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Philo Farnsworth

inventor of television

Philo Farnsworth

Philo Taylor Farnsworth was born on a farm near Beaver Creek, Utah, on August 19, 1906. When he was 12, his family moved to a ranch in Rigby, Idaho, where he attended high school.

An exceptionally bright boy, Farnsworth began thinking about and inventing things at an early age. At the age of 13 he won a prize from Science and Invention magazine for developing a thief-proof automobile ignition switch. In 1922, he drew a diagram for his chemistry teacher that would later become the basis for the invention for which he is best known. The diagram was for an "image dissector" vacuum tube that could revolutionize television. At the time, a television was a device that mechanically scanned an image through a spinning disc with holes cut in it, then projected a tiny, unstable reproduction of what was being scanned on a screen. Farnsworth imagined using a vacuum tube that could reproduce images electronically, by shooting a beam of electrons, line by line, against a light-sensitive screen. Farnsworth's teacher didn't know what to make of the diagram, as he had never even heard of television, but he kept it anyway. It's a good thing he did, too, as that diagram would prove very useful many years later.

Farnsworth entered Brigham Young University in 1923, but had to leave two years later upon the death of his father in order to help provide for his family. In 1926 he married Elma "Pem" Gardner, with whom he eventually had four children. That same year, he became research director at Crocker Research Labs in San Francisco.

The Invention of Television

The first patent applications for the "Farnsworth television system were filed in January of 1927. On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth and a small group of investors watched as his system transmitted its first crude image -- of a line drawn on a black background. He was awarded a patent for his all-electronic television in 1930.

Farnsworth with his television

Farnsworth's patent for "television" was challenged almost immediately. In 1928, Vladimir Zworykin, an engineer for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), invented a television that used a cathode ray tube. The ten-year court battle over whose device came first was finally settled when Farnsworth's high school chemistry teacher produced the diagram he had drawn in 1922, proving that Farnsworth had conceived of the concept long before RCA had. RCA was eventually forced to pay Farnsworth $1 million for various patent licenses related to television scanning, focusing, synchronizing, contrast, and controls devices. By the time the television became a standard household item, Farnsworth was responsible for about 100 of its individual components.

Other Work

Farnsworth was a true workaholic, and often got so immersed in his work that he would forget to eat. By the time of his death he held some 150 U.S. patents and over 100 foreign patents for a variety of electronic and mechanical devices, including a "cold" cathode ray tube, an air traffic control system, a baby incubator, the gastroscope, an electronic microscope, and even an array of tubes (which he called "fusors") that could produce a 30-second fusion reaction.

Philo Taylor Farnsworth died in Salt Lake City, Utah, on March 11, 1971.


The Museum of Broadcast Communications

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The Robinson Library >> Telecommunication

This page was last updated on August 05, 2018.