The Disillusionment of Philo Farnsworth

Like Robert Oppenheimer, Philo Farnsworth was not entirely happy with what the fruit of his genius wrought. Regardless, it changed the world forever. By an accident of place and time, I am finding the questions which troubled him similarly unanswered for myself.

Note: This video report started as a written piece, but read so much like a script I was encouraged to produce it as a video. A text transcript with links to background material and source clips follows.

Once upon a time, there was a man who revolutionized the way that motion pictures were distributed worldwide. His groundbreaking work was done just around the corner from my house, and six months into this beat, I couldn’t help but think about him as I struggled up Telegraph Hill to get a little personal perspective on things.

Thirty years after his achievement, he made an appearance as “Doctor X” on quiz show I’ve Got a Secret.

Contestant: Could this be some kind of a machine that could be painful when it’s used?

Farnsworth: Yeah, sometimes it’s most painful.

Eventually the contestants figured out his secret — his name was Philo Farnsworth, and he invented the television.

The genius of Farnsworth’s idea came when an Indiana farmboy of only 14, the lines of resolution on a cathode ray tube inspired by the rows of a plowed field. But the breakthrough came at his lab on Green and Battery along San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.

It was on September 7, 1927 – just shy of eighty years ago – that he created the first electronic tube capable of recording and transmitting an image. Within two years, he’d successfully transmitted an image of a person, his wife Elma Farnsworth. If it sounds like a script from a Spielberg movie, maybe that’s because Spielberg is working on just that.

After a protracted legal battle over patents and credit for the invention against RCA, and after seeing to what use his invention had been put, Farnsworth became disillusioned to the point of being driven to drink — no small thing for a boy raised as a teetotaling Mormon. “I suppose you could say that [my father] felt he had created kind of a monster, a way for people to waste a lot of their lives,” his son Kent Farnsworth would later recollect.

I found myself remembering what got me so excited about online video ten years ago when I was a film student confronted with the reality of the business of making motion pictures. Decisions on what gets funded and distributed are made by a relatively small number of people motivated mostly by profit. And the number of creative roles on those projects is yet another privileged subset of all the people who work in the business.

Inexpensive digital video technology and Internet distribution seemed to hold promise to upend that, even back then, and eventually maybe take down the system which foisted yet more soap operas and action flicks on us.

Farnsworth had similar hopes that television would be an empowering and educational medium, but he was sorely disappointed in how it turned out. Quoting his father, the younger Farnsworth continued, “There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet.”

Eventually, the images of the moon landing convinced Farnsworth that his work wasn’t in vain after all, according to his wife.

Pam Farnsworth: Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Phil turned to me and he said, “Pam, this has made it all worthwhile.”

But me, I’m still wading through sketch comedy, boobs, advertising, pet tricks and propaganda waiting for a moment of that magnitude online.

Creative commons photos by Martin LaBar and Tantek Çelik.


Comments have been disabled for this post