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What in the name of Philo T. Farnsworth?

New book traces the battle to invent television

What in the name of Philo T. Farnsworth?

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- His name is unusual -- a Groucho Marx moniker by way of Theodore Sturgeon.

And his story is even more unusual: Farm boy from the Northwest, with few scientific resources and less money, invents television and then fights a battle royale with a giant American corporation to prove his title.

But there really was a Philo T. Farnsworth and that was, indeed, his life.

The story of Farnsworth, his battle with RCA head David Sarnoff, and the development of television is told by Daniel Stashower in his new book, "The Boy Genius and the Mogul" (Broadway).

The history of television is murky, Stashower says, and that's one reason Farnsworth is more of a trivia question than a household name.

"There are several names of people who claim to be TV pioneers, and some have more worthy claims than the others, though none as strong as Farnsworth," the author, 41, says in a phone interview from his home in suburban Washington, D.C. "But all of them have strong advocates."

He's even had arguments from his own wife, who's Scottish and backs the British claim that a man named John Logie Baird invented television. (Baird did invent a mechanical scanning system, but that fell short of Farnsworth's electronic creation.) "In my own house it's hard to reach consensus," says Stashower.

Not black and white

The conflict between Farnsworth and Sarnoff is part of a larger battle, Stashower points out.

NBC camera
David Sarnoff's vision and business savvy made television a viable business, but Farnsworth's invention made it possible.  

Farnsworth was the classic American prodigy, a practically self-taught genius who ran his own lab and was determined to maintain his independence. Sarnoff, though he had some scientific training -- he was an early acolyte of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi -- became a corporate titan, overseeing professional laboratories where scientists were part of a larger business that included manufacturing and programming.

But this David-and-Goliath story is not a story of black and white, says Stashower.

"It's tempting to call Sarnoff a villain, but it wasn't that simple," he says. The RCA head made some questionable ethical decisions, but so did others. Moreover, Sarnoff was one of the few who saw the potential of television as a communications device that would be as ubiquitous as radio; most of his contemporaries thought it would be a specialized invention, perhaps used for news events or the military.

Farnsworth was also constantly hamstrung by lack of funds, difficulty convincing investors and scientists to support him, and -- at a time when many were pursuing television -- the fact that he was the darkest of dark horses in the race.

He had come up with the idea of electronic scanning -- a key element of modern television -- while on his family's farm when he was just 14, looking out on the furrows of a plowed field. By the late 1920s, when Farnsworth was barely of drinking age, he was feverishly working on engineering and transmitting a worthwhile picture with the help of his wife, his brother-in-law, and a small cadre of loyalists.

Winning the battle

However, though he believed he had the upper hand, there is no question Sarnoff attempted to skirt Farnsworth's patent however he could and claim credit for modern TV. He had his own genius, Vladimir Zworykin, who developed television transmitting and receiving devices.

Daniel Stashower
Author Daniel Stashower  

"Zworykin was a brilliant man and an important figure," says Stashower. "A measure of that was the respect he and Farnsworth had for each other. But Farnsworth nailed down the patent, and the courts sided with him."

Stashower was partly inspired to do the book by stories he heard from his grandmother, whose cousin was science (and science fiction) magazine magnate Hugo Gernsback. (One of the major science fiction writing awards, the Hugo, is named for him.)

"He had a large stable of science magazines, and he used them to forecast the breakthroughs of the future," Stashower says. Some of his forecasts were right on, Stashower says, but he was also prone to talking about Martians. Still, he observes, the magazines made fascinating reading, despite their misconceptions, and showed how television was on people's minds well before it became a reality.

Stashower's tale, though, is more about people than science, and his decision to focus on the Farnsworth-Sarnoff face-off wasn't accidental.

"I was interested in doing more with the other [TV] creators than I had," he says. "But as I got deeper into it, I was intrigued by the dynamic between Farnsworth and Sarnoff. That seemed to be the most important thread."

In the end, despite Farnsworth's legal victory, Sarnoff won. RCA and its subsidiary, NBC, became major purveyors of television sets and TV programming; Farnsworth, his funds exhausted by labwork and legal fees, unable to make a go of his own television manufacturing company, faded into obscurity. He attempted other ideas, including peaceful uses of atomic energy, but none worked out.

"He became disenchanted," says Stashower. Farnsworth died in 1971 -- ironically, only a few months before Sarnoff.

Still, thanks to Stashower's and other books, such as Jeff Kisseloff's "The Box," Farnsworth's contributions are finally becoming better known, and he remains a popular figure.

"A lot of people feel a personal connection with Farnsworth," likely because of his underdog status, says Stashower. The book, he says, tried to show the process of inventing in the 20th century and what happens when a "brilliant and decent man runs afoul of a corporation." Stashower himself found renewed admiration for the farm-boy inventor.

"I'm proud he stood his ground," he says.


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