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Philo Farnsworth: Almost-Forgotten Genius

The inventor of television, Philo Farnsworth (pictured here with his beloved wife and collaborator Elma), is little known today, mainly because of his opposition to the machinations of Jewish mogul David Sarnoff.

by Melanie M. Carroll and Kevin Alfred Strom

AS WE MARK the end of analogue television broadcasting in the United States this year, and the beginning of the Internet video revolution, it’s good to remember the very beginning of the medium — and its inventor Philo Farnsworth. His wife Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, who worked closely with her husband, died just a few years ago, in 2006.

Pem Farnsworth — who helped her husband, Philo T. Farnsworth, invent the system for encoding pictures and sound together on radio waves which we know today as television — died in Salt Lake City at age 98. Mrs. Farnsworth was one of the first people whose images were transmitted via television in 1927, when she was 19.

Mrs. Farnsworth, who married the inventor in 1926, worked by her husband’s side in his laboratories and fought for decades to assure his place in history after his 1971 death. The first-ever TV transmission took place on September 7, 1927, in Farnsworth’s San Francisco lab, when the 21-year-old inventor sent an image to a receiver in the next room.

The European-American inventor said the inspiration for his invention had come seven years earlier, while he was plowing a field on his family’s Idaho farm. He visualized an image being scanned onto a cathode ray tube — then used only for oscilloscopes — the same way that his field was plowed: row by row.

Mrs. Farnsworth recalled that morning in the lab “like it was yesterday,” she said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. “It was a very small screen, about the size of a postage stamp, an inch and a half square. At first, we were stunned. It was too good to be true. Then Phil said, ‘There you have it — electric television.”‘

According to the book Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television by Donald G. Godfrey, “the first human images transmitted by Farnsworth were of his wife and her brother, Cliff Gardner. A 3 1/2-inch-square image of his wife with her eyes closed was transmitted on October 19, 1929, Gardner wrote. The book lists her as ‘first woman on TV.'”

Sadly, credit for his pioneering work was almost taken from Farnsworth when Jewish-controlled conglomerate RCA under David Sarnoff, with a potential profit in the hundreds of millions if they prevailed, claimed the innovation was the work of one of its house engineers. But in 1935, the courts ruled that Farnsworth was the real inventor.

Nevertheless Farnsworth received little recognition or monetary compensation in later years, because of what some say was purposeful revenge by the Jewish establishment for his defeat of Sarnoff. Many scholars also blame Sarnoff for setting back the development of FM radio for decades — because it threatened the AM networks and AM receiver technology in which RCA was heavily invested — and for thereby causing the suicide of another European-American innovator, Edwin Armstrong, who invented FM radio in 1933.

According to Godfrey, Philo Farnsworth gave his wife credit as co-inventor, saying, “my wife and I started this TV.”

Mrs. Farnsworth’s 1990 autobiography, Distant Vision, tells the story of the battle between money-man Sarnoff and the creative man whose work, we now must admit, has been appropriated and grossly misused by his enemies.

Interestingly, Farnsworth, who also invented a nuclear fusion device later in his career, predicted HDTV and solid-state flat-screen technology in a 1957 interview: “[W]e think we can eventually get in excess of 2000 lines instead of 525 … and do it on an even narrower channel … which will make for a much sharper picture. We believe in the picture-frame type of a picture, where the visual display will be just a screen. And we hope for a memory, so that the picture will be just as though it’s pasted on there.”

Even though amplitude-modulated vestigial sideband television transmission is now gone from the U.S. commercial airwaves, television itself is being revolutionized by the Internet, which — if the would-be censors continue to be stymied — bids fair to free us from the “gatekeepers” of New York and Hollywood that have controlled and limited our choices for so long.

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