The Love Song of Philo T. Farnsworth
Philo Farnsworth, if the name sounds vaguely familiar than you might just be a Futurama watcher. If you don’t watch and know who I’m talking about or even better are a fan then, “YAY!” and for those of you who don’t know, don’t sweat it you’re not alone. One of the forgotten greats, Farnsworth should be a household name, namely because one of his biggest inventions is in practically every home.
Did you guess it yet? If you said Television, then you are correct!! [If you didn’t, but wish you had, then good enough!] Philo Farnsworth wasn’t necessarily a genius, he didn’t escape the holocaust like Einstein, nor did he make millions from his inventions like you might expect. In fact, Farnsworth lead– by all accounts — a fairly unassuming life. Interesting when find out that not only did he invent the modern television, but he did it at the ripe old age of 14 years old. No, not 41 that wasn’t a mistype, he was 14 years old.
Growing up modestly in a farm household, he first proposed his idea [very thoroughly, think chalkboards full of information] to his high school chemistry professor. When Farnsworth turned 18 he went on to join the Navy to attempt to produce his idea, but alas because the Navy would hold the patents to whatever he made, he pursued and received an Honorable Discharge. After trying [and failing] to create his own radio repair company he finally had the chance to create the first fully electronic television.
[Loony hint: I should make it clear, at the time television was being pursued as a mechanical invention. As in rotating and vibrating mirrors, lights and all sorts of other crazy seemingly Rube Goldberg-esque machines. It’s hard to imagine what might have come out of it had the electric television had not come about when it did]
After designing — and finally — constructing the first electric television the first image ever transmitted was a simple line. When investors were worried that it would not make money, the second [and semi public] demonstration of the device rightfully showed another simple image, the dollar sign.
It’s hard to imagine now, with how inseparable television has become in our normal day to day lives, that there was a time people questioned if television was going to be popular. Ironically, Farnsworth made only one, single, and short appearance on television on a show called I’ve got a secret a CBS quiz show. When no one could guess that he was the inventor of the television, he won $80 and a carton of cigarettes.
You might feel bad for the guy, like Tesla he has been lost to the wash of time. Later in life he would end up questioning his invention, seeing how it changed the family dynamic, but that would all change. As Elma Farnsworth [his wife] recounts when man first set foot on the moon: We were watching it, and, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Phil turned to me and said, “Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.” Before then, he wasn’t too sure.
He would also make advancements in just about everything he got his hands on, at the time of his death he held 300 US and international patents. His inventions contributed to the development of radar, infra-red night vision devices, the electron microscope, the baby incubator, the gastroscope, and the astronomical telescope, just to name a few. He wasn’t too shy about giving his wife credit for all of it too, in fact she was technically the first person to be aired on television.
But my favorite of his inventions is the fusor. Also known as the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusion reactor, something so simple you can build one at home. In fact there have been children who have built one. When Farnsworth was working on the Television he noticed a peculiar reaction in some of his cathode tubes, with the birth of the Hydrogen bomb and the promise of unlimited clean energy, he developed and tested the device. Unfortunately the design — although ingenuous — was able to produce nuclear fusion, but it was not able to produce more power than was put into the system. Which, it should be noted is still a problem that we are trying to overcome today. There are still people tinkering with the design and trying to build something that will work and a message board that I am very fond of because of the ingenuity of the people there.
I hate to keep going because the story doesn’t have a happy ending, like far too many stories of inventors who should be more famous than any celebrity. Unable to continue to secure funding, he cashed in everything he had his stock and his life insurance, just to keep the lights on… but it wasn’t enough. In the end he died from pneumonia after drinking himself pretty much to death. A eerily similar fate to Tesla. After his death his wife spent the rest of her life to get her husband the historical recognition he deserved.
I don’t know, maybe it’s the fact that I am typing this on computer. Or that the television is on in the background. But I don’t think that this post, or frankly anything that I could do could make what happened right. Maybe I’m being sentimental or maybe as a young inventor, I just don’t want to have the same thing happen to me, but I hate seeing history take a dump on someone who doesn’t deserve it [and yes that is a highly scientific and technical term].
If you’re interested in any of this, you can read more about the man — here!
The associated press (2006). Elma Gardner Farnsworth, 98, Who Helped Husband Develop TV, Dies The New York Times : http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/03/arts/television/03farnsworth.html?_r=2&scp=2&sq=philo+farnsworth&st=nyt&oref=slogin&
Edwin Cartlidge (2007). The Secrete way of Amateur Fusion Physics World : http://physicsworldarchive.iop.org/index.cfm?action=summary&doc=20/3/phwv20i3a18@pwa-xml&qt=the%20secret%20world%20of%20amateur%20fusion
HarperCollins (2005). The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television E. I. Schwartz (New York: HarperCollins-Perennial, 2002) 323 pages. Reviewed by A. L. Johnson IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 52 (3), 404-405 DOI: 10.1109/TEM.2005.851523