Philo Farnsworth, RCA, and the Battle for Television

The parenthood of any invention of consequence is almost never cut and dried. The natural tendency to want a simple story that’s easy to tell — Edison invented the light bulb, Bell invented the telephone — often belies the more complex tale: that most inventions have uncertain origins, and their back stories are often far more interesting as a result.

Inventing is a rough business. It is said that a patent is just a license to get sued, and it’s true that the determination of priority of invention often falls to the courts. Such battles often pit the little guy against a corporate behemoth, the latter with buckets of money to spend in making the former’s life miserable for months or years. The odds are rarely in the favor of the little guy, but in few cases was the deck so stacked against someone as it was for a young man barely out of high school, Philo Farnsworth, when he went up against one of the largest companies in the United States to settle a simple but critical question: who invented television?

Furrows of Electrons

Young Philo, ca. 1920. Source: Utah Division of State History

Many great tales of American achievement start with the hero’s birth in a log cabin, and Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s story starts just this way. His family lived in a cabin in Utah when he was born in 1906. They would live in that remote location until moving to Rigby, Idaho when Philo was 12. The Farnsworth family had never had electricity in their Utah cabin, and Philo was excited by the discovery that their new ranch had a generator. He took to electricity quickly, rewiring motors and electrifying the farm in his spare time, and devouring all the reading material he could find on the subject. Electricity just made sense to Philo.

From his reading, he knew of the ideas floating about for television, all of which relied on cumbersome systems using mechanical devices to optically scan and reproduce a scene. Philo thought there must be a better way, and as he reported later, the furrows created as he plowed a field on the ranch gave him the idea for building up an image line by line. Philo realized that this would be the key to creating an electronic television system.

Whether this actually happened, and how the 13-year-old Philo translated that inspiration into an all-electronic television system, is unclear. What is clear is that in 1922, during the spring semester of his freshman year at Rigby High School, Philo approached his chemistry teacher to discuss some ideas he had regarding a vacuum tube to capture moving images. Philo filled the blackboards with his sketches and ideas for an “image dissector,” a tube with a screen covered with cesium oxide opposite an electron gun. Light falling on the screen would cause the cesium oxide to emit photoelectrons, forming an “electron image” on the screen. Deflection coils would scan the screen with electrons from the gun at the back of the tube. Areas with more photoelectrons would reflect the incident cathode rays back to a detector, providing a signal that could be amplified.

A later version of the image dissector. Source:

Soon after discussing his ideas with his teacher, the Farnsworth family moved back to Utah. Philo finished high school and attended Brigham Young University but never completed a degree. By 1926 he had convinced a pair of what we’d now call “angel investors” to plow $6,000 into his image dissector idea, and he moved to California to chase his dream. Having already done some development on the tube at BYU, he was ready within a few months to apply for a patent, and on January 7, 1927 he submitted an application simply entitled “Television System.”

Reading Farnsworth’s 1927 patent application, it’s hard to believe that it was written by someone who hadn’t even encountered electricity for the first 12 years of his life. And yet a mere nine years later, young Philo had not only mastered the basics of electricity, he had progressed far enough to submit a patent application that described a complete television transmission system, from image capture to eventual reproduction on a receiver. What some people would take a lifetime to accomplish, Philo had managed before his 22nd birthday.

Enemies at the Gates

David Sarnoff, 1946. Source: Yousuf Karsh

By September of 1927, Farnsworth has successfully used his image dissector to transmit the world’s first electronic television signal — a single thin line scratched into a smoked glass slide. Progress was rapid from that point. A demonstration for the press was held in 1928, and in 1929 the first image of a human face, that of Farnsworth’s wife Pem, was transmitted.

Farnsworth wasn’t the only one with ideas about how to make electronic television a reality. Vladimir Zworykin had been working on his iconoscope since at least 1923, and while his design for a camera tube was superior to Farnsworth’s, which required impractically high light levels to deliver a usable picture, the iconoscope suffered from one major flaw: it didn’t work. Despite years of effort, Zworkykin had never been able to produce a tube that worked well enough to show his employers at Westinghouse. He did, however, have a patent for a television system built around this tube, issued in 1923.

Early drawing of the image dissector. It’s not clear if this is Farnsworth’s or his teacher’s copy.

Zworykin was recruited to radio giant RCA in 1930 by broadcasting head David Sarnoff. Sarnoff saw that television was going to be big and couldn’t afford to have RCA miss out. To hedge his bets, or perhaps to stifle the competition, Sarnoff offered Farnsworth $100,000 for his image dissector patent. Farnsworth stubbornly refused this princely sum, setting off a patent war between the boy inventor and one of the largest corporations in the country. RCA sued Farnsworth, claiming that Zworykin’s 1923 patent had priority even though he had never made a working version of his iconoscope, or “reduced to practice” in patent law parlance. RCA won the first round, as well as a subsequent appeal, but in 1934 a judge sided with Farnsworth, partly on the strength of handwritten notes made by Justin Tolman, Philo’s high school chemistry teacher. Tolman had sketched out Philo’s blackboard drawings at Rigby High all those years before, providing support for Farnsworth’s claim that he thought up the idea of electronic television at least a year before Zworykin’s patent was issued.

A Phyrric Victory

Farnsworth won the war, but the market would decide the real victor. The iconoscope was the superior tube for broadcast television, and once it was perfected it became the standard around which the television industry was built. It also effectively stranded the royalty payments that would have been due from RCA had Farnsworth’s tube taken off. The image dissector didn’t go away completely, though; given their need for abundant light, Farnsworth tubes were used for remote monitoring of furnaces and boilers, as well as arc welding and similar processes.

Apart from the image dissector, Farnsworth was a prolific inventor. He racked up hundreds of patents for everything from radar to telescopes to a baby incubator. He was also famous for the Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor, a nuclear fusion reactor used commercially to this day to produce neutrons and even by hobbyists to perform desktop fusion.

Sadly, Farnsworth died young, at 64, after a bout of pneumonia brought on by the stress of a failed business venture that bankrupted him. It’s a sad end for a life in which he accomplished so much, but his legacy will always be tied to that teenage dream of sending moving pictures through the air and those chalkboard drawings at Rigby High.

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