Television was invented in a small East Idaho town.
So claim the people of Rigby, who proudly hail their connection to inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, known as “the father of television.” A street, middle school and museum bear Farnsworth’s name. “The birthplace of TV” is stamped in perpetuity on the city’s seal.
John Logie Baird is known as “the father of television” in the United Kingdom. The same goes for Kenjiro Takayanagi in Japan; Kalman Tihanyi, a Hungarian; and Henri de France from – you guessed it – France. Even in the United States, inventors Charles Francis Jenkins and Vladimir Zworykin get kudos.
So who’s the real inventor of TV? In truth, there’s no definitive answer in the same way one can say Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb or Alexander Graham Bell gave us the telephone – both idols of Farnsworth, as it happens.
There are many different versions of the story of television’s contrivance, “each reflecting the self-interest of whoever is telling it,” Daniel Stashower wrote in his 2002 book, “The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television.”
“At the same time, the story tends to engender a great deal of flag-waving, and nearly every country in the world lays claim to the true and only ‘father of television,’ ” Stashower wrote.
Idaho teen invention a ‘direct ancestor’ of TV
On Sept. 7, 1927, in San Francisco, 21-year-old Farnsworth demonstrated an electronic television for the first time, with a camera relaying shapes on a sheet of glass.
For years prior, inventors across the world had searched for a way to capture and transmit moving images. Others, like Baird in England, devised slow, mechanical systems. Baird’s invention used a mechanical rotating disk with spiraling holes to scan images into electronic impulses that were transmitted through a cable.
“However, Farnsworth’s invention, which scanned images with a beam of electrons, is the direct ancestor of modern television,” media scholar Mitchell Stephens wrote in his article on television history for Grolier Encyclopedia.
As a high school boy on a farm near Rigby, Farnsworth obsessively read about advancements in communication technology and pondered how to transmit images more quickly than the crude, mechanical methods. Legend has it, Farnsworth’s light-bulb moment came while he was mowing a hay field that formed tidy rows.
He realized that a special kind of vacuum tube could capture an image, break it down into a series of lines transmitted through a beam of electrons and reproduce the image on a light-sensitive screen. Farnsworth sketched the device for his teacher, Justin Tolman, who had cultivated the 15-year-old’s scientific interests by allowing him to audit advanced classes.
“At the moment he conceived of electronic scanning, Farnsworth made an intuitive leap that would place him 10 years ahead of nearly every other television innovator in the world,” Stashower wrote. “He had rejected, by the age of 15, an entire system of technology to which other scientists would devote their lives.”
Farnsworth battled for patents
In the years after first devising what he called the “dissector tube,” Farnsworth secured investments from wealthy benefactors, patented the device and gained notoriety through public displays, like the one in San Francisco.
All the while, better-funded rivals were closing in and eyeing the potential profits in television. By the 1920s, the powerhouse Radio Corporation of American (RCA) had developed a keen interest in TV, and RCA’s ambitious president, David Sarnoff, offered to buy Farnsworth’s patent.
When Farnsworth declined, Sarnoff directed his lawyers to bog down Farnsworth in time-consuming patent litigation, attempting to prove that RCA’s inventor, Vladimir Zworykin, had first devised a camera tube similar to Farnsworth’s.
Farnsworth prevailed in 1935, thanks, in part, to the sketch he made for Tolman, which the teacher had preserved for 13 years. Sarnoff eventually relented and signed a licensing deal, agreeing to pay $1 million and royalties for Farnsworth’s patents.
It was a humbling experience for Sarnoff, who often boasted that “we don’t pay royalties,” according to Gary Edgerton’s book “The Columbia History of Television.” But after securing the patents, RCA’s deep pockets allowed the company to commercialize TV, starting with a broadcast of the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
“Over the next half-century, David Sarnoff, Vladimir Zworykin and RCA earned the lion’s share of the money and the glory,” Edgerton wrote.
Which figure is worthy of the title “father of television” remains a matter of debate. But without question, Farnsworth, who eventually secured hundreds of radio and television patents, was instrumental in developing TV as we know it.