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Philo Farnsworth and Television

September 30, 2003

A public radio commentary

The next time you drive by a farm, look carefully at the rows of plants, and then think of television.

That's exactly, what happened to a farm boy named Philo Farnsworth. He'd studied science magazines and developed as someone later said, "a romance with an electron." As he mowed his father's farm he thought about about electrons and magnets. One day, in 1922, Philo stopped his horses, looked over his shoulder at the mowed rows and came up with ... television! These rows gave him the idea to use lines of electrons to make a television picture. He wanted to put his idea into practice, but he faced, like all teenagers, the perennial problem of being short of cash.

So, he waited three years until luck solved this problem for him when a charity fund raiser named George Everson from California came to town. His car broke down, and when two auto mechanics couldn't fix it, in stepped Philo Farnsworth to solve the problem. This impressed Everson and the two became friends. During their many conversations Philo talked of his ideas for television. He must have been a very persuasive teenager, because Everson believed Philo could make a television system. Everson asked Philo "How much do you need?" Philo's reply: five thousand dollars. Odd as it may seem, the man was saving six thousand dollars to gamble on something; now I can't think of much longer odds than a teenager inventing TV. With this investment, the now 19-year-old farm boy married his sweetheart and moved to Los Angeles to refine TV, but only after his mother cosigned the marriage license because Philo was under the age of consent. He worked making TV sets, until at age 20, Philo struck gold. He wrote to Everson, "The Damned Thing Works." But with the idea proven, the dam broke, and in flowed many engineers who worked to make TV an industry, not just an idea in a teenager's head.

Just as Philo started young, he became a dinosaur by age 43 as television turned into a business. In 1958 he showed up on Garry Moore's television show "I've Got a Secret." The host called him Dr. "X" and Philo said to the panel, "I invented electronic television in 1922 -- at the age of fourteen." His identity was not guessed and he won a check for $80.00.

The rest of his life was spent battling depression and chemical dependency. At one point he barred the word "television" from his home. He died in 1971, aged 64.

So tonight, when you watch TV, think of yourself at fourteen and then recall farm boy Philo Farnsworth and his romance with an electron.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises