“I know that God exists. I know that I have never invented anything. I have been a medium by which these things were given to the culture as fast as the culture could earn them. I give all the credit to God.”
–Philo T. Farnsworth
In the 20s-30s, Philo T. Farnsworth “captured light in a jar” and is widely considered the inventor of television. Vladimir Zworykin developed it in the early 30′s. By late 1939, sixteen companies were making or planning to make television sets in the US, but the new sets were often incompatible using a variety of scan lines. The BBC actually made the first “HDTV” broadcast in 1936 (using 405-lines).
Farnsworth came up with the basic technological concepts of electronic television at the age of 14, while preparing a potato field with a disc harrow, and transmitted the first television image in 1927 at the age of 21. He was subsequently embroiled in a long and acrimonious patent dispute with RCA, which he eventually won, after one of his old schoolteachers came forward with a diagram of a basic television system that Farnsworth had drawn for him as a teenager.
The widow of Philo T. Farnsworth, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, celebrated her 96th birthday this week. Mrs. Farnsworth granted Interactive TV’s Tracy Swedlow an interview.
[itvt]: Your late husband was Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television…
Farnsworth: To me, by the way, he was “Phil.” He took the “o” off his name, because in grade school they called him “Fido.” He was Phil long before I met him.
[itvt]: You were obviously closely involved in the birth of television, and you have witnessed some of the most important historical developments in the history of communications and media.
Farnsworth: Yes I have.
[itvt]: Among other things, you were the first person to appear on television.
Farnsworth: That is true.
[itvt]: How did that happen?
Farnsworth: It was in our laboratory in San Francisco. I guess the reason I was the first person to appear on television was because I was the only other person around in the lab at the time.
[itvt]: Did your husband realize how important his invention would prove to be?
Farnsworth: What he said is that the television would make it a smaller world, because one country could see how the other country lived, and therefore countries would be able to solve their problems around the conference table instead of on the battlefield.
[itvt]: Did he ever talk to you about how he saw television developing in the future?
Farnsworth: One thing I remember him saying was that eventually there will come a time when a television set could hang on the wall like a painting.
[itvt]: The laboratory you mentioned was part of a small company–quite similar to one of today’s high-tech start-ups–that was set up by your husband, yourself and your brother, correct?
Farnsworth: Yes. We had gotten $25,000 in funding, and Phil had promised to have a transmission within a year. He succeeded, because he thought it out so well. He saw the problems that would happen–and there did turn out to be quite a few problems.
[itvt]: What kinds of problems did you encounter?
Farnsworth: Well, of course, the main thing was to get as many lines per inch as he could, because the more lines per inch you had, the clearer the picture. We spent a whole week in the Los Angeles library trying to find out just how fast you would be able to send a picture to fool the eye into seeing it as a picture, rather than as a lot of dots. So he had that to start with.
[itvt]: What was the first image generated by these electrons–i.e. the first TV image?
Farnsworth: The first image was a straight, horizontal line.
[itvt]: How much time did it take to move from being able to show a horizontal line to being able to capture your face?
Farnsworth: That line was received on September 7th, 1927, and in 1928 he was showing a full picture. In 1929, they made a film transmitter, and were able to have a continuous transmission, so that films didn’t jump from one frame to the next.
[itvt]: I understand that one of your husband’s proudest moments was when he saw the TV images that were beamed back when the first men walked on the moon.
Farnsworth: Yes. Phil turned to me and said, “That has made it all worthwhile!”
[itvt]: I take it that your husband told you how he came up with the idea of television? I heard that he was riding on a tractor, and that the idea just came to him.
Farnsworth: Actually, he was driving a 2-horse team. He was in a field planting potatoes. But, as Phil would say, he never invented anything: he was the conduit through which these things were given to the people.
[itvt]: So he felt that his inventions just appeared in his mind and that he simply communicated them to the public?
[itvt]: He had little formal training in electronics, correct?
Farnsworth: He used to say that invention was as if people were building a temple and had had to put up elaborate scaffolding to build that temple. They would get so involved with the scaffolding that they lost sight of the temple. He hadn’t had much formal training, and so he didn’t have all these preconceptions that many other people had–preconceptions that made it hard for them to let go of their scaffolding and actually build the temple.
[itvt]: The story of how he had to defend his patents against RCA is well-known. Those must have been trying times for you.
Farnsworth: When Phil gave a talk, he had slides with diagrams. Well, there was always a front row of people with cameras, and RCA would take the photographs those people took, build the equipment he was showing, and then go into interference with him in Washington. Now this was a very expensive thing to go through, and they had wrecked a number of lives that way. They were trying it with him, but they finally had to give in and take a license.
RCA used to say, “We collect royalties, we don’t pay them.” He was the first one to make them take a license.