"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
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
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
Photos courtesy Philo
T. Farnsworth Archives