BOB GARFIELD: Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the first television broadcast in the United States. It was an obscure event, accomplished by a man who has an obscure place in history. Kate [sic] Rebillot presents the saga of Philo T. Farnsworth.
KRIS REBILLOT: The next time you point the remote to turn on the tube, pause for a moment to ponder the machine itself and the man many claim was the first to bring it to life. In a new book, The Last Lone Inventor, author Evan Schwartz details the life of Philo T. Farnsworth, a Rigby, Idaho farm boy in love with radio -- a 14 year old kid who memorized Einstein's photo electronic theory; a kid who instinctively knew that inventors trying to transmit moving pictures through spinning mechanical disks would fail. Schwartz says Farnsworth, a high school freshman in 1921, conceived modern television while engaged in the mind-numbing chore of ploughing a potato field.
EVAN SCHWARTZ: When he saw the parallel furrows in the field that he made, that was his eureka moment --that you had to scan a moving image line by line by line -- transmit it -- and then repaint the image line by line on a photo-sensitive surface -- the television screen --and then you would have electronic television.
KRIS REBILLOT: Farnsworth, shy and gangly, found his first backers at the age of 19. A 6,000 dollar investment was parlayed into a 25,000 dollar deal with California bankers. Farnsworth set up a laboratory in San Francisco with the devoted help of his 18 year old wife who kept detailed logs of all their experiments. An obsessed insomniac, Farnsworth gave himself problems to solve before going to bed. Shortly after his 21st birthday, he hit pay dirt.
EVAN SCHWARTZ: It took about a year, just as he promised his backers, and on September 7th, 1927 was the first line -- it was just a line of blue light that went through the whole system and it was received on that reception tube, and at that moment he said there you have it, folks, electronic television.
KRIS REBILLOT: There is general agreement that Farnsworth never received the credit he deserved, but there are those who say the young inventor sabotaged himself by clinging to the romantic notion that his genius should be and would be enough to bring television to life. The world changed while Farnsworth toiled in his lab. Earlier inventions by Edison and Bell spawned ever-growing huge corporations better suited to bringing innovation to the marketplace. In particular, Farnsworth was up against RCA's David Sarnoff, the headline-seeking king of radio who saw himself as the person who would take broadcasting to its next zenith. TV Historian Tom Genova says Sarnoff was driven to build up his reputation even if he had to bend the truth.
TOM GENOVA: In the early days there's a couple stories about the fact that he claimed to be the sole telegraph operator in gathering the news reports in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, although in reality he was not the sole operator -- there were other operators -- but he used this story which he told over and over again to enhance his credibility and to gain a reputation.
KRIS REBILLOT: Farnsworth could never match Sarnoff's financial and political clout. The only thing that kept the inventor from financial ruin and total obscurity was his decision to hire a bright patent attorney. In 1928, Sarnoff made his own key hire -- a Russian scientist who was secretly charged with the task of developing a television system for RCA. That scientist visited Farnsworth, ultimately prompting the inventor to successfully sue RCA for patent infringement. In 1931, Sarnoff himself visited Farnsworth's Green Street Lab offering a paltry 100,000 dollars for the equipment and the intellectual property. Farnsworth was out of town at the time, and summarily turned the offer down. The two men never met. Though there is no evidence Sarnoff bore the inventor any personal ill will, there would be no sharing of the spotlight. Sarnoff pulled off his biggest PR coup at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, before the standards for television had even been adopted. Author Evan Schwartz.
EVAN SCHWARTZ: Sarnoff knew instinctively that television had to debut at the Fair. He saw that the theme of the fair was The World of Tomorrow: Building the Future -- and he built a sprawling television pavilion and that's when he had his famous quote "we are now adding sight to sound." And he introduced Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first president televised. He had the stature to get press attention far and wide. And from then on, the world credited that day as the birth of television.
KRIS REBILLOT: RCA eventually struck a deal to license Farnsworth's technology, but the victory was bittersweet. All work on television ground to a halt as World War II approached. Sarnoff's stature kept growing as Farnsworth realized his controlling patents would expire before his vision of television would be realized. The death of his dream sent Farnsworth into a deep depression. He started drinking during the day; he unwittingly got hooked on a highly addictive sedative. He was hospitalized in 1940.
LAURA PLAYER: He expected a lot more from people than they could give, and I guess that -- he expected so much of himself too.
KRIS REBILLOT: Laura Player is Farnsworth's younger sister.
LAURA PLAYER: Phil was very disappointed when d-- when television came on. He thought it was a lofty thing - a thing that should be for learning --great, great things were going to be learned and shared by countries. It was going to be a melding place for the whole world -- and it was all of these things. But when Phil saw some of the things, he thought Mmmmm-- it's a waste of time! You know? And it still is.
KRIS REBILLOT: Farnsworth eventually turned his attention to fusion and other inventions. His 8 year old son was the only kid at school who had to beg to have a working TV at home. Farnsworth's most public recognition came in 1957. He was a mystery guest on the television show I've Got a Secret. [CLIP FROM THE TV SHOW I'VE GOT A SECRET]
GARY MOORE: This is the famous Dr. Philo T. Farnsworth who invented electronic television! [APPLAUSE] Henry?
HENRY: Dr. truthfully -- are you sorry? [LAUGHTER]
PHILO T. FARNSWORTH: No. No. I'm not.
HENRY: Well -- it's up to you! [LAUGHTER]
GARY MOORE: I asked him the same question; he said sometimes. [LAUGHTER] [LAUGHS] He said sometimes.
KRIS REBILLOT: Farnsworth won 80 dollars and a carton of Winston cigarettes for his appearance.
GARY MOORE: Dr. Farnsworth we can stand here for, sit here for many, many hours and talk. Most fascinating man I've met in many a long year. But unfortunately television being what it is - it's your baby - and we're out of time. [LAUGHTER] So here are your Winstons, sir, the money that you won, and our eternal gratitude. I'd be out of work if it weren't for you. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]
KRIS REBILLOT: Philo Farnsworth died in 1971 at the age of 64, isolated from the world of business and science. Only a handful of family and friends attended his funeral. Today, a simple plaque on the corner of Green and Sansom [sp?] streets in San Francisco marks the spot where he performed his magic. For On the Media, this is Kris Rebillot in San Francisco.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, why TV wrestling is going stone cold and why The Thing of comic book fame is now and forever Jewish!
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.
"Blue Rondo A La Turk"
by The Dave Brubeck Quartet