Philo Farnsworth

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Philo Farnsworth

Philo Taylor Farnsworth (born August 19, 1906 in Indiana Springs near Beaver in the US state of Utah , † March 11, 1971 in Salt Lake City ) was an American inventor, mainly in the field of television technology. He was the first, the electronic transmission of images with a cathode ray tube able to transmit and receive side and he is now one of the fathers of television .

The early years

Philo T. Farnsworth was born into a Mormon family in a log cabin in Indiana Springs, Utah . His parents were Lewis Edwin and Serena Bastian Farnsworth. It was named after his paternal grandfather, who built the wooden house in 1856 when the Mormons settled the country. Twelve years later the family moved to Rigby, Idaho , where Farnsworth's father worked as a rancher. The nearest school was four miles away. The young Philo made the way on horseback. They lived in simple circumstances, but for the first time had electricity in the house. In the attic of the house there were magazines on electrical engineering and electronics - for Farnsworth Jr. a whole new world that immediately fascinated him.

He was able to win one of his teachers to give him special lessons and was allowed to attend a course for older students. Very soon, as a twelve-year-old, he provided an example of his extraordinarily early technical talent. Instead of laboriously moving household laundry in a mechanical washing machine by hand, as usual, he constructed an electric motor and connected it to the device. At 14, it is said, the parallel furrows in a potato field inspired him to imagine how images could be transmitted - line by line, with a cathode ray in the camera and picture tube. Television later worked exactly according to this principle.

His high school teacher Justin Tolman he painted quite a complex block diagram on television at the table and asked him for his opinion. Farnsworth was able to move to Brigham Young University in Provo , Utah after just two years in high school . At this time he met Elma "Pem" Garden in 1924, whom he married on May 27, 1926. After two years he had to drop out of college because his father died and his mother needed his help. He earned his living repairing and delivering radio sets. In 1927 they moved to the vicinity of San Francisco , where he found donors and helpers willing to support his television experiments.


watch TV

In 1926, the then 19-year-old Farnsworth convinced the donors George Everson and Les Gorrell of his idea of television, which provided him with 6,000 US dollars . Farnsworth pledged results within a year. Everson and Gorell, as well as friends and relatives, were constantly helping him implement his idea. In 1927 he made his first patent application. The first electronic camera exploded during the first test: total write-off. With new investors, Farnsworth had to start over. On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth succeeded in his laboratory in the presence of his sponsors, the world's first demonstration of the transmission of an image by purely electronic means. A picture of a dollar sign $ painted on a piece of paper and moved in front of the camera was transmitted and reproduced approximately the size of a postage stamp. Farnsworth commented soberly: "Here you go: electronic television".

New donors were found and work went on. In April 1930, his main competitor, Vladimir K. Zworykin, visited Farnsworth's laboratory. The naive Farnsworth explained his work to him and Zworykin is said to have said: "I wish I had invented it". Zworykin had worked for the Westinghouse company and filed a patent for an iconoscope in 1923 , but had since switched to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). However, Zworykin was not able to produce a functioning camera tube until 1933, which was largely identical to Farnsworth's construction.

The success brought the inventor no luck, but many years of angry confrontations with the powerful Group RCA. The RCA's business policy was to monopolize the promising television market by purchasing all relevant patents in order to later earn money from the sale of licenses for the manufacture of equipment. But Farnsworth wanted to exploit his invention himself. The RCA denied him the right to do so, with reference to their patent from 1923. The process, led by the RCA with a lot of money and many lawyers, dragged on over years and through several instances. Eventually Farnsworth won and the RCA had to agree to pay royalties. The decisive factor was probably the testimony of a previous teacher and his precise memory of a construction drawing with which Farnsworth had clarified his ideas as a 15-year-old.

In 1931 Farnsworth continued his work at Philco . In March 1932 his son Kenny died, but Farnsworth was under so much pressure that he had to send his wife Pem back home alone with the body in her luggage for the funeral. The resulting falling out with his wife led him to leave Philco.

At the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia , a public demonstration was held in August 1934 the television system of Farnsworth. The interest was huge, but only around 50 people fit in the projection room. The screen diagonal of the round screen was about 30 cm.

In the ongoing patent dispute, Farnsworth was banned from building and selling televisions. Farnsworth could not cope with this situation and became an alcoholic .

The United States Patent Office confirmed Farnsworth as the inventor in dispute # 64,027 against RCA in 1935.

From 1933 to 1938 there was even "Farnsworth Television, Inc." Unfortunately, television was reserved for military use during the Second World War , and Farnsworth's patents expired in 1947, so that he could no longer exploit them. While RCA paid for the patents, Farnsworth never got rich. In addition, the RCA still propagated itself and its technician Zworykin as the real inventor of television. But the concept of the cathode ray tube , as it evolved from Farnsworth's work, dominated the manufacture of televisions and similar display devices until the late 20th century when new technologies appeared.

Nuclear fusion and others

From 1949 Farnsworth abandoned all television-related projects and devoted himself to research into nuclear fusion . His fusor differed significantly from the usual systems in which magnetically enclosed plasma was slowly heated. Farnsworth developed a type of ion cannon that was less complicated and could actually initiate nuclear fusion, albeit with very little yield. When the fusor was introduced to the professional world in the late 1960s, it was the first device with which a controlled fusion process was clearly detectable. At the time, nuclear fusion was hoped to provide a quick and final solution to all energy problems, but all attempts of this kind have so far failed due to practical implementation. However, the fusor was repeatedly set up in a modified form by various institutions in order to investigate its usefulness as a neutron source .

Farnsworth invented numerous other devices and components in television technology in radar systems , in the American missile early warning system and submarine - detectors were used, in addition, an electron microscope , an incubator for babies and a gastroscope .

The late years

Honor roll in San Francisco

Farnsworth had idealistic hopes for television. He saw it as a teaching tool that would help defeat illiteracy , that parents and children could learn together; The view of foreign countries and customs would promote international understanding, wars would be superfluous. Reality shattered these illusions. Farnsworth fell into depression and alcoholism , had a nervous breakdown , and was hospitalized, including intermittent electric shocks . In 1947, his Maine home and laboratory were destroyed in a fire. Discouraged and powerless, he turned away from the main theme of his working life. Later, when his health was restored, he dealt with other problems. There was no television set in his family, he explained to his son Kent about the television program: “There is nothing to see there that is worth it, we will not watch it in this household and I do not want it to appear on your intellectual menu. “ ( There's nothing on it worthwhile, and we're not going to watch it in this household, and I don't want it in your intellectual diet ) .

Farnsworth died penniless on March 11, 1971 of pneumonia in Salt Lake City . Even in the United States, it is almost forgotten today. Where he had his laboratory in San Francisco , a small plaque commemorates "The Genius of Green Street". In other countries other names are primarily associated with the development of television - in Germany, for example, those of Paul Nipkow , Ferdinand Braun and Manfred von Ardenne .

The “Golden Camera” from HÖRZU , model of the Farnsworth camera from 1936.

The television award Golden Camera of the magazine Hörzu is a model of the Farnsworth camera from 1936, which worked with the probe tube developed by Farnsworth .


In memory of Farnsworth, a character from the animated film series Futurama was named. Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth reflects both the technical genius and a certain inclination towards strange inventions (Mad Science) of the namesake.

The American screenwriter Aaron Sorkin also pays tribute to Farnsworth in his Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention . Farnsworth also appears in an episode of Sorkin's Sports Night series in a fictional anecdote in which Farnsworth's brother-in-law learns to blow glass to help Farnsworth.

In the TV science fiction series Warehouse 13 , small handheld devices are used for video telephony of the main characters, which were (fictionally) invented by Farnsworth and are named after him. There is also a camera (also fictitious) invented by Farnsworth, which plays back images via a holoprojector.


  • Patent US3258402 : Electric discharge device for producing interactions between nuclei. Inventor: PT Farnsworth.
  • Patent US3386883 : Method and apparatus for producing nuclear-fusion reactions. Inventor: PT Farnsworth.
  • Patent US3664920 : Electrostatic containment in fusion reactors. Inventor: PT Farnsworth.


  • Paul Schatzkin: The Boy Who Invented Television. Tanglewood Books, 2004, ISBN 1-928791-30-1
  • Evan I. Schwartz: The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television. Harper Paperbacks, 2003, ISBN 978-0-06-093559-7
  • Daniel Stashower: The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television. Broadway, 2002, ISBN 978-0-7679-0759-0
  • Donald G. Godfrey: Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television. University of Utah Press, 2001, ISBN 0-87480-675-5 .
  • Elma G. Farnsworth: Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier. Pemberly Kent Publishers, 1990, ISBN 0-9623276-0-3
  • George Everson: The Story of Television: The Life of Philo T. Farnsworth. WW Norton & Company, 1969, ISBN 0-405-06042-4
  • Russell Roberts: Philo T. Farnsworth: The Life of Television's Forgotten Inventor (Unlocking the Secrets of Science). ISBN 1-58415-176-5

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