Part 9: "You're All Fired!"

by Paul Schatzkin

Philo T. Farnsworth and his partner, Russel Seymour "Skee" Turner, decided to go ahead with their plans to build a television studio separate from the laboratories at Mermaid Lane, regardless of the response of Farnsworth's other backers. Skee Turner felt so strongly that such a facility was essential if Farnsworth was ever to surmount the day-to-day problems of commercial television, that he put up enough money himself to erect a prefabricated structure on a hill in the Wyndmoor section of Philadelphia.

Wyndmoor Studio in Philadelphia, 1936 While the empty building was fitted with a stage and lights, Farnsworth and the lab gang devoted their time to building two state-of-the-art Image Dissector cameras. These cameras were built for durability as well as high resolution. All the equipment was engineered so that camera and picture tube would both be capable of producing 441 lines per frame - well in excess of the 400 lines per frame that Farnsworth had established as his objective back in 1928.

Farnsworth's crew created and built a special transmitter and a 100-foot tower that could blanket the Philadelphia metropolitan area with experimental television signals. They also designed and built the world's first electronic video switcher, which allowed instantaneous intercutting between the two cameras as programs were broadcast. While all the equipment was under construction, the FCC granted Farnsworth a license to conduct experimental television transmissions under the call letters W3XPF.

One big job for the new broadcasters was finding artists to perform before the electronic eye. Farnsworth had learned during the Franklin Institute public demonstration in 1934, that he could rely on an endless supply of amateur singers, dancers, musicians and magicians willing to trade their time for a little exposure and the undeniable thrill of being televised.

Dancing for the Wyndmoor cameras, ca 1936 What programs they were able to assemble were broadcast to a handful of receivers that were beginning to appear around Philadelphia. By now there were three companies in the area experimenting with electronic television: Farnsworth, RCA and Philco. Many of the engineers who worked for these companies had receivers in their homes that they used to monitor transmissions from their laboratories. The few dozen homes that were actually equipped with TV became focal points of the neighborhood, truly the first on their block.

For the time being at least, television was getting started in much the same way as radio, in the hands of a few clever enthusiasts who could build their own receivers to catch whatever was in the air.

Some amusing peculiarities were discovered in the Image Dissector tube as it began the routine of transmitting television programs on a daily basis. The characteristics that caused the most headaches arose from the tube's unusual infrared sensitivity, which caused red, which normally photographs black, to televise as white.

Ready for my closeup, Mr. Farnsworth The Max Factor Company in Hollywood contributed their expertise in early color movies, and the coloration problems were solved by applying blue makeup around the lips and eyes. Consequently, performers who appeared perfectly normal on the TV monitor looked ghoulishly blue to the unaided eye.

The Image Dissector also displayed a peculiar sensitivity to certain fabrics which rendered them transparent, as was graphically illustrated the day a pretty ballerina appeared to be dancing naked on the video screen.

Video broadcasts from the Farnsworth studios not only proved the feasibility of television, they gave Farnsworth a public image, and the boy genius from Utah became a minor celebrity. Though fewer than 50 homes in the Philadelphia area were equipped with video receivers, the activity was enough to add the word "television" to the language.

For a few months, Farnsworth enjoyed the attention; it was a welcome change after nearly 10 years of hard work in total obscurity. But eventually the obligations of even minor celebrity status became too pressing a burden on his time. What with meetings and interviews and visits from foreign dignitaries all hoping to spend a few minutes with the great Farnsworth, being famous became a job in itself, entirely apart from the work that made him famous in the first place.

The flood of publicity peaked in 1936 when the Paramount Newsreel Service, the Eyes and Ears of the World, ran two stories about the coming of television and the remarkable man who put it all together. One story described Farnsworth as the man who made "mankind's most fanciful dream about to become a startling reality."

The Famous Inventor and His Wife By raising the visibility of the company, nationwide publicity raised the value of the stock, and the value of everybody's holdings swelled appreciably. Some accountant with a sardonic wit told Farnsworth that at current prices, his own holdings were worth more than $1,000,000-these figures made Farnsworth a living example of the American dream-a millionaire before his 30th birthday. Of course, this was only a "paper" fortune. The fact was, Jess and George McCargar continued having difficulty finding investors willing to buy into a company that could not sell its only product.

In October 1936, Colliers Magazine ran a feature story about "Phil the Inventor," that said that television seemed destined to find its way into many American homes by Christmas, 1937. This prediction reflected a common feeling of the time, that commercial television was "just around the corner." But Farnsworth knew that as long as his patents remained under contention, turning corners would have to wait for another day.

One Step Into the Future

With the job of perfecting and promoting electronic television off to a strong start under its own roof, life at Farnsworth's Mermaid Lane Laboratory took on a new dimension. The smell of new work permeated the air as Farnsworth and his loyal "lab gang" began to look back on what 10 years of refining television had taught them.

Many of the men still working for Farnsworth had joined him years earlier in San Francisco. Under Farnsworth's youthful guidance, this unlikely group managed to turn the tangle of wire and glass that produced the first electronic television picture into the total fulfillment of "mankind's most fanciful dream." Others before them had failed, crying that it could not be done without massive infusions of capital, but Farnsworth and his lab gang proved them all wrong. They not only invented TV, they overcame the limitations of their financing and delivered their invention to the marketplace, ready for the start of commercial broadcasting.

After so many successful years together, the lab gang began to take on the air of scientific invincibility. The unwritten motto for the entire operation was: "The difficult we do right away. The impossible takes slightly longer."

In 1935, Farnsworth's attorney, Donald K. Lippincott, filed applications for 32 new patents which covered improvements in television as well as some new work that was not directly related. Farnsworth was proud of these submissions because some of them embodied original discoveries he made over the years. But what excited him most about this batch of patents was that 14 of them were attributed to members of the lab gang other than Farnsworth himself.

This score reflects the collective spirit that Farnsworth instilled in his coworkers. This straightforward approach to his work provided an incentive that tied the lab gang together. Their hours were long, the work was sometimes tediously painstaking, and the pay was never abundant, but Farnsworth never had any trouble finding capable men who were not only willing but eager to work with him.

The Inventor turns 30 -- a studio portrait, ca '36 As the lab gang grew, Farnsworth chose new men very carefully, watching closely for people who displayed both compatibility and trainability. Admission to the lab gang was predicated primarily on an applicant's willingness to take chances. What kept the lab going was men who could, by following Farnsworth's example, find their own way of doing whatever they'd been assigned, and make it work. In this manner, Farnsworth built a well organized team that could deliver the specific ingredients of his designs.

"I'm building men, not gadgets," Philo once said, and the extraordinary results of his unique style of work and leadership was a testimony to that philosophy.

Once accepted, a new employee found himself welcomed into what Tobe Rutherford called, "one big happy family." Indeed, many lab workers were members of his immediate family: his brothers Carl and Lincoln were both members of the lab gang. His sister, Laura studied with Max Factor, and became the resident make-up consultant. And his chief tube-builder was his brother-in-law.

This extended family became a collective unit that was the extension of Philo's incredibly creative scientific mind.

At the same time that he was directing members of his research team to solve particular problems that grew out of the day to day television operations, Philo concentrated his own attention on dozens of problems in basic science which his instincts led him to explore. It was the solid back up of his laboratory group which provided the support necessary for him to begin explorations in the outer stratosphere of physics.

Farnsworth became convinced that there was no limit to the things he could get electrons to do in a vacuum bottle. He turned to his lab gang to construct the tubes and circuits that could prove his point. Electronic television, which began as a dream in the mind of a child, was now a virtual reality, but the lab gang was the fulfillment of an even grander dream. Television was as much the product of their sweat as it was the gift of his genius. Farnsworth was the dreamer, and the lab gang was the instrument of his dreams. With these men at his side, whatever Farnsworth wished of the future was at his command.

Throughout 1935 and 1936, Farnsworth carried a considerable work load. He spent long mornings at the studio, personally demonstrating his invention for the daily tide of visiting dignitaries and scientists who felt they were entitled to a few minutes of Farnsworth's time. The afternoons he spent at the laboratory on Mermaid Lane, working on solutions to problems that came up at the studio. The evenings he spent either at the lab or at home, working on his new ideas and developing the mathematics for his own theories.

These jobs alone were enough for three men, but there was no end to the distractions that kept Farnsworth away from what he considered the important work. Most disturbingly, the people who were primarily responsible for funding Farnsworth's enterprise did not share his enthusiasm for opening new lines of research. After all, there was still no settlement in sight from RCA, and the dream of video broadcasting remained indefinitely postponed. Until the RCA litigation was cleared up, all this talk of advanced science struck Jess McCargar as somewhat premature.

In fact, McCargar was beginning to display impatience with the whole affair, and suggested on more than one occasion that maybe accepting RCA's offer for a complete sell out wasn't such a bad idea after all. The suggestion only proved to Phil that Jess would never understand how a patent was something that could earn money from licensing, without ever being sold. McCargar could only make judgments based on how much things cost, and now, as usual, they cost too much.

Farnsworth to the Rescue

In the closing months of 1936, these pressures began to exercise a noticeable effect on Farnsworth's delicate physiological balance. He began to show the signs of growing tired each day, and his disposition sometimes turned sour. After pushing himself relentlessly for 10 years, he was finally beginning to reach the limits of his endurance.

As if life on Mermaid Lane wasn't already intense enough, Farnsworth learned in the autumn of 1936 that his only licensee, Baird of England, was in trouble. The BBC was all set to award its television contract to EMI, but Baird and his backers raised such a fuss that the matter came up in Parliament, where the Selsdun Committee was appointed to make certain that the BBC conducted competitive testing between EMI and Baird before awarding the contract. As the tests got underway in 1936, Baird started having problems with his Image Dissector tubes. He couldn't get a picture.

Unfortunately for Farnsworth, there was no one else in the world Baird could turn to for help. Aside from being tired, he was understandably reluctant to leave the lab. But since his only industrial ally was on the verge of collapse, he had no choice. He agreed to go, with two stipulations: he insisted on taking a slow boat, so that he could have a few days to rest; and he insisted that passage be provided for his wife Pem. Baird accepted these conditions, and Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth sailed for Europe, making a honeymoon of it 10 years after their wedding.

The Crystal Palace In London, Farnsworth found Baird's equipment set up in the elegant Crystal Palace in Kensington Gardens, the remarkable glass and steel edifice that Queen Victoria had built in the 19th century to house an industrial exhibition. Farnsworth was shocked to discover the real source of Baird's problems: two years after taking a license from Farnsworth, Baird was still using the scanning disc for certain components of his system. True, Baird had pushed his mechanical creation to the point that it could deliver some 200 lines per frame, but the competing system offered by EMI produced 405 lines per frame, and clearly left Baird standing in the cold.

Baird was using his Image Dissector tube for his "cinefilm" transmitter, which is the British euphemism for a film-chain, but even in this capacity he was not taking full advantage of the Dissector's capacities. In fact, Farnsworth found the chassis for the Dissector only partially built; Baird and his men simply didn't know how to finish it.

Once he was on the scene at the Crystal Palace, Farnsworth plunged into an around-the-clock schedule to put Baird back in business. When he was done, Farnsworth and his wife drove with Baird and members of the Selsdun Committee to a small pub outside London where a cathode ray tube receiver was set up to catch Baird's over-the-air transmission. Everybody saw the crisp detail and subtle contrasts in the picture delivered by the Farnsworth Image Dissector.

Still, there was really little Philo T. Farnsworth could do to help John Logie Baird as long as the Englishman hung onto his spinning discs. Evidently, British Gaumont, Baird's backers, felt pretty much the same way as Farnsworth. It seemed that Baird's chances of winning the BBC contract were doomed even before Farnsworth arrived at the Crystal Palace.

Having done all that he could for Baird, Farnsworth disappeared with his wife for three weeks on the French Riviera. Conversation during their train ride across France centered on the recently exposed intrigue of Edward VIII's illicit romance. The Farnsworths arrived on the Riviera at almost the same time as Wallace Simpson, the object of Edward's affections, who was forced to flee London as word of her relationship with the King leaked out.

Relaxing on the Riviera Phil and Pem spent three well-deserved weeks on the beach, during which time Edward announced his abdication. Those three quiet weeks provided a much needed period of rest for both Phil and Pem, their first real vacation after more than 10 years of hard work. It was also the first opportunity that Phil and Pem had in as many years to spend a period of time alone together. The backdrop of the French Riviera provided just the right romantic touch to reawaken the fire of their affection.

While they were on the Riviera, the Farnsworths were shocked to read one morning that the Crystal Palace was leveled by a fire of mysterious origins, which destroyed all of John Logie Baird's equipment, including Farnsworth's Image Dissector. The fire brought almost total ruination to John Logie Baird, and all but guaranteed that EMI would win the contract to put BBC into electronic television.

The news was a set back to the energy that this trip seemed to be gathering. Before sailing home, Phil and Pem made one more stop in London to survey the damage. Sifting through the rubble of the Crystal Palace, Phil found a macabre souvenir of the tragedy-the charred, melted remains of his Image Dissector tube, which he carefully placed in one of his bags, to be carried home with him as a grim reminder of what was left of the British hope.

The Beginning of the End

After six weeks absence Philo looked forward anxiously to returning to his laboratory to see what had become of the patents that were filed prior to his departure. He had left the work in capable hands before he left, and hoped to see that some interesting results had been produced while he was away.

Instead of hopeful signs of progress, Farnsworth was dismayed to discover that some of the patents that seemed most valuable had been abandoned while he was away only because they had no direct applications to TV. But more importantly, Farnsworth discovered discontent coming from everybody in the lab over the way that things had been handled during his absence.

Phil learned that Jess McCargar had sent Russ Pond, one of his buddies in the stock-peddling business to Philadelphia to take over the management of the lab. Pond was cut from the same fabric as McCargar, and had no prior experience with anything that involved electronics or engineering. Nevertheless, he took his role very seriously, but showed little regard for the delicacies of science. The result of his arbitrary management was a badly demoralized lab gang. Farnsworth found everybody grumbling about how things had fallen apart in the six short weeks while he was in Europe. The entire lab gang was suffering from a case of badly damaged esprit de corps.

Russ Pond was sent back to San Francisco immediately, but it was too late to prevent the rapid chain of events that would lead to a confrontation with Jess McCargar. That encounter became inevitable when Jess decided that Phil should reduce the payroll by dismissing some of his staff, and then decided to come East to deliver the ultimatum to Farnsworth in person.

This, Farnsworth decided, was the place to plant his feet. We would not allow McCargar's shortsightedness to jeopardize his most valuable asset. Every one of his men performed some essential role and none could be spared without affecting numerous phases of the total operation. Nor could he face the emotional stress of deciding who should go and who should stay. It would have been too much like choosing between his children.

McCargar was adamant. "Well," he scowled, "If you can't fire some of them, fire all of them, and hire back the ones you need."

Farnsworth refused to fire a single man, so Jess McCargar took matters into his own hands, as if to show Farnsworth who was really the boss. McCargar stormed defiantly out of Phil's office and announced to everyone present with gloomy finality,"You're all fired."

Farnsworth sat alone in his office while his men filed out, quiet and perplexed. Waves of anger and despair seized him as he tried to assess what McCargar had done to his life. The spirit left the room when Farnsworth walked out of the lab alone that night. Pem already knew what had happened when Phil walked in the house, looking beaten and depressed. She tried to talk about it but Phil was still too overwhelmed and confused to articulate his feelings. They went to a movie instead.

Later that evening, Phil called some of the men to see if they would come back, but every call met the same response. Even Tobe Rutherford had taken all the static and interference he could from Jess McCargar and refused. He just didn't have the stomach for it as long as Jess McCargar remained in charge.

Hard as it was for Tobe and the others, it was even harder for Phil. As the full impact of McCargar's blind ruthlessness became apparent, Farnsworth realized that the foundation of his future lay in ruins, and felt that all of his struggles had been in vain. It seemed senseless to continue to stand up in the face of external threats if he was only going to be knocked down in the end by the people who were supposed to be on his side.

End of Part 9

Continue with:

Part 10: "Caught In The Crossfire"



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