The most important man hardly anyone knows
Philo T. Farnsworth should be as famous as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell.
That Farnsworth is, if not unknown then certainly obscure compared with Edison and Bell, seems to me both a pity and the basis for a fascinating story.
It is debatable, but hardly hyperbolic, to claim that Farnsworth is the most significant inventor of the past 200 years.
What’s not in question is that Farnsworth invented electronic television.
Which is a technology that’s about as ubiquitous as the lightbulb and the phone, but vastly more influential.
I recently read a fine biography of Farnsworth — Evan I. Schwartz’s “The Last Lone Inventor: David Sarnoff vs. Philo T. Farnsworth.”
Schwartz’s book was published in 2002 but I suspect, considering Farnsworth remains in effect anonymous a dozen years on, that it must not have sold an awful lot of copies.
I had heard of Farnsworth before I noticed the book at the Baker County Library, but I knew almost nothing of his unique achievements.
In 2006 I saw, but didn’t visit, a museum in Rigby, Idaho, near Idaho Falls, that honors Farnsworth.
He lived in Rigby for part of his childhood. It was there, while he was plowing a potato field on his parents’ farm in the summer of 1921, that Farnsworth, then just 14, had his epiphany.
The science involved far exceeds my meager understanding but basically the teenager, who when he looked at the even lines of furrows he was making in the field thought not of crops but of electrons, recognized the essential truth of television. Which is that the mechanical techniques TV experimenters had thus far employed (using spinning discs to capture and reproduce moving images) would never work well.
Only electricity — specifically, electrons — moves fast enough to make television feasible, Farnsworth concluded.
He was, of course, right.
(Surely you’ve noticed that your TV doesn’t have any spinning discs.)
His “Eureka!” moment arrives on page 21 of Schwartz’s book.
Over the remaining 279 pages the author details Farnsworth’s crusade — that word seems to me most appropriate because it conveys the obsession that drives inventors — to perfect his concept.
Schwartz soon introduces readers to Farnsworth’s adversary Sarnoff. He was an executive at RCA, the New York company that dominated the American radio industry and, later, television.
The Cliff’s Notes version would describe Sarnoff as the ruthless and sophisticated urban tycoon who outwitted and bullied Farnsworth, the brilliant but naive farmboy.
And that overview, however superficial, is not altogether inaccurate.
But Schwartz, fortunately, tells a tale that is far richer in detail, and as a result far more compelling.
Ultimately, although Farnsworth beats Sarnoff in a legal sense — the dispute over various TV invention patents were the subject of years-long court battles — Sarnoff wins in the court of public opinion.
It’s not that Sarnoff ended up renowned forever after as the “father of television” — indeed, I suspect his name is no more familiar to most Americans today than Farnsworth’s is.
Rather, because Sarnoff’s RCA was so intimately associated with TV during the technology’s infancy, that company, not any individual inventor, was widely credited as being responsible.
It wasn’t until decades later — Farnsworth died in 1971, having spent much of the final three decades of his life experimenting with cold fusion — that Farnsworth began to receive accolades, albeit a fraction of what he deserved.
By then, of course, it was too late.
Farnsworth wasn’t even inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame until 1981, eight years after the institution opened in Akron, Ohio.
He was its 77th member.
I doubt anyone has the audacity to argue that 76 Americans have invented technology more important than television.
Yet because unlike Edison, Farnsworth toiled in his workshops without attracting more than cursory media attention, his name never became associated in the public’s mind with television the way Edison’s was with the incandescent lightbulb.
I don’t mean to suggest that Farnsworth’s story is a tragedy.
He ended up making quite a lot of money from his invention — a pittance compared with what he ought to have earned, to be sure, but enough to live a comfortable life.
Still and all, I find it fascinating that an inventor who’s in part responsible for everything from the Kennedy-Nixon debate to Neil Armstrong’s giant leap to MTV to “Dancing With The Stars,” could be so obscure that perhaps the most prominent homage to his life is a museum in a small town in Eastern Idaho.
Jayson Jacoby is editor