SUNDAY TRIBUNE JULY 2002
Interview with journalist and author Evan I Schwartz. He is a former staff editor at Business Week and has written for The New York Times, Wired, and Technology Review. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The field of dreams
Your new book is about Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Why did it take until now for his story to be told?
Two main reasons: the first has to do with Farnsworth's life-long nemesis, David Sarnoff, the domineering tycoon who was the president of RCA (Radio Corporation of America) and the founder of RCA's NBC broadcasting network. When television started taking over the world in the late 1940s, Sarnoff simply went on NBC in prime time and told the story of how television was invented and how it works. By Sarnoff's side was Vladimir Zworykin, RCA's top television scientist, who Sarnoff proclaimed was television's inventor. The name Philo T. Farnsworth was never mentioned. An entire generation of people grew up believing that television was invented at RCA.
The second reason has to do with the story of Philo T. Farnsworth itself, in that it almost seems too good to be true. In 1921, Farnsworth was a 14-year-old farm boy who dreamed of becoming an inventor like his heroes Edison, Bell and the Wright Brothers. The idea of electronic television came to him while plowing a potato field on his family's farm in Idaho.
One morning, when he glanced back at the parallel furrows in the soil, the pattern suggested to him that moving images could be scanned line by line by line with electrons and painted on a screen line by line by line. That was his eureka moment. Then, over the next decade, he brings his idea to life pretty much on his own, working at an underfunded laboratory above a garage in San Francisco. The story is so remarkable that some people refused to believe it. Yet it happens to be true.
Philo Farnsworth was recently named one of TIME magazine's 100 Greatest Scientists and Thinkers of the 20th Century. Why do you think those accolades are justified?
Actually, TIME named him one of the 100 most influential figures overall in the 20th century, and one of only 20 of the greatest scientists and thinkers. Absolutely, it is justified. He invented the defining technology of the century, and not a day goes by when the world is not profoundly influenced by his creation. Just think of it: the potato field led to the couch potato.
We should also mention that David Sarnoff, the other main character from The Last Lone Inventor, was also named to TIME's top 100 most influential list. That's what makes the story so much fun. Here we have two of the greatest figures of the century doing battle with one another over this watershed invention. Their conflict lasted the better part of three decades, and the public was unaware of it as it was happening.
You describe Farnsworth's story as "a tale of what human ingenuity can accomplish against great odds". What sort of odds did he face?
At every juncture, Farnsworth faced a million to one shot. If you were in an airship looking down on earth in the 1920s, you would not have predicted that a boy plowing a potato field would invent television. You would have looked to the great electronics companies such as Westinghouse, or the great research labs at GE, AT&T, or RCA, or one of the well-funded industrial labs in England, Germany, or France. Britain especially was a hotbed of television research because a colorful and resourceful Scottish inventor working in London named John Logie Baird developed a mechanical contraption that showed shadow images, and he convinced the BBC to back the project.
But when he heard about Farnsworth's successful demonstration of an all-electronic system at the prestigious Franklin Institute in 1934, Baird totally gave up on his idea, licensed Farnsworth's patents for the electronic approach, and invited Farnsworth to London to help him get an electronic system working. People in Britain to this day still believe Baird invented television, but that's not true because what Baird created never amounted to anything at all. In short, Farnsworth faced incredible competition on many fronts. That's why I think the story is so inspiring as well as tragic.
You spoke to Philo Farnsworth's wife Elma. What role did she play and how did it effect her life?
Her nickname is Pem, and she was instrumental to her husband's invention. Philo and Pem were married in 1926, right after Farnsworth convinced a local philanthropist in Utah to invest $6,000 in the idea, and the day after the wedding, they took a train to California and began trying to build the first electronic television. She was 18 and he was 20.
From then on, she was with him every step of the way. This transformed her life, because she had no idea what she was in for when she first met Philo as a teenager. She kept the lab journals and even picked up a blow torch now and then. Her brother Cliff worked in the lab too. Pem Farnsworth is the only surviving witness to the first electronic television demonstration. She is 94 now, still sharp and full of life, and I couldn't have written this book without her help.
You say that Farnsworth's struggle against the RCA was "a turning point in the culture of creativity". What do you mean by that?
Farnsworth didn't realize what he was up against. He didn't realize that lone inventors were a dying breed. He didn't know that all the new R&D labs would come to dominate innovation for the next 50 years. The corporations, not individuals, owned the great majority of the patents from 1930 on, and if you worked for an R&D lab, you assigned your patent rights over to the company. Individuals no longer owned the fruits of their own intellectual development.
Yes, Farnsworth faced long odds in trying to get his invention to work, but he achieved his first demonstration on September 7, 1927, seventy-five years ago. He faced long odds in obtaining his patents, but they were issued in 1930. And he faced long odds in his patent battle against RCA. But he was still working on the assumption that he would become the next great lone inventor.
Do you know if the present day RCA have made any comment on what happened in the past?
I was fortunate to visit the old RCA Laboratories in New Jersey, which now is called Sarnoff Corporation and it houses the David Sarnoff Library. The director there helped me with my research. We still get into vigorous debates over what happened between Farnsworth and Sarnoff, but there is little dispute over the facts, only what conclusions we can draw from the story. RCA as a corporation no longer exists. The French company Thompson owns the consumer RCA brand, and GE owns NBC. The story of how RCA was founded and what became of it is fascinating in and of itself.
Have the Farnsworths ever been compensated for any injustice caused to them?
No, not at all. Farnsworth did generate some revenue from his patents in the early days, but most of the money went into legal fees and the battle against RCA. He died in debt, and the family still is living very modestly.
You say that by the early 1930s "the era of the great lone inventor had seemingly come to a halt". Why? What changed?
When Edison died in 1931, his obituary in The New York Times predicted that Edison would be the last great lone inventor. Farnsworth was out to prove that wouldn't be the case. What changed? The corporations that grew up around all the great inventions of the previous century needed to make sure lone inventors wouldn't come up with new ideas that would topple their empires. So they launched R&D labs staffed with hundreds or thousands of engineers. If a lone inventor came along, they would offer to buy him out. If he refused, they would make life very difficult. One other inventor in this story is even driven to suicide.
You wrote the book while working on two other books about the world wide web, and you mention parallels with the invention of television. What parallels do you see?
Anyone who has been reading the business pages during the past ten years will see the parallels when reading The Last Lone Inventor. The birth of broadcasting is similar to the birth of the Internet in many ways. The stock market bubble of the late 1920s is like the one in late 1990s. Then there is the market crash and the financial scandals. The federal antitrust investigation against RCA is remarkably similar to the one against Microsoft. I don't explicitly point out these parallels in the book, but part of the fun is spotting these similarities for yourself.
Will there be any more lone inventors?
Absolutely, and there are. There haven't been any as famous as Morse, Bell, the Wrights or Edison over the past 60 or 70 years, but today it is much easier to raise money for a good idea than ever before. I believe lone inventors can make breakthroughs on their own. That eternal spirit of invention and discovery is the main theme of the book.
You wrote a book titled Webonomics in 1997 about how to grow business on the web. If you had to update that book, what changes would you make?
I'm proud that it did come out in 1997, and that it has held up pretty well, so I would leave it as a historical document of the early days of electronic commerce, even though that term didn't exist back then. Plus, I got another shot at this world in 1999, with the publication of Digital Darwinism, which anticipated the Darwinian shakeout of the dotcom species. It was writing about the Internet that prompted my interest in earlier communications technologies and the story of Philo T Farnsworth in particular.
Finally, are you working on another book and any idea what it will be about?
For now, I think I'd like to stick to the topic of invention in some way. To me, it is a miracle when someone creates something radically new.
Do you have a web site?
Yes, please visit LastLoneInventor.com. You can see the video clip of the only time Farnsworth was on national television in his lifetime. It was 1957, and he was on a CBS game show, where the celebrity panel had to guess who this mystery guest was. This is a remarkable piece of television.
'The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television' by Evan I Schwartz is published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 0066210690
(c) Fergus Cassidy
Commemorative site celebrating the 75th anniversary (September 2002) of the invention of television by Farnsworth. link
TIME magazine's poll results of greatest scientists and thinkers of the 20th century. The link goes direct to Farnsworth. link
The Public Broadcasting Service in the US aired a program called 'Big Dream, Small Screen', a history of television. link