inventor's story channels lessons for today
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
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.
"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,
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,
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
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.
Sarnoff, president of RCA, sits in his Rockefeller Center office in
1934, showing off the telegraph key built into his desk. David Sarnoff
"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
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.
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
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."