend that he was thinking about writing up his television ideas and submitting them to Popular Science. He thought he might be able to make $100 if he worked it right. But convinced by his friend that publication might not be the most prudent course, Philo instead registered with the University of Utah placement service in hopes of finding work.


© 2002 by Paul Schatzkin - TeamCom Books / All Rights Reserved
Photos courtesy Philo T. Farnsworth Archives

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