Philo Farnsworth, History’s Forgotten Inventor of Television

Philo Farnsworth, History’s Forgotten Inventor of Television
Farnsworth at his San Francisco electronics laboratory. (Courtesy of
Dave Paone

On a summer’s afternoon in 1920, 14-year-old Philo Taylor Farnsworth was plowing a potato field on his family’s Idaho farm. The horse was pulling a disc harrow, and the teen followed behind.

Farnsworth, the horse, and the harrow plowed a row, turned around, plowed another row, and turned around again until the job was done.

It was at this moment that the science-loving teenager had an idea. If he could train an electron using the same method—go to the end of one row, turn around, then another row—he could send pictures through the air.

The inspiration for television came from a horse.

The Next Step

The following fall, Farnsworth started high school. At the end of the school year, he took his idea to his science teacher, Justin Tolman, and wrote out on the chalkboard just how the transmission of pictures would work.

Tolman had a hard time following what the freshman was saying. At the end of their conversation, Farnsworth drew in his notebook a sketch of what the inner workings of a television camera might look like, tore out the page, and handed it to Tolman. 30 years later, this crude diagram proved to be a crucial piece of evidence in a lawsuit.

He dropped out of school to help support his family, and when his father, Lewis, died soon after, there was no going back. At 19, Farnsworth married literally the girl next door, Elma Gardner, who went by the nickname Pem. Two investors, Les Gorrell and George Everson, set the couple up with a lab in California with their investment of $6,000. Farnsworth knew he’d be devoting an enormous amount of time to research, so he asked Pem to work with him side-by-side. She agreed.

As documented in Farnsworth’s book of daily records, the first successful television transmission took place on September 7, 1927. Everson sent a telegram to Gorrell with the single sentence, “The damn thing works!”

The notebook drawing that Farnsworth's high school teacher produced, showing that Farnsworth had the idea for picture transmission. (Courtesy of
The notebook drawing that Farnsworth's high school teacher produced, showing that Farnsworth had the idea for picture transmission. (Courtesy of


Just about every entrepreneur will eventually attract competition. In Farnsworth’s case, it was the Radio Corporation of America, which was run by David Sarnoff at the time. RCA was an American electronics company, founded in 1919, and was essentially a monopoly in the electronics industry. It was impossible to manufacture or sell radio equipment without paying a royalty to RCA.

In April 1930, one of Farnsworth’s associates arranged a visit to his lab in San Francisco from a fellow traveler in the field of electronics. Farnsworth knew of Dr. Vladimir Zworykin, who had a working knowledge of the subject. Zworykin said he worked at Westinghouse (which had been instrumental in the development of electric infrastructure in the United States) and had questions about Farnsworth’s experiments. Being the trusting soul that he was, Farnsworth showed him what he and his staff had invented and how it worked. Zworykin stayed for three days, and Pem even made him dinner.

Zworykin did not work for Westinghouse at the time (although he had a short time before). He was there as a spy for Sarnoff and RCA. He dictated a 700-word telegram to his partners-in-crime at RCA, explaining exactly how television works. Zworykin and Sarnoff stole it all and manufactured their own version.

World War II impeded the further development of television, and by the end of the war, Farnsworth’s patents had expired, leaving them in the public domain.

A lawsuit followed. RCA argued that someone so young could not have conceived such an invention. But when Tolman testified, with the page from the adolescent’s notebook to corroborate, the U.S. Patent Office ruled that Farnsworth invented television. Even so, RCA—not Farnsworth—made all the money that television produced.

The Moon Landing

By the 1960s, Farnsworth hated what his invention had become. He had visions of television being The Great Unifier, showing people just how similar we all are and thereby ending war. But television was called “a vast, intellectual wasteland” and “the idiot box,” so Farnsworth wanted nothing more to do with it, forbidding his four sons from watching it.

As NASA was ready to embark on the moon landing, they knew they needed to televise this monumental occasion from space. The camera absolutely, positively had to work. Of all the camera designs NASA reviewed, it was Farnsworth’s that was the most reliable.

On July 20, 1969, Philo and Pem turned on the television for the first time in years. As they watched science fiction become science reality—and were able to do so because of his invention—Philo turned to Pem and said, “This has made it all worthwhile.”

“Before then, he wasn’t too sure,” said Pem in an interview shortly before her death in 2006, at age 98. For one night, his vision came true, and the world was united using his invention.

None of this is a secret. There are plenty of books that contain the story of Farnsworth and his invention of television. Yet for some reason, Philo Taylor Farnsworth is unknown to a worldwide populace that uses his invention every day. He’s not taught in history classes in grade schools, and other than those who seek out his story, no one knows who Philo Farnsworth is.

Paul Schatzkin, author of the book, “The Boy Who Invented Television,” has a three-part theory as to why this is so. “The first idea is that Farnsworth didn’t dwell on his own achievements. The second factor is that there were plenty of pretenders to the throne,” said Schatzkin in an interview, referring to Sarnoff and Zworykin. “But the major reason why we don’t know the name Philo Farnsworth is because he was not survived by his own company. By-and-large, the inventors that we know of were survived by the companies that they formed.”

A camera receiver tube. Farnsworth had the idea for transmitting images over a television, but would not reap the monetary benefits of his invention during his lifetime. (Courtesy of
A camera receiver tube. Farnsworth had the idea for transmitting images over a television, but would not reap the monetary benefits of his invention during his lifetime. (Courtesy of

Lightning Strikes Twice

Television wasn’t Farnsworth’s only invention. In 1953, he was struck by the lightning bolt of inspiration again. He came up with an idea that would provide people’s houses and cars with clean, efficient, unlimited nuclear energy. He envisioned a device he called a “fusor,” which was essentially a personal nuclear reactor.

The goal was to design a fusor that would dispel more energy than it consumed and still be stable enough to not destroy the container it was in. This would be done by unleashing the power of the atom and using water as the fuel source. By 1966, Farnsworth had a working fusor, which was small enough to hold in one’s hands. In theory, this technology would replace fossil fuels forever.

The fusor was developed in Farnsworth’s lab at International Telephone and Telegraph. Unfortunately, ITT was just as untrustworthy as RCA. Since Farnsworth had lost television, he wasn’t about to lose the fusor, so he dismantled the lab and walked away, hoping to raise financing on his own. He didn’t.

Farnsworth knew his inventions weren’t really his own doing and believed he was just the conduit through which the information flowed. In his book, Schatzkin quotes Farnsworth as having written, “I know that God exists. I know that I have never invented anything. I have been a medium by which these things were given to the culture as fast as the culture could earn them. I give all the credit to God.”

Saving the Artifacts

Phil Savenick had a 40-year career in television as a writer, director, and producer, and he knows he has Farnsworth to thank for it. In 2004, he saw a posting on eBay for a tube that once belonged to Farnsworth. “I wrote the guy and said, ‘For you to have this for sale, you must be his son,’” said Savenick.

Indeed he was. The seller was Kent Farnsworth, and he had far more than one tube. It appears Philo and Pem never threw anything out. Kent had literally 500,000 artifacts from his parents. Kent and his wife, Linda, were financially destitute, with their house being foreclosed on, and needed immediate cash. “So I started to arrange to buy the holiest relics of television from the son of the inventor,” said Savenick.

These holy relics included the first television camera ever to photograph a person (that person being Pem), experimental tubes, a disc from the harrow the horse pulled, and two nuclear fusors. Also included were notebooks the Farnsworths kept, documenting the day-by-day progression of the invention of television, as well as one dedicated to the fusor.

Although the plans for the fusor were patented, there aren’t enough details in them for someone to recreate a working one today. “Nobody ever had that knowledge except Farnsworth,” said Schatzkin.

In Savenick’s possession is the notebook that possibly once contained the secret. The label on the cover reads, “Notes, Highly Confidential, Philo T. Farnsworth.” There’s a singular entry, written by Pem on page 7 and dated 1970, that reads, “The last ideas he considered too confidential to leave a record of. He felt the world humanity was not ready for his last gift—and may not be worthy of it.” The first six pages of the notebook were ripped out and presumably destroyed. Farnsworth took the formula to his grave.

Keepers of the Flame

While Schatzkin refers to Farnsworth as his “ongoing obsession,” and Savenick refers to him as “a primary preoccupation of my adult life,” there are descendants of Farnsworth who also keep his memory alive.

Russel “Skee” Farnsworth is Philo’s only living child. He’s 86 and resides in New York. There’s Philo Krishna Farnsworth, a grandson, and Jessica Moulton, a great-granddaughter who narrates a 10-minute YouTube video entitled “Philo Farnsworth, the Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of,” which was written and produced by Savenick. Jessica’s brother, Jonathan Moulton, handles his great-grandparents’ estate.

Schatzkin and his business partner, both of whom worked in the television industry in Los Angeles, attempted to have a television or theatrical movie made about Farnsworth’s life starting as far back as 1975, but they have not been successful.

“I’ve got lots of rejection letters,” said Schatzkin. “I’ve got a rejection letter from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was at Disney at the time.” (Katzenberg and Schatzkin were bunkmates at summer camp in 1962.) “The story’s been dropped in Ron Howard’s lap. He’s passed, too.”

Savenick and his director, Kevin Lee Miller, are currently trying to find someone with a development deal with a studio or network to champion their eight-part, limited teleplay about Farnsworth. The 100th anniversary of the invention of television is in 2027, so he’s hoping it will be available through a streaming service when the anniversary comes.

In the meantime, the artifacts Savenick saved from the dumpster are on display (along with other items from television’s history) on the ground floor of his West Los Angeles home. Some of them were sold to the MZTV Museum of Television in Toronto, Canada.

Farnsworth's wife, Pem, who stayed by his side in the laboratory and amid legal battles. (Courtesy of
Farnsworth's wife, Pem, who stayed by his side in the laboratory and amid legal battles. (Courtesy of

The Legacy of Philo T. Farnsworth

In 1971, Farnsworth passed away at age 64. “Died penniless, died heartbroken, died drunk,” said Savenick.

In 2013, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences posthumously inducted Farnsworth into its Television Hall of Fame. At the dinner, both Schatzkin and Savenick were in attendance. Savenick had produced a video biography shown to the attendees at the induction ceremony.

Since 2003, the Academy has awarded the Philo T. Farnsworth Corporate Achievement Award to companies who have significantly affected the state of television and broadcast engineering.

“The inception of what we now know of as television was not a minor point in human evolution; it was one of the major points in human evolution,” said Schatzkin in an interview. “That was not just another invention in the path of modern inventions; it was a turning point in human history. [Farnsworth] sits right at the flex point between the mechanical age to the electronic age. He brought to bear the science of relativity in a device from which every screen we are now looking at finds its origins.”

So what is this dark cloud that hung over Farnsworth for his entire life and beyond? Schatzkin has a very philosophical answer to that question: “I would go as far as to say he represents the potential of access to a realm of knowledge for which humans are not yet ready.”

Rest in peace, Philo Taylor Farnsworth.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

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