Biography of Philo Farnsworth, American Inventor and TV Pioneer

Photograph of inventor Philo T. Farnsworth displaying his television
Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth displays his latest version of the television.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Philo Farnsworth (August 19, 1906 – March 11, 1971) was an American inventor best known for his 1927 invention of the first fully functional all-electronic television system. Holding over 300 U.S. and foreign patents during his lifetime, Farnsworth also contributed to significant developments in nuclear fusion, radar, night vision devices, the electron microscope, baby incubators, and the infrared telescope.

Fast Facts: Philo Farnsworth

  • Full Name: Philo Taylor Farnsworth II
  • Known For: American inventor and television pioneer
  • Born: August 19, 1906 in Beaver, Utah
  • Parents: Lewis Edwin Farnsworth and Serena Amanda Bastian
  • Died: March 11, 1971 in Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Education: Brigham Young University (no degree)
  • Patent: US1773980A—Television system
  • Awards and Honors: Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Television Academy Hall of Fame
  • Spouse: Elma “Pem” Gardner
  • Children: Philo T. Farnsworth III, Russell Farnsworth, Kent Farnsworth, and Kenneth Farnsworth

Early Life

Philo Farnsworth was born in a tiny log cabin in Beaver, Utah, on August 19, 1906. In 1918, the family moved to a relative’s farm near Rigby, Idaho. As a curious 12-year-old with a thirst for knowledge, Farnsworth had long discussions with the repairmen who came to work on the electrical generator that powered the lights in the family’s home and farm machines. Soon, Farnsworth was able to fix the generator by himself. By fixing and attaching a discarded electric motor, he simplified his daily chore of turning the crank handle of his mother’s manually-operated washing machine. His first telephone conversation with a relative spurred Farnsworth’s early interest in long-distance electronic communications.

Education

As a student at Rigby High School, Farnsworth excelled in chemistry and physics. He discussed his ideas for an electronic television system with his science and chemistry teachers, filling several blackboards with drawings to demonstrate how his idea would work. One of these drawings would later be used as evidence in a patent interference suit between Farnsworth and RCA.

Farnsworth moved with his family to Provo, Utah, in 1932. The next year, his father died, and 18-year-old Farnsworth had to provide for himself, his mother, and his sister Agnes. He graduated from Brigham Young High School in June 1924 and was soon accepted to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. However, when Farnsworth learned that being a naval officer meant that the government would own his future patents, he no longer wanted to attend the academy. He obtained an honorable discharge within months. Farnsworth then returned to Provo, where he attended advanced science lectures at Brigham Young University, receiving full certification as an electrician and radio-technician from the National Radio Institute in 1925.

The Path to Innovation

While auditing lectures at BYU, Farnsworth met and fell in love with Provo High School student Elma “Pem” Gardner. Pem worked closely with Farnsworth on his inventions, including drawing all of the technical sketches for research and patent applications.

Pem's brother Cliff shared Farnsworth's interest in electronics. The two men decided to move to Salt Lake City and open up a business fixing radios and household appliances. The business failed, but Farnsworth made important connections in Salt Lake City. He met two prominent San Francisco philanthropists, Leslie Gorrell and George Everson, and convinced them to fund his early television research. With an initial $6,000 in financial backing, Farnsworth was ready to start turning his dreams of an all-electronic television into reality.

Farnsworth and Pem married on May 27, 1926. Shortly after, the newly couple moved to San Francisco, where Farnsworth set up his new laboratory at 202 Green Street. Within months, Farnsworth had made enough progress that his backers, Gorrell and Everson, agreed that he should apply for patents.

The Electronic Television System

Pioneered by Scottish engineer John Logie Baird in 1925, the few mechanical television systems in use at the time employed spinning disks with holes to scan the scene, generate the video signal, and display the picture. These mechanical television systems were cumbersome, subject to frequent breakdowns, and capable of producing only blurry, low-resolution images. 

Farnsworth knew that replacing the spinning disks with an all-electronic scanning system would produce better images for transmission to a receiver. On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth’s solution, the image dissector camera tube, transmitted its first image—a single straight line—to a receiver in another room of his laboratory at his San Francisco laboratory.

Image dissector tube
One of the first experimental video camera tubes, called an image dissector, designed by American engineer Philo T. Farnsworth in 1930. Public Domain

“The line was evident this time,” Farnsworth wrote in his notes, adding, “Lines of various widths could be transmitted, and any movement at right angles to the line was easily recognized.” In 1985, Pem Farnsworth recalled that as Farnsworth’s lab assistants stared at the image in stunned silence, her husband exclaimed simply, “There you are—electronic television!”

On September 3, 1928, Farnsworth demonstrated his system to the press. Since his backers had been hounding him to know when they would see real money from the research they had been funding, Farnsworth appropriately chose a dollar sign as the first image shown.

Photograph of Philo Farnsworth with his early television components
Philo Farnsworth with early television components. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1929, Farnsworth further improved his design by eliminating a motorized power generator, thus resulting in a television system using no mechanical parts. The same year, Farnsworth transmitted the first live televised images of a person—a three and a half-inch image of his wife Pem. By the time he held a public demonstration of his invention at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on August 25, 1934, Farnsworth had been granted U.S. Patent No. 1,773,980 for a “Television System.”

Farnsworth began transmitting scheduled television programs from his laboratory in 1936. At the same time, he helped biologists at the University of Pennsylvania perfect a method of pasteurizing milk using heat from a radio frequency electric field instead of hot water or steam. He later invented an improved radar beam that helped ships and aircraft navigate in all weather conditions.

Vladimir Zworykin and the Patent Wars

In 1930, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) sent the head of its electronic television project, Vladimir Zworykin, to meet with Farnsworth at his San Francisco laboratory. Zworykin, himself an inventor, found Farnsworth’s image dissector camera tube superior to his own. He convinced RCA to offer Farnsworth $100,000 (over $1.4 million today) for his designs, but Farnsworth turned down the offer. This upset his original financial backers, who had wanted to be bought out by RCA.

In 1931, Farnsworth moved to Philadelphia to work for the radio manufacturer Philadelphia Storage Battery Company (Philco). He left two years later to start his own company, Farnsworth Television. Meanwhile, RCA, still angry at Farnsworth's rejection of their buyout offer, filed a series of patent interference lawsuits against him, claiming that Zworykin's 1923 "iconoscope" patent superseded Farnsworth's patented designs. In 1934, after RCA failed to present any evidence that Zworykin had actually produced a functioning transmitter tube before 1931, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Farnsworth credit for the invention of the television image dissector.

Demonstration of Television
(Original Caption) Photo shows a picture of Joan Crawford as it appeared on the cathode tube after being televised by an adjoining room over Philo Farnsworth's television set in the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, PA. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In 1937, Farnsworth Television and American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) formed a partnership, agreeing to use each other’s patents. In 1938, flush with funds from the AT&T deal, Farnsworth reorganized his old Farnsworth Television into Farnsworth Television and Radio and bought phonograph manufacturer Capehart Corporation’s factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to make both televisions and radios. In 1939, RCA agreed to pay Farnsworth royalties for the use of his patented components in their television systems.

Later Career

Though Farnsworth prevailed over Zworykin and RCA, the years of legal battles took a toll on him. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1939, he moved to Maine to recover. With television research put on hold by World War II, Farnsworth obtained a government contract to make wooden ammunition boxes. In 1947, Farnsworth moved back to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation produced its first commercially available television sets. However, when the company struggled, it was purchased by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in 1951.

Now technically an ITT employee, Farnsworth continued his research out of his Fort Wayne basement. From the laboratory he dubbed “the cave,” came several defense-related developments, including an early warning radar system, devices for detecting submarines, improved radar calibration equipment, and an infrared night-vision telescope.

Perhaps Farnsworth’s most significant invention at ITT, his PPI Projector improved existing “circular sweep” radar systems to enable safe air traffic control from the ground. Developed in the 1950s, Farnsworth’s PPI Projector served as the basis for today’s air traffic control systems.

In recognition of his work, ITT agreed to at least partially fund Farnsworth’s research in his other long-held fascination—nuclear fusion. Introduced in the late 1960s, his Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor was hailed as the first device proven capable of producing nuclear fusion reactions. It was hoped that it would soon be developed into an alternative power source. However, the Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor, like similar devices of the day, was unable to sustain a nuclear reaction for longer than thirty seconds. Despite its failure as a power source, Farnsworth’s fusor continues to be used today as a practical source of neutrons, especially in the field of nuclear medicine.

Later Life and Death

In early 1967, Farnsworth, again suffering stress-related illnesses, was allowed to take medical retirement from ITT. That spring, he moved his family moved back to Utah to continue his fusion research at BYU. Along with awarding him an honorary doctorate, BYU gave Farnsworth office space and a concrete underground laboratory to work in.

In 1968, the newly-formed Philo T. Farnsworth Associates (PTFA) won a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). However, when by December 1970, PTFA failed to obtain the necessary financing to pay salaries and rent equipment, Farnsworth and Pem were forced to sell their ITT stock and cash in Philo’s insurance policy to keep the company afloat. With the banks repossessing its equipment, and its laboratory doors locked by the Internal Revenue Service pending payment of delinquent taxes, PTFA disbanded in January 1971.

Having battled with bouts of stress-related depression throughout his life, Farnsworth started abusing alcohol in his final years. As a result, he became seriously ill with pneumonia and died at age 65 on March 11, 1971, in Salt Lake City.

Until her death in 2006, Farnsworth’s wife, Pem fought to assure her husband’s place in history. Having always given Pem equal credit for creating modern television, Farnsworth said, “my wife and I started this TV.”

Legacy and Honors

Though his inventions never made Philo Farnsworth a wealthy man, his television systems remained in use for years. By the late 20th century, the video camera tube he had conceived of in 1927 had evolved into the charge-coupled devices used in broadcast television today.

Photograph of Philo Farnsworth explaining his television invention to his wife “Pem”
Philo Farnsworth explains his television invention to his wife. Bettmann/Getty Images

Farnsworth had envisioned television as an affordable medium for spreading vital information and knowledge to households around the world. Of Farnsworth’s accomplishments, Collier's Weekly magazine wrote in 1936, “One of those amazing facts of modern life that just don’t seem possible—namely, electrically scanned television that seems destined to reach your home next year, was largely given to the world by a nineteen-year-old boy from Utah ... Today, barely thirty years old he is setting the specialized world of science on its ears.”

Tributes to Farnsworth include his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1984, the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2006, and the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2013. A bronze statue of Farnsworth stands in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

In a 2006 television interview, Farnsworth’s wife Pem revealed that after all of his years of hard work and legal battles, one of her husband’s proudest moments finally came on July 20, 1969, as he watched the live television transmission of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. When asked about that day, Pem recalled, “Phil turned to me and said, ‘That has made it all worthwhile!’”

Sources and Further References