Farnsworth, Philo Taylor, 1906-1971

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1906-08-19
Death 1971-03-11

Biographical notes:

Inventor of television (Farnsworth) and financier (Everson).

Philo T. Farnsworth, born 1906, was the inventor of television. His first transmission was in 1927 in San Francisco. George Everson, born in 1885, was Farnsworth's original financial backer and secretary of the television company they formed. Everson also was recruiter of scientific personnel for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California, 1942-1954.

From the description of The Philo T. Farnsworth-George Everson collection, 1914-. (Scottsdale Public Library). WorldCat record id: 19538809

Philo Taylor Farnsworth was born in southwestern Utah to Lewis and Serena (Bastian) Farnsworth on August 19, 1906 in a log cabin that his grandfather, a follower of Brigham Young, had built. As a child, Farnsworth enjoyed reading science books and magazines and had converted most of the family's appliances to use electricity by the time he entered high school in Rigby, Idaho. In 1922, Farnsworth entered Brigham Young University and, in the same year, sketched out his idea for an image dissector vacuum tube that could revolutionize broadcasting.

When Farnsworth's father died two years later, he left school to take a public works job in Salt Lake City, Utah to support his family. He married Elma Pem Gardner (1908-2006) in 1926 and the couple had four children. Farnsworth did not abandon his interest in engineering and in 1926 convinced some friends, including George Everson (1885-1982), to fund his inventing efforts. In 1927, Farnsworth made the first broadcast using an all-electric television in San Francisco, California. The device was patented in 1930 and Vladimir Zworykin of RCA visited Farnsworth's laboratory in the same year. RCA later claimed that Zworykin had invented the device, and the resulting patent battle, which ended with RCA paying Farnsworth $1 million for the relevant patents, lasted for over ten years. Farnsworth's company, Farnsworth Television Inc., was sold to ITT in 1949. In addition to television, Farnsworth invented a cold cathode ray tube, a baby incubator, and the first electronic microscope. Philo T. Farnsworth died of pneumonia on March 11, 1971.

From the guide to the Philo T. Farnsworth and George Everson Papers, 1914-1999, (Arizona State University Libraries Special Collections)

Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1906-1971) was born on 19 August 1906, to Lewis Edwin and Serena Bastian Farnsworth in a log cabin at Indian Creek, near the town of Beaver in Southwestern Utah. He was the namesake of his paternal grandfather who built the log home in 1856 while settling the area at the request of Mormon Church leader Brigham Young.

Philo was six years old when the hand-cranked Bell telephone and Edison gramophone became well known, just old enough to become inquisitive about motors, magnets, coils, armatures, and other components of the newly popular electric power. By the time his family moved to his Uncle Albert's 240 acre ranch near Rigby, Idaho the thirteen-year-old was reading everything about electricity that he could get his hands on, including instructions to the farm's Delco power system. However, Philo's avid reading of Popular Science and other technical magazines found in the attic, soon had him using the power system to operate the family's washing machine, sewing machine, and barn lights.

Philo's appetite for knowledge gave him a mental grasp of such developing concepts as Einstein's theory of relativity, sub-atomic particles, radio waves, and mechanic disc-operated television. He was also well ahead of his classmates in most math and science subjects by the time he entered Rigby High School. In fact, it was in his first chemistry class that he disclosed his idea of an "image dissector tube." Such a vacuum tube, he suggested, was capable of operating a television unit electronically by shooting a stream of electrons toward a fluorescent screen, thereby accurately reflecting pre-designated images.

With the loss of his uncle's farm in 1922, Philo's family moved to Provo, Utah. For the next two years, Philo attended Brigham Young University. It was there that he was introduced to Elma "Pem" Gardner in 1924. However, just three months later, he was forced to leave school to assume the role of family provider when his father died.

Farnsworth's attempts to provide support for himself and his family were many and varied during this period. He labored on logging crews, repaired and delivered radios, sold electrical products door to door, and worked on the railroad as an electrician. His acumen in math and science helped him pass the Navy's Officer Candidate School Examination, but after being assigned to Annapolis as a first-year midshipman he decided a military career was not his goal. He returned home to work on a Salt Lake City street cleaning crew. It was his knowledge of Salt Lake City's street plan that eventually earned him a supervisor position for an out-of-state charitable organization managed by George Everson and Leslie Gorrell.

Everson and Gorrell were professional fundraisers from California who were impressed with Farnsworth's ability to organize a job, dedicate himself to completing the tasks involved, and motivate other team members, They listened to him recount his ideas of electronic television as they performed the mundane work of folding, stuffing, sorting, and stamping bulk mailings of fundraising letters, and became convinced of the investment possibilities such a venture could bring. So impressed were these two men with Farnsworth's knowledge of current television literature and his own innovative concepts, they offered to financially support the venture under a formal partnership know as Everson, Farnsworth & Gorrell. Three days later, on 27 May 1926, Philo and Pem were married.

On 7 September 1927, George Everson watched with staff members as Farnsworth slowly turned on the controls. An unmistakable line appeared across the small bluish square of light on the end of the Oscillite tube. Although fuzzy at first, it became distinct with adjustment, and through the visual static each could see the side of a black triangle previously inserted by Pem's brother, Cliff Gardner.

For the next three years support was provided by a group of bankers and investors calling themselves Crocker Research Laboratories. In March 1929, Jesse McCarger took the reins of the fledgling group, provided substantially more support and renamed the company Television, Inc. It was during this period (1929-1933), that publicity catapulted the promise of this little organization. However, with public awareness came the problems of competition, races to the patent office and legal disputes. The most significant and long-lasting conflict began in April 1930, when Dr. Vladimir Zworykin of Westinghouse visited Farnsworth's Laboratory. For three days he was a guest of the investors, who hoped to persuade Zworykin's employer to purchase their small company. But, unbeknownst to the Farnsworth staff, Zworykin had recently been hired by RCA, who sent him to the laboratory to obtain information for replicating the necessary television equipment. For the next decade Farnsworth and his attorneys were involved in court battles endeavoring to convince the United States Patent Office that it was he and not Vladimir Zworykin who had invented the basic components of electronic television. It was later to be one of Farnsworth's great professional satisfactions to have rival competitor RCA concede and pay one million dollars for rights to the Farnsworth patents.

During 1933, Farnsworth acquired enough investment capital to restructure the organization and change its name to Farnsworth Television, Inc. This name remained until 1938, when management purchased the Capehart Company of Fort Wayne along with a general household utilities plant in Marion, Indiana. With these acquisitions they were prepared to compete in the blossoming radio and phonograph manufacturing market. But while endeavoring to develop and refine his electronic television invention, Farnsworth was also responsible for providing investors with saleable products during the post-depression economy and directing and supervising laboratory personnel.

With the slowdown in radio and television production during the war years, Farnsworth closed down his Fort Wayne, Indiana home and moved permanently to Fernworth Farm in Brownfield, Maine. The Farnsworth Company had been converted to the production of war materials and was supplying electronic components to the federal government. With a subsidy from the Farnsworth Company, Farnsworth was able to spend more time developing ideas that had previously been dwarfed by the race for television patents. From 1939-1948 he utilized the farms lumber resources for the production of ammunition boxes for the War Production Board. The family venture was organized under the name of Farnsworth Wood Products Company and flourished for the duration of the war.

Anticipating the end of the war, RCA, Philco, and several other large companies received their commercial licenses from the FCC. They immediately began retooling their equipment for the commercial manufacturing of televisions. The Farnsworth Company quickly found itself at the rear of this aggressive pack of electronics firms in the scramble for parts and materials. In addition, the one-year grace period allowed by the federal government for repayment of its wartime bank loans was up. The company found itself financially strapped and frantically tried to sell its assets in order to remain afloat in the post-war market. When all but the original plant had been sold, substantial bank loans still remained outstanding. The board of directors voted to sell the company to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in 1949. Under the new management, Farnsworth retained his position as vice president of research and advance engineering. His primary function within the ITT system was to engineer his staff toward timely completion of space-age contracts awarded by the Air Force and other government agencies. During the next eighteen years he was to make ITT his home. It was within this environment that he invented components of the Defense Early Warning Signal, the PPI Projector (which allowed safe control of air traffic from the ground), an infrared telescope, submarine detection devices, radar calibration equipment, and other inventions.

Although his health continued to deteriorate, he actively worked on many military research projects. Nevertheless, due to illness and the time necessary for recuperation, ITT transferred him from his responsibilities as vice president of research to that of systems consultant. As such, he was able to follow his own pursuits and still remain on the ITT payroll. Fortunately, ITT management agreed to nominally fund his new controlled fusion ideas. He and staff members invented and refined a series of fusion reaction tubes called "fusors." Publicity about his activities persuaded ITT management to raise Farnsworth's salary and promote him to the position of director of research. For Scientific reasons unknown to Farnsworth and his staff, the necessary reaction lasted no longer than thirty seconds. In December 1965, ITT came under pressure from its board of directors to terminate the expensive fusion research and sell the Farnsworth subsidiary. It was only from the urging of President Harold Geneen that the 1966 budget was accepted, permitting ITT's fusion research one additional year. However, the stress associated with this managerial ultimatum threw Farnsworth into relapse. One year later he was terminated and eventually allowed medical retirement.

In the spring off 1967, Farnsworth and his family moved back to Utah to continue his fusion research at Brigham Young University, which presented him with an honorary doctorate. The university also offered him office space and an underground concrete bunker location for the project realizing the fusion lab was to be dismantled at ITT, Farnsworth invited staff members to accompany him to Salt Lake City as team members in his planned Philo T. Farnsworth Associates (PTFA) organization. By late 1968 the associates began holding regular business meetings and PTFA was underway. However, although a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was promptly secured and more possibilities were within reach, the financing needed to pay the $24,000 in monthly expenses for equipment rental and salaries was stalled.

By Christmas 1970, PTFA had failed to secure the necessary financing, the Farnsworth's had sold all their own ITT stock and cashed out Philo's life insurance policy to maintain organization stability. The underwriter had failed to provide the financial backing that was to have supported the organization during its critical first year. The banks called-in all outstanding loans. Repossession notices were placed on anything not previously sold and the Internal Revenue Service put a lock on the laboratory door until delinquent taxes were paid. During January 1970, Philo T. Farnsworth Associates disbanded. Farnsworth became seriously ill with pneumonia and died on 11 March 1971.

Although best known for his development of television, Farnsworth was involved in research in many other areas. He invented the first infant incubator. He was involved in the development of radar, peacetime uses of atomic energy, and the nuclear fusion process. At his death, Farnsworth held 300 U.S. and foreign patents, and Scientific American magazine called him one of the ten greatest mathematicians of his time.

Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth (1908- 2006) was born on 25 February 1908 in Jensen, Utah. "Pem", as she was affectionately known, married Philo Taylor Farnsworth in 1926. She became part of her husband's lab team, handling the technical drawings for his early experiments on his vision for television and was present in San Francisco on 7 September 1927, when electronic television was first demonstrated successfully. Pem Farnsworth was the first person ever to appear on a cathode-ray-tube receiver via transmission from her husband's lab and has been referred to as "The Mother of Television."

During the last three decades following Philo's death, Elma Farnsworth had been a tireless advocate of her husband's work. During this period he received many posthumous honors. In 1977 he was awarded an Emmy by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; in 1983 his image was placed on a U.S. postage stamp; the Inventors Hall of Fame inducted him as a member in 1984. In 1990 a life-sized statue of him was placed in the Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. Elma wrote a biography on Philo It was published in 1989 with the title Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier .

Well into her 90's Mrs. Farnsworth continued her cause and was successful in lobbying the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to consider creating an award in honor of her husband's accomplishments. She took center stage to present the first "Philo T. Farnsworth" award for technical excellence in television at the 56th Annual Emmy Awards in Los Angeles in 2003. A devout Mormon, she derived her greatest satisfaction from meeting school children and encouraging them to follow in her late husband's footsteps. Elma died on 27 April 2006 at the age of 98

From the guide to the Philo T. and Elma G. Farnsworth papers, 1924-1992, (J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

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Subjects:

  • Television--Transmitters and transmission
  • Social Life and Customs
  • Television
  • Education
  • Media and Communication
  • Nuclear fusion--History--Sources
  • Science, Technology, and Health
  • Television--Receivers and reception
  • Television--History--Sources
  • Television picture tubes
  • Technology
  • Inventors--United States
  • Inventors--Archives
  • Nuclear physics--Research
  • Capitalists and financiers--Archives

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Ohio (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Utah (as recorded)
  • Utah (as recorded)