The Boy Who Invented Television by Paul Schatzkin

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The Second Case

Philo T. Farnsworth with the Fusor Mark I in 1960

"My father had two major cases in his life. The first one should have brought him the ability to deliver the second, and it did not."

--Philo T. Farnsworth III

"You just don't get it," Phil said, shaking his head. "I've given you all you need to finish the patents. Now I'm going home and get drunk."

    With that, Philo T. Farnsworth calmly collected his papers, closed his briefcase, rose from his chair, and left the meeting, turning his back on the single most important invention of the 20th century-if not the whole second millennium.

    Left behind to "finish the patents" were Farnsworth's patent attorney, his mathematician, and his principal corporate benefactor. The idea that his colleagues just didn't "get" was Farnsworth's path to the Holy Grail of modern science, his answer to the riddle of controlled nuclear fusion.

     Fusion, if it can ever be perfected, offers the promise of a clean, safe, and virtually inexhaustible source of energy. In a world beginning to choke on fossil fuel emissions, Philo Farnsworth had devised a pollution-free process for extracting the energy that binds atomic nuclei.

     The fuel for fusion is an isotope of hydrogen, which is easily and cheaply extracted from water. While the industrial world was aggressively drilling for enough oil to quench the planet's insatiable thirst for energy, Philo Farnsworth had discovered a source of power as vast as the oceans themselves, where each gallon of seawater would produce as much energy as hundreds of gallons of gasoline.

     In Farnsworth's fusion-powered future, a dynamo the size of a volleyball would produce as much electricity as all the generators at Niagara Falls-and less exhaust than a lawnmower. In a world that would soon experience gut-wrenching disruptions of its oil and gas supplies, Philo Farnsworth had found a way to light a city the size of New York for less than a dollar a month.

     While the rest of the scientific community was sinking into the quagmire of its deadly fascination with nuclear fission-a process that produces terrifying levels of radiation and waste products that remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years-Philo Farnsworth had devised a process that would produce nothing more threatening than helium-a harmless, inert gas.

     For Farnsworth personally, fusion was much more than a source of clean power. A fusion-powered engine would provide him with the means to fulfill his lifelong dream of traveling through outer space, in much the same way that internal combustion engines provide the means for traveling around the surface of the Earth. A full decade before the first man left his footprints on the Moon, Philo Farnsworth had found a way to travel among the stars.

     In nature, we are surrounded by fusion reactors; the nearest one, the Sun, is a mere 93 million miles away. Every star in the heavens is a deep-space fusion reactor: a self-contained ball of gas and cosmic fire. For nearly fifty years, scientists have
attempted to replicate the process here on Earth, trying to create what amounts to a miniature, synthetic star. But therein lies the riddle: how do you bottle a star? To a culture obsessed with television and movie stars, Philo Farnsworth offered an artificial sun.

     Farnsworth had invented a device he called the "Fusor" that synthesized all the unique insights he had accumulated in more than forty years on the edge of the "invisible frontier" of the 20th century. To perfect his invention, he just needed to configure the Fusor in such a way that the reaction would continue on its own-just as an automobile engine keeps running after the starter motor is disengaged. During a number of experiments conducted in the early 1960s Farnsworth's co-workers claimed to have witnessed just such an occurrence.

     When he walked out of the patent meeting that summer afternoon in 1965, Philo Farnsworth had made more progress toward controlling nuclear fusion than anybody before or since. He had come tantalizingly close to lighting "the fusion torch." Yet, despite his impressive progress in the laboratory, his co-workers still did not truly understand his theories, which often skated beyond the edge of generally accepted physics. It didn't help that no less an authority than Albert Einstein had endorsed Farnsworth's ideas.

     Perhaps what Farnsworth's colleagues didn't "get" was the mounting cost of research for a branch of science that they regarded as well outside the scope of their corporate mission. Like it or not, Philo Farnsworth was an employee of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company. ITT was a multinational telecommunications conglomerate, and most decidedly was not in the nuclear energy business. The fusion research was only reluctantly funded.

     Filing patents was no small part of ITT's strategy. Once the company owned patents on the Fusor, it intended to seek government funding for further research, rather than continuing to spend funds from its own corporate treasury. So in the summer of 1965 Farnsworth was asked to assemble his team and draw up the patents that would control the art and science of harnessing nuclear fusion-patents that ITT would own, and for which the government would hopefully fund further research.

     Farnsworth was leery of the process. He didn't think the people around him understood enough of the underlying concept of his invention to compose enforceable patents.

     As the work sessions began, Farnsworth found some small encouragement. It looked as if his colleagues were finally beginning to "get it." And then, at that critical moment late in the summer of 1965, as he was explaining a basic principle that made the Fusor work, it suddenly became evident to him that all his patience and persistence had been for naught. Something was said that crushed Farnsworth's passion and shattered his faith once and for all. At that instant he realized that his dream was not going to become a reality, at least not in his lifetime.

     Things might have turned out very differently if Farnsworth had received the recognition and independence he deserved from his first major invention. You see, when Philo T. Farnsworth was still a teenager, he invented something called "television."

That television ever was an invention comes as a surprise to most people, a fact that seems tragically ironic, because invention plays such a big part in the American legacy.

     We all know the era of electrical communications began when Samuel Morse tapped out "What hath God wrought?" on the first telegraph. The recorded music business began when Thomas Edison recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and heard it played back moments later from a tinfoil drum. The telephone arrived when Alexander Graham Bell spilled some acid on his pants and shouted, "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you!"-and Mr. Watson heard him on a contraption in another room. The motion picture industry began when Edison filmed a sneeze.

     Television represents the culmination of all the inventions that went before it: the marriage of movies and radio-sight and sound merged with the electromagnetic spectrum. Television was the crowning achievement of an age of invention. But who among us can name the man who invented it?

     Video, in all its forms, is the most pervasive medium ever conceived. It's not just television, which is so omnipresent that you can't even wait in an airline terminal today without being compelled to watch CNN or a soap opera; it's computers, too, which have become a mass medium in their own right. Nearly every computer in the world uses video as its primary display device.

     Yet how many of us whose lives are shaped by these devices have any knowledge of the unique individual who delivered them to us?

     The corporate doctrine handed down over decades by the communications industry would have us believe that television was far too complex to have been "invented" by any single individual, working alone, in a garage perhaps, in the manner of Edison and Bell (or Hewlett and Packard, or Jobs and Wozniak). The industry would rather we believe that the medium evolved over a period of time, finally emerging whole in the late 1940s from the great laboratories of the industrialized world-just in time for Uncle Milty, Marshal Dillon, and Lucy. Otherwise, virtually no folklore is associated with the origins of television. This void in our popular mythology is unfortunate, because in fact, the story of the invention of television is one of the most fascinating stories of the 20th century ...and features one of the era's most intriguing and enigmatic characters: Philo T. Farnsworth.

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

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