Dylan Tweney
Published Work

Q&A: Evan I. Schwartz / Author of "The Last Lone Inventor"

San Francisco, California, USA –One clear day in September 1927, in a small San Francisco laboratory, abrainy 21-year-old Utah farm boy demonstrated the first electronictelevision broadcast. But the name Philo T. Farnsworth never became ahousehold word. His efforts to bring television to market were
Dylan Tweney 6 min read

San Francisco, California, USA –One clear day in September 1927, in a small San Francisco laboratory, abrainy 21-year-old Utah farm boy demonstrated the first electronictelevision broadcast. But the name Philo T. Farnsworth never became ahousehold word. His efforts to bring television to market were thwarted byDavid Sarnoff, the hard-charging president of RCA, who managed throughdeceit, trickery and drawn-out litigation to delay television’s commercialdebut until 1939 — largely to protect RCA’s then-booming radio business. Bythe time TV really took off in the 1950s, Farnsworth was all but forgotten,and RCA had become a TV powerhouse.

This intriguing tale is revealed in “The Last Lone Inventor,” a newly published book byEvan I. Schwartz (HarperCollins, 322pp., $24.95). Schwartz, who also wrotethe early dot-com classic “Webonomics,” visited San Francisco recently totalk about Farnsworth, Sarnoff and the birth of television.

SF Gate: How did you come on the idea for this book?

Evan I. Schwartz: I was covering the Internet and how it was changing ourlives. I thought the only way to get perspective on all this new technologywas to go back in time and research other communications technologies whenthey were new, and how the public reacted to them. That’s when I startedreading about the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, the farm boy who inventedtelevision.

In the summer of 1998, I went on a little pilgrimage to Farnsworth’slaboratory on Green Street, where he invented television. I couldn’t believethat the building was still there. There’s a [video-production] company,Philo Television, there, and I went up and found all these Philo fans. He’dbecome this inspirational character to some people.

The story had great characters, there are lessons about technology we canlearn and there’s a great setting. I really just became captivated by it,and it wouldn’t let me go.

Your excitement about the topic and your engagement with thecharacters really shows through in the book.

Farnsworth was this ball of nervous energy, and he looked like aninventor, and of course the name Philo T. Farnsworth — I mean, I didn’tmake the name up. He had this gigantic forehead that looked like it had anoversized brain inside — and it probably did, considering the stuff he wasdoing. And then [RCA President] David Sarnoff, who was the world’s firstelectronic-media mogul, he is the villain in this story, but also verycomplex, because he invented this heroic path for himself, and he really lethis ego get the better of him. He got carried away sometimes.

Farnsworth was only 14 when he first conceived the idea fortelevision. How did he get from that moment of insight to his first workingprototype?

He was inspired by the great lone inventors like Edison, Bell,Morse and the Wright brothers. He was reading every science book he couldfind, and memorized Einstein’s photoelectric theory, which won the NobelPrize for physics in 1921. That was the same exact year that Farnsworth wasout plowing the potato fields, looking at the parallel lines in the field.That was his “Eureka!” moment, that the only way to transmit these imageswas to scan electrons [in parallel lines], use them to represent thechanging light patterns then transmit that signal through the air likeradio.

The first successful demonstration of television was in San Francisco onSept. 7, 1927, when he was 21 years old. He unveiled it to the press a yearlater, and the Chronicle broke the story. He had the press conference on aSaturday, and I guess no one else showed up. Public relations was not hisforte.

Sarnoff, sitting in his office in the Woolworth Building [in New York City]– which was the tallest building in the world at that time — when he readthe story, he started devising his plan to steal the idea, or at least delaytelevision, because otherwise it would topple his radio empire.

How did RCA respond once it heard Farnsworth had demonstratedtelevision in his San Francisco lab?

Sarnoff started secretly funding Vladimir Zworykin’s research atWestinghouse. Zworykin had a Ph.D. in physics from the St. PetersburgInstitute of Technology in Russia, and he also believed in the electronicapproach to television. But Zworykin was making very slow progress, so inApril 1930, Sarnoff sent Zworykin to the Green Street laboratory.

Well, Zworykin arrived in April 1930 for three days. Farnsworth and hisbackers showed him everything. They treated him very cordially, because theyhoped to license their patents to Westinghouse — they didn’t know that hewas working with Sarnoff. Zworykin held up Farnsworth’s image-dissectortube, which was the first electronic television camera, and said, “This is abeautiful instrument. I wish I had invented it myself.”

Then he went back to Pittsburgh, at Westinghouse, where he attempted tobuild a crude replica of Farnsworth’s image-dissector tube. He then took itdirectly to David Sarnoff, who put Zworykin to work at RCA Laboratories inNew Jersey — and the race was on to develop a commercially viabletelevision.

Farnsworth was really kind of an anachronism, wasn’t he? His modelsare these solitary inventors — but by the time he started, as your bookdocuments, the process of invention had already become very corporate.

He believed he was going to bring new inventions into the worldjust like his heroes. Of course, by then, companies had sprung up around thenew inventions, all these inventions led to great new industries and themanagers who ran these companies were afraid of the next invention thatwould disrupt or topple their empires. So they began launching these thingsthat were called corporate R&D labs, which didn’t exist in this countryuntil the year 1900, when GE launched GE Labs. By the late 1920s, all thetop 500 companies had their own R&D labs. So Farnsworth didn’t fully realizehe was fighting this new system of corporate-controlled innovation.

If you look at patent ownership from 1931 on, it’s dominated bycorporations, whereas before that point, it was dominated by individuals.

What was the effect on innovation and invention, of that shift fromthe independent inventor to the corporate R&D department?

Well, in terms of being an inventor, you had no other choice. Ifyou were working in a corporate R&D department, with your invention, youwould assign it to the company. In those days you got a check for onedollar. Once you signed the check, the contract was enforced, and thecompany owned the patent. And that’s where the best and the brightest peoplewent to go to work.

In a way, you can’t argue with the success. The corporate R&D labs led tothe whole electronics industry and to the computer industry. But meanwhile,lone inventors were marginalized. They were considered outcasts and nuts. Itjust became unheard-of that an individual was associated with a greatinvention after that, like Edison was with the phonograph or Bell with thetelephone.

The story, I think, is this transition from where society was at thebeginning of the century, which was an independent frontier culture largelydominated by American individualists, to the end of the century, which is atechnology-obsessed, media-controlled culture. Not that there’s anythingwrong with it; it’s a great place to live. I love it. But it wasn’t alwaysthis way, and it wasn’t all that long ago — it was only in the span of alifetime that this massive change happened.

So what does the invention of television tell us about what’shappening right now?

Well, people learned incredible lessons when the market crashed[in 1929]. RCA lost 90 percent of its value, and most stocks were just wipedout. It was worse than the crash we experienced, but the lessons weresimilar. People were more skeptical of corporations — especially involvingtechnology — were very cautious about investments. Yet subsequently,technology became more popular and more powerful than ever. The marketcrashed in 1929, but radio was more popular and more powerful than ever. Themarket crashed in 2000, but the Internet isn’t going to go away. It’s justgoing to become more powerful and change the world in ways that we don’teven know yet.

So, how did things end up in the battle between Farnsworth and Sarnoff?

Well, you’ll see what happens if you read the book. The story takes theseunexpected twists and turns.

Fair enough. At any rate, it sounds like Farnsworth never got therecognition he deserved.

That’s right. Interestingly, the only time Farnsworth was ontelevision, nationally, was on the program “I’ve Got a Secret,” in 1957. Hestumped the panel — they couldn’t guess who he was, and he won $80 in cashand a carton of Winstons. [A video of this episode is available onSchwartz’s Web site.]

By then, of course, television was taking over the country. TV went from 0percent market share in 1948 to 90 percent in 1960. It’s very similar towhat the Web was going through in the ’90s. But Farnsworth was alienatedfrom his invention. At one point, you couldn’t mention the wordtelevision around him.

What was the most exciting point, for you, during the research andwriting of your book?

Interviewing people who were there. I first visited PemFarnsworth, the widow, in December 1999. She was 91 years old. It was reallyexciting meeting her. She’s a remarkable person, and she tells these vividstories. I couldn’t have written the book without her.

And also, just going on these trips, researching and going to these places,like the potato farm where he grew up. There are so many resources in theNational Archives and the Library of Congress, and just finding these olddocuments and memos — it was almost like a detective story.

The Farnsworth family is working for some kind of recognition ofFarnsworth’s role in inventing television, right?

They’re trying to get the television academy to give PemFarnsworth an Emmy — “an Emmy for Pemmy” — during the Emmy broadcast thisSeptember. That’s the 75th anniversary of the invention on Green Street. Andthat’s going to be the last major anniversary, because she’s 94. Farnsworthhas never gotten that kind of national recognition, so it would be awonderful moment in television if they could give her the award. [For moreon this campaign, visit www.philo75.com.]

Link: Q&A: Evan I. Schwartz / Author of “The Last Lone Inventor”

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