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
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."
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.
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
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."
"Telephonoscope" by 19th century artist Albert
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,
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.
Philo persisted, "if I can't actually take the
course, could I just sit in on the classes?"
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.
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
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."
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
Photos courtesy Philo
T. Farnsworth Archives
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