Recalling Chestnut Hill’s genius inventor of the TV set

by Len Lear

There is no historical marker in front of the building at 127 E. Mermaid Lane in Chestnut Hill, but there should be. In part of the first half of the 20th century, it was home to a man whose name is probably only familiar to a minuscule percentage of Americans, although he was one of the most influential individuals in the history of popular entertainment.

Philo Farnsworth, whose name sounds almost like a cartoon character, in 1934 held the first public exhibition of the invention he had started working on when he was just a teenager in Utah, the first workable television set, at the Franklin Institute in center city. 

By 1936 a company he started was regularly transmitting entertainment programs on an experimental basis. That same year, while working with University of Pennsylvania biologists, Farnsworth developed a process to sterilize milk using radio waves. He also invented a fog-penetrating beam for ships and airplanes.

Farnsworth showed a knack for science early and taught himself physics while growing up on a rural farm in Utah. 

While most teenage boys were hoping to learn to drive a car, Farnsworth had already figured out that the most effective way of transmitting images across large distances was to send them as a beam of electrons, which are then reproduced along a light-sensitive screen. According to biographers, he did this at age 14, while plowing his family farm and visualizing beams of electrons patterned like the furrows he was creating on the farm. With this epiphany, Farnsworth solved an intractable problem that had existed with previous attempts at television, which had used a more primitive method.

In 1936, Collier’s Weekly magazine lavished accolades on his work: “One of those amazing facts of modern life that just don’t seem possible – namely, electrically scanned television that seems destined to reach your home, was largely given to the world by a 19-year-old boy … Today, barely 30 years old, he is setting the specialized world of science on its ears.” 

In 1931, David Sarnoff, president of RCA, offered to buy Farnsworth’s patents for $100,000 with the stipulation that he become an employee of RCA, but Farnsworth refused. In June of that year, Farnsworth joined the Philco company in Philadelphia, a pioneer in battery, radio and television production, so Farnsworth moved to Chestnut Hill with his wife and two children.

RCA later filed a lawsuit suit against Farnsworth, claiming that one of their scientists, Vladimir Zworykin, had a 1923 patent that had priority over Farnsworth’s design. However, the company could present no evidence that it had produced a functioning transmitter tube before 1931. Farnsworth prevailed in the lawsuit, and the U.S.Patent Office rendered a decision in 1934 awarding priority of the invention of the image dissector to Farnsworth. RCA lost a subsequent appeal, but litigation over a variety of issues continued for several years.

Although Farnsworth ultimately prevailed, the ordeal broke him physically, mentally and financially. Soon he developed severe depression and alcoholism. 

In 1969, two years before he died, I interviewed Farnsworth by phone for a business trade publication, and he made no secret of his bitterness and anger. 

“I thought I was living the American dream by coming up with this great invention all on my own,” he told me. “I thought I might be another Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, but I was completely unprepared as a naive farm boy for the world of big business that can be cruel, ultra-competitive and completely lacking in humanity. It can destroy you.”

Farnsworth’s wife, Elma Gardner “Pem” Farnsworth, fought for decades after his death to ensure his place in history. Farnsworth always gave her equal credit for creating television, saying, “My wife and I started this TV.” She died on April 27, 2006, at age 98. The genius inventor, largely unknown to the general public, and his wife were survived by two sons, Russell (then living in New York City), and Kent (then living in Fort Wayne, Indiana). In 1999, Time magazine called Farnsworth “one of the 100 most important people of the century.”

Len Lear can be reached at [email protected]

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