Utah History Encyclopedia


By Kristine Lyn Holbrook
Philo T. Farnsworth was born in 1906 in Indian Creek, a hamlet near Beaver, Utah. He had little education after high school other than two years at Brigham Young University, yet he is the father of the electronic television. His fascination with electricity began early in life, and he read every book or magazine he could find on the subject. This obsession led to his tinkering with his family's farm generator as well as his mother's sewing machine and her washer.

In 1919 Farnsworth's first recognition as an inventor came as a $25 first-place prize from the magazine Science and Invention. The prize was awarded for the best original invention, and Farnsworth's winning entry was a thief-proof ignition switch.

By the time Farnsworth was fifteen, he had developed a theory for the electronic transmission of pictures. He had seen a description in a magazine of an early television that used a crude rotating disc as a scanner, but found it to be too clumsy. Farnsworth instead believed that only electricity could move fast enough to be effective in rendering pictures. His idea was comparable to an electrified pointillist painting. Just as Georges Seurat used hundreds of tiny colored dots to form images, Farnsworth used electrons diffused over a screen. He believed that by controlling the speed and direction of the electrons he could transform electricity into pictures. As he set out to discover the secrets of the electron, the television tube evolved.

In February 1922 Farnsworth drew an "image dissector" for his teacher Justin Tolmna. This sketch later would help Farnsworth obtain his legal right to the patent for the invention of the television. By 1926 Farnsworth and his friend George Everson had obtained financial backing for their research from a group of San Francisco investors. This funding allowed their research to pursue an electronic scanning and receiving system. Farnsworth had no experience with high-vacuum physics, but came up with a way to seal a flat lens end on a dissector camera tube and create in it a very high vacuum. The result of his hard work came on 7 September 1927 as he demonstrated a camera, a synchronization system, and a receiver. He had patented and produced the first operational, all-electronic television system.

Unfortunately, Farnsworth was not the only practitioner in the field who expected to reap rich rewards. He ended up battling with RCA over patent rights and won. With the Farnsworth Company, he managed to make $2.5 million before he sold the company to International Telephone and Telegraph; however, the money was soon gone due to free spending.

Worn out by trying to obtain funding to perfect his inventions, and weakened by illness, Farnsworth died in debt in 1971 at the age of sixty-four.

In addition to television, Farnsworth's experiments also contributed to the development of radar, electron microscopes, incubators for newborn infants, and guidance systems for aircraft.

See: Elma G. Farnsworth, A Distant Vision (1990).