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In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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Philo T. Farnsworth

Posted August 19, 2006 8:00 AM
Pathfinder Tags: August 19 March 11

Today marks the one hundredth birthday of Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the electronic television. He holds over 300 foreign and domestic patents for electronic and medical devices.

Farnsworth was born on August 19, 1906 near Beaver, Utah, in a log cabin built by his grandfather, a follower of Mormon leader Brigham Young. His parents wanted him to become a concert violinist, but he was more interested in performing experiments with electricity. At the age of 12, Farnsworth designed an electric motor and built a washing machine. A year later, his family moved to Rigby, Idaho to work on his uncle's farm. During his free time, Farnsworth studied the manual for the farm's Delco power system and read back-issues of Popular Science. Conversations with out-of-state relatives on a hand-cranked Bell telephone only deepened the boy's interest in electricity. According to legend, Farnsworth conceived of the electronic television while tilling a potato field with a horse-drawn harrow. While observing the motion of the plow, Farnsworth realized that an electron beam could scan images in the same way, line by line.

Farnsworth rode to high school on horseback, a farm boy whose knowledge of math and science exceeded that of his peers. When he was 14, the young inventor convinced his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, to allow him to audit a science class for seniors. Years later, while testifying at a patent interference case, Tolman claimed that Farnsworth's explanation of the theory of relativity was the clearest and most concise he had ever heard. In 1922, Farnsworth told Tolman about his idea for an "image dissector", a vacuum tube which would reproduce images electronically by sending a beam of electrons, line by line, against a light-sensitive screen. If the chemistry teacher had heard of "television" before, the term denoted a mechanical device which scanned an image through holes in a spinning disc and projected a reproduction onto a screen. When Farnsworth's uncle lost his farm, the boy moved with his family to Provo, Utah, where he attended Brigham Young University until the death of his father in 1924. To support his family, Farnsworth repaired radios and sold electrical products before enrolling in the U.S. Navy. After deciding against a career in the military, he moved to Salt Lake City and worked first as a street cleaner and then as a supervisor for a charity led by George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, fundraisers from California. Impressed by Farnsworth's organizational abilities, Everson and Gorrel listened to the young man's ideas about electronic televisions and agreed to fund his research. In 1927, Farnsworth moved to California and used his image dissector camera tube to transmit 60 horizontal lines. Two years later, he eliminated the device's motor generator, removing the last of the television's moving parts.

In 1930, Farnsworth secured a U.S. patent for his all-electronic television and received additional funding from a new group of investors. Vladimir Sworkykin, a Russian émigré who had worked for Westinghouse, visited Farnsworth's laboratory on behalf of his new employer, the television division of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Although Sworkykin held two television patents of his own, he replicated Farnsworth's design, initiating a long legal battle over the electronic television. In 1931, RCA offered to buy Farnsworth's patent for $100,000. Farnsworth rejected RCA's proposal and joined rival Philco, an early television pioneer. In 1934, the U.S. Patent Office awarded priority of invention to Farnsworth. RCA appealed the decision, but ultimately paid Farnsworth $1 million for his patents in 1939.

Farnsworth's legal battles with RCA took a toll on his health and career. According to some accounts, Philco's decision to terminate its relationship with Farnsworth was the result of pressure from RCA, which held other important patents. The death of Farnsworth's son may have also marked the start of the inventor's struggles with alcoholism and depression. Nevertheless, Philo Farnsworth went on to patent many other inventions, including the first "cold" cathode ray tube, a baby incubator, an air traffic control system, and a primitive electronic microscope. From the 1950s until the time of his death, Farnsworth's major interest was nuclear fusion. In 1965, he patented an array of tube called fusors that produced a 30-second fusion reaction. According to Scientific American, the inventor of the electronic television is one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.

Philo Farnsworth died on March 11, 1971, in Salt Lake City, Utah.



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Join Date: Jun 2006
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08/19/2006 8:47 AM

Thanks for the article it's allways interesting to follow an inventors trials and tribulations to gleen some inspiration .As well as a reality check on the difficulties of success in competitve areas . The moral is keep your day job but keep on trying .

Lighten up
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