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Week of 13 September 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 3


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TV inventor's story channels lessons for today

By Hope Green

Inventors used to achieve the status of folk heroes. Today we immortalize the eureka moments of Alexander Graham Bell, George Washington Carver, and Thomas Edison in museums and grade-school science projects. We honor other tinkerers with namesake brands on appliances and gadgets, such as the Carrier air conditioner, first patented by electrical engineer Willis Haviland Carrier, and the Gillette safety razor, which traveling salesman King Camp Gillette supposedly dreamed up in his bathroom one morning.

So who was inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, and what was his contribution to our daily life? If you're stumped, Evan Schwartz, a College of Communication lecturer, is not surprised.


Farnsworth, a son of a potato farmer and largely self-taught engineer, is now known as the father of television. He demonstrated the first electronic process for scanning, transmitting, and receiving moving images on September 7, 1927. Yet 75 years later, Farnsworth's legacy remains obscure. In The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television (HarperCollins, 2002), Schwartz explains how David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and founder and chairman of NBC, claimed he and his engineers were responsible for bringing television to the world - and in the process, almost managed to write Farnsworth out of history.

"Both of the characters are equally fascinating to me," says Schwartz, who taught last year at the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism. "What drives the story is these two highly motivated, ambitious men fighting over this invention."

Schwartz first heard about Farnsworth when he left his job as an editor at Business Week to start writing about e-commerce. His first book, Webonomics (Broadway Books, 1997) anticipated the emergence of the Web economy, where almost anything could be bought and sold over the Internet. His second book, Digital Darwinism (Broadway Books, 1999) predicted the shakeout of this virtual marketplace and offered survival strategies for online ventures.

With the Internet bubble set to burst, Schwartz figured he'd best stop writing business books about digital technology. He felt the time was ripe for a historical perspective, so he started researching the birth of the broadcasting industry in the early 20th century, a story that in many ways parallels what is happening today in the digital era.


Philo T. Farnsworth holds his electronic television sending and receiving tubes in his San Francisco laboratory, September 1928. The San Francisco Chronicle


"That's what led me to the Farnsworth story," he says. "I couldn't quite believe it when I heard about it, and this Farnsworth guy just wouldn't let go of me, so I became interested in pursuing this as a book idea."

The project came together in December 1999, when Schwartz tracked down Pem Farnsworth, the inventor's widow and former laboratory assistant. Pem, age 91 at the time, was able to recall the saga of her husband's career with remarkable detail.

"I couldn't have written the book without her," Schwartz says. To learn about Sarnoff, Schwartz visited the Sarnoff Library in Princeton, N.J.
Philo Farnsworth first envisioned his idea for electronic television
at age 14, while plowing a potato field on his family's farm. In the neat rows of plants he saw a way to use electrons to paint images onto a screen, line by line.

Farnsworth obsessed over his idea for years, until at age 19, he found two investors, who set him up in a laboratory over an abandoned garage in San Francisco just after he and Pem were married. The following year, in 1927, he gave his first demonstration of an electronic television receiver, and
a few years later obtained his first key patents.

News of Farnsworth's project vexed Sarnoff, then a rising executive at RCA, where he had just launched NBC as the company's broadcast network. In 1930, Sarnoff sent his top engineer, Vladimir Zworykin, to Farnsworth's lab on a mission of corporate espionage. Zworykin, who had created a receiver but not a whole system, went back to his own lab and copied Farnsworth's system behind closed doors. A drawn-out series of patent lawsuits followed, with Farnsworth victorious in every case. Yet it was Sarnoff who had the money and influence to arrange a demonstration of television at the 1939 World's Fair.

Schwartz makes this rivalry the dramatic focus of his story while exploring the larger forces that shaped the evolution of radio and TV. Part of the fun for the reader, he hopes, will be to spot similarities between the Farnsworth story and the business world's ups and downs in the past few years. He sees many parallels with the Microsoft case.

  David Sarnoff, president of RCA, sits in his Rockefeller Center office in 1934, showing off the telegraph key built into his desk. David Sarnoff Library

"The issues are almost identical," he says. "RCA was bundling all the patents together, and you couldn't make a radio without licensing all the patents. That was the number one issue in the Microsoft trial: you couldn't sell a PC without licensing the entire Windows operating system and everything that's bundled with it."

Then there was the technology bubble in the stock market in the late 1920s, when investor euphoria about the new radio technology sent stock prices soaring. Yet most households still did not have radios.

"There was also a lot of speculation about television in the late 1920s," Schwartz says. "But when Farnsworth had his system working and was ready to mass produce sets, people were not interested anymore because the stock market had crashed. Nobody had any money to buy anything new, and there was no investment. So I think that's a lesson for today. Investment in the Internet has dried up, yet the technology is more important and more ubiquitous than ever. All the speculation happened when it wasn't widely used."

The book also traces changes in the way inventors are perceived. Although Farnsworth refused to believe that the glory days of solo inventors had passed, by the early 20th century, most inventors toiled in corporate labs and collected almost no royalties for their innovations. Sarnoff, who paid his engineers a token $1 per patent, was determined to have RCA take the credit for introducing new devices, especially television.


Evan Schwartz with Pem Farnsworth, Philo's widow, at the family's cabin in Brownfield, Maine, in October 2000. Photo courtesy of Evan Schwartz


Schwartz does not intend to vilify Sarnoff, who immigrated from Russia at age 10 and grew up in a Manhattan tenement. "It's a great American success story," Schwartz says.

"He came to this country not knowing a word of English and rose to become one of the most powerful people in the country. He really believed in a long-term vision and built the broadcast industry over 50 years. His flaw was his ego and his arrogance, because he didn't have to be so absolutist in having RCA control everything."

As for Farnsworth, "he was egotistical and naïve in a lot of ways, and so determined that he was sometimes blind to reality," Schwartz says. "So he had his own flaws, which I think make the character more interesting."

The Last Lone Inventor has received favorable press in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. For his next project, Schwartz is considering a focus on inventors in the modern age. The buzz over Segway creator Dean Kamen, he says, could signal a revival of solo inventors, in part because corporations are more open to outside invention than they used to be.

"Invention is just a miraculous and mysterious process," Schwartz says. "Modern inventors aren't the heroes of our culture, yet they're out changing the world every day."


13 September 2002
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