the tweney report

from the notebooks of d. f. tweney, writer and technology critic


2002-06-14: Inventing television

by D. F. Tweney, dylan at tweney dot com

One clear day in September 1927, in a small San Francisco laboratory, a brainy 21-year-old Utah farm boy demonstrated the first electronic television broadcast. But the name Philo T. Farnsworth never became a household word. How Farnsworth invented television and subsequently got consigned to obscurity is revealed in "The Last Lone Inventor," a newly published book by Evan I. Schwartz.

Schwartz's book reads more like a novel than a history -- it's got striking characters, vivid descriptions, and a gripping plot. A lot of the detail is thanks to Schwartz' extensive interviews with Pem Farnsworth, Philo's widow.

But it's also an important story, because it sheds light on a common misconception about invention -- that it's primarily the purview of solitary inventors tinkering in their woodsheds, like Thomas Edison or Bill Hewlett and David Packard. The fact is, for much of the 20th century, most innovation happened within corporate R&D departments. When I interviewed Schwartz, he pointed out that the first R&D lab was set up by General Electric in 1900. By 1927, when Farnsworth was perfecting his invention, every major American company had an R&D lab -- and from then on, patent records show that the lion's share of patents were owned by corporations, not individuals.

Farnsworth's misfortune was bad timing -- he misunderstood this massive shift in technological innovation. When he came up against the RCA Corporation, led by hard-charging executive David Sarnoff, Farnsworth was essentially crushed.

The parallels with the Internet age are instructive. In some ways, the early days of the Web were a microcosm of late 19th century, when solitary inventors made striking innovations that changed the course of history -- Edison then, Tim Berners-Lee today. But then, as these inventions gave rise to powerful new industries, the process of innovation became more formalized within large R&D labs operated by corporations.

That's not to say that corporations are inherently conservative -- in fact, their R&D labs have given us some of the great inventions of the century, such as the transistor, the computer, the mouse, and the graphical user interface. Nor is it to say that the prospects are hopeless for independent inventors -- in fact, Schwartz told me, it's easier to bring a great idea to market now than it was in Farnsworth's day, thanks to the availability of venture capital.

But it does mean that, contrary to media hype and popular expectation, most inventions come from within the walls of large, moneyed companies, not from garages. As we move from the Web's first, "Wild West" days into an era of really big Internet business, the place to look for innovation is, most likely, with the big corporations.

Read my interview with Schwartz, which was published on SFGate on 6/13.

Schwartz's book is a great read -- I recommend it. Click here to buy a copy of The Last Lone Inventor.

For a broader historical look at the shift from independent invention to corporate R&D labs, I recommend American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm by Thomas P. Hughes. It was first published in 1989, and may be a little hard to get, but it's worth looking up. Click here to buy it.

Finally -- Farnsworth never got the credit he was due during his lifetime. (Read my interview with Schwartz to find out about the only time Farnsworth appeared on national TV -- it's a sad story.) But his widow, Pem Farnsworth, is still alive -- and there's a campaign on to present her with an Emmy, this September 7, on the 75th anniversary of Philo's invention. Click here to find out how you can help get an "Emmy for Pemmy".

P.S. I've switched to a new mailing list system -- that obnoxious "Become a Fool!" ad that Topica put on top of my last message was just too much, and I apologize for that. I've stopped using Topica and will be managing my own mail list from now on.

© Copyright 2002 D. F. Tweney.


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