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Philo Farnsworth

Philo FarnsworthAKA Philo Taylor Farnsworth

Born: 19-Aug-1906
Birthplace: Indian Creek, UT
Died: 11-Mar-1971
Location of death: Holladay, UT
Cause of death: Pneumonia
Remains: Buried, Provo City Cemetery, Provo, UT

Gender: Male
Religion: Mormon
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Inventor, Physicist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Inventor of electronic television

Military service: US Navy (1924-26)

Self-taught American physicist and inventor Philo "Phil" Farnsworth was born in a log cabin alongside Indian Creek, a few miles outside the tiny town of Beaver, Utah. He was raised on a farm, where at about 14 years of age he conceived of a way to transmit images electronically. As he later described it, he was tilling a potato field with a horse-drawn plow, crossing the same field time after time and leaving lines of turned dirt, when it occurred to him that electron beams could do the same thing with images, leaving a trail of data line-by-line. He first described and diagrammed television in 1921, in a science paper turned in to his 9th-grade science teacher, Justin Tolman, whom Farnsworth always credited as inspiring him to a life in science.

At Brigham Young University, Farnsworth was considered something of a hick by his teachers, and he was rebuffed when he asked for access to advanced classes and laboratories. He signed up for correspondence courses with a technical college, National Radio Institute, and earned his electrician's license and top-level certification as a "radiotrician" by mail, in 1925. After a brief stint at the US Naval Academy and a return to BYU he was forced to drop out of college due to lack of funds. He then spent several years working various short-term jobs, including time as a laborer on a Salt Lake City road crew, a door-to-door salesman, a lumberjack, a radio repairman, and a railroad electrician.

In 1926 he came to San Francisco, where he rented an apartment at 202 Green Street, set up a small laboratory, and resumed his scientific work. There Farnsworth built his first television camera and receiving apparatus, and on 7 September 1927 he made the first electronic transmission of television, using a carbon arc projector to send a single smoky line to a receiver in the next room of his apartment. This was not the first television system, but earlier experimental systems including those devised by John Logie Baird and Herbert E. Ives had been mechanical in conception, using a spinning disk with spiral perforations to scan the imagery. Farnsworth's system was entirely electronic, and was the basis for 20th-century television.

Over the next several years Farnsworth was able to broadcast recognizable images up to eight blocks. His first public demonstration of television was in Philadelphia on 25 August 1934, broadcasting an image of the moon. Unfortunately for Farnsworth, several other inventors had invented similar devices, and the competing patents of Vladimir Zworykin were owned by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which had no interest in paying royalties to a free-lancer like Farnsworth. As a result, he spent years of his life embroiled in lawsuits, defending himself from infringement claims and seeking to guard his own patent rights.

In 1934, Farnsworth's high school teacher, Mr Tolman, appeared in court on his behalf, introducing as evidence the paper describing television, which the teenaged Farnsworth had turned in 13 years earlier. In 1935 the court found in Farnsworth's favor and enforced his patent rights, a ruling which was later upheld on appeal. In 1939, RCA finally licensed Farnsworth's patents, reportedly paying $1-million. That summer, some five years after Farnsworth's Philadelphia demonstration of TV, RCA made headlines with its better-publicized unveiling of television at the Chicago World's Fair.

Farnsworth founded Crocker Research Laboratories in 1926, named for its key financial backer, William W. Crocker of Crocker National Bank. The company's subsequent names included Farnsworth Television Inc. (or FTI), the rather understated Television Inc., and finally the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation. The business was purchased by International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation (ITT) in 1951, and Farnsworth worked in research for ITT for the next 17 years. He contributed research into radar and nuclear energy, and at his death in 1971 he held more than 160 patents, including inventions that were instrumental in the development of astronomical telescopes, baby incubators, electrical scanners, electron microscopes, and infrared lights.

Of his wife Elma, nicknamed "Pem", Farnsworth wrote, "You can't write about me without writing about us we are one person." Her face was the first human image transmitted via television, on 19 October 1929. She helped make the first tubes for their company, drew virtually all of the company's technical sketches during its early years, and wrote a biography of Farnsworth after his death. He frequently stated that they had basically invented television together.

Something of an idealist, Farnsworth envisioned television as a means to bring education, news, and the finest arts and music into the living rooms of ordinary Americans. By the 1950s he was disenchanted with the quality and commercial control of television, describing it as "a way for people to waste a lot of their lives" and forbidding its use in his own household.

Father: Lewis Edwin Farnsworth (farmer, b. 30-Jul-1865, d. 8-Jan-1924 pneumonia)
Mother: Serena Amanda Bastian Farnsworth (b. 21-Jan-1880, m. 28-Dec-1904, d. 22-May-1960)
Sister: Agnes Farnsworth Lindsay
Brother: Carl Farnsworth
Sister: Laura Farnsworth Player
Brother: Lincoln Farnsworth
Brother: Ronald (half brother)
Wife: Elma Gardner ("Pem", b. 25-Feb-1908, dated 1924-26, m. 27-May-1926, d. 27-Apr-2006, four sons)
Son: Kenneth Garnder Farnsworth (b. 15-Jan-1931)
Son: Kent Morgan Farnsworth (b. 4-Sep-1948)
Son: Philo Taylor Farnsworth, Jr. (b. 23-Sep-1929)
Son: Russell Seymour Farnsworth (b. 5-Oct-1935)

    High School: Rigby High School, Rigby, ID (attended, 1921-23)
    High School: Brigham Young University High School, Provo, UT (1924)
    University: Brigham Young University (attended, 1924-25)
    University: National Radio Institute (correspondence courses, 1924-25)
    University: US Naval Academy (attended, 1925-26)
    University: Brigham Young University (attended, 1926)

    ITT Farnsworth Television & Radio Corp.:President (1926-51)
    ITT Research (1951-68)
    American Physical Society
    Boy Scouts of America
    Eagle Scout
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1984
    Nervous Breakdown
    National Statuary Hall (1990)
    Risk Factors: Alcoholism, Depression

Official Website:

Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #2058 (20, depicting Farnsworth with first TV camera, issued 21-Sep-1983)

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