Corporate Myth And The Reality Of Television

ON September 7, the world will celebrate 75th year of the invention of television. Yet, compared to the world-wide fame that other inventors such as Graham Bell, Marconi or Edison enjoy, the inventor of television, perhaps the most powerful communication medium today, Philo Farnsworth is hardly known. Yet, his story and the story of his invention are one of the most intriguing in the world. Recently, three books have come out which have brought out the true story of television, well known to those in the industry but denied to general public. Evan I Schwartz’s The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television (HarperCollins) and David Stahshower’s The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television, (Broadway Books), Paul Schatzkin’s The Boy Who Invented The Future attempts to correct this record of corporate misinformation and skulduggery.

Farnsworth was only 14 when he first conceived the idea of how a picture could be broken up line by line, transmitted using radio waves and recomposed to recover the picture. At age 20, he was able to translate his idea into a device for which he filed and secured a patent from the US patent office. And immediately ran into the forces that would deny Farnsworth his invention and would also stop its introduction in the US market. David Sarnoff, the President of Radio Corporation of America, known today far more by its initials, RCA was willing to stop television if RCA did not have total control of its technology. He was also not willing to share with Farnsworth the glory of his invention. In his twisted mind, he was the Father of Television and the glory belonged to him and RCA alone. This started a 75 year blackout that has virtually robbed in the public mind Farnsworth the status he otherwise would have enjoyed as an inventor on par with other legendary ones.


While the personal side to the battle, the lone inventor going up against the media mogul is slowly being corrected, there was another side to the story. This was also the transition from the inventor as an individual to “inventors” as corporations: the corporations would henceforth employ would be inventors in research laboratories and hold all their patents. Farnsworth’s attempt to set up as an independent inventor outside the corporate labs of AT&T, General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA was also what finally made it so difficult for Farnsworth to fight David Sarnoff and RCA. RCA owned the patents on almost all the vital components that went in to the radio and ‘ruled’ the airwaves. They had slapped patent violation suits on all competitors who were forced to pay RCA huge sums as royalties. Sarnoff’s famous boast was “RCA doesn’t pay royalties. It collects them.” RCA tied up Farnsworth in patent courts, prevented Federal Communication Commission from accepting Television and finally when Television was introduced and violated Farnsworth’s patents. By the time that television was all the rage, the 17-year period patent protection was over and Farnsworth had lost the advantage of his patents. Finally, Farnsworth sold his company for a pittance to ITT and left television altogether to work on nuclear fusion for the rest of his life.

Interestingly enough, there are certain parallels between television and radio. Marconi allegedly is the inventor of wireless. What is again not well known is that he based his patent on a vital invention of Jagdish Chandra Bose, who had presented it to the Royal Society of Physics in London the year before. Finally, J C Bose also left the field of radio in disgust and worked on plants and their electrical characteristics for the rest of his life.

Marconi’s connection with our story does not end here. Marconi had used his patents to set up a company in UK that held all of Marconi’s patents. This company owned the American company – the American Marconi Company — that held Marconi’s patents in the US. In 1920, the US government, now the high priest of world-wide intellectual property rights decided that such a vital area could not be left in foreign hands. They took over these patents and handed them over to an entity formed by General Electric, Westinghouse and AT&T. This was how RCA was formed: RCA was this entity. General Electric, Westinghouse and AT&T also had cross-patenting arrangements by which each one of these companies could use other’s patents. RCA had access thus to all their patents and had total technological monopoly over this area. RCA and David Sarnoff, who would later head RCA, used this monopoly power to control the entire industry. RCA also set or acquired radio stations forming the well known National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). NBC started as a radio station chain as did CBS. Subsequently, NBC had to divest a part of its stations due to anti-monopoly pressure and spun off a part of this chain to form the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).


Philo Farnsworth was born in 1906 in Utah, US to a family of farmers. His earliest introduction to the exciting New World of radio and wireless was a set of magazines and books left behind by a previous occupant of their farmhouse. Farnsworth declared to his father at age 12 that he was an inventor, the vocation that he would pursue with life long passion. In those days, once it was clear that voice could be transmitted by radio waves, the next great task was how to transmit pictures. The best minds of that era concentrated on how to break up a picture, transmit is as radio signals and recompose it back again. It was known by then that if a picture could be transmitted frame by frame, the eye would think it was a moving picture provided there were enough frames in a second of transmission. Almost all others concentrated on trying to break up the picture mechanically and then recomposing it also mechanically. Young Farnsworth believed this was blind alley: no mechanical device would ever be fast enough. He pinned his faith on the new electron tube, the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) and decided only the stream of electrons would be fast enough for the job. While ploughing his father’s field, he looked at the entire field being ploughed in furrows: a set of parallel lines. It struck him that a picture could also be broken up line by line, similar to this field. Farnsworth was only 14 at that time and the year was 1921. He worked on his idea and told his science teacher in 1922, Tomlinson about his camera tube that would transmit pictures. Tomlinson must have initially thought this the fantasy of a 15-year-old, but was increasingly convinced as the young boy explained his ideas. Farnsworth made a small sketch for his teacher as he explained his scheme, a piece of paper his teacher was impressed enough to keep. Twelve years later, this piece of paper would be vital evidence in the patent interference suit that RCA brought against Farnsworth. Asked if he could show any proof of this alleged conversation by the RCA lawyer, Tomlinson, to the surprise of everybody including Farnsworth’s lawyers, pulled out a yellowed piece of paper. The sketch on the paper showed astonishing similarity to the device on which Farnsworth had filed his patent in 1927 and received his patent in 1930.

After finishing school, Farnsworth decided to be a full time inventor. He was able to get some investors interested and set up a laboratory in San Francisco to pursue his dream of television. In 1927, he had built his first device and filed his patent even though the device was not fully operational. By 1928, the device was operational and Farnsworth was winning recognition for his revolutionary devices for transmitting and receiving pictures.


Meanwhile David Sarnoff had taken over RCA as President. Sarnoff knew two things, how to fight patent battles and how to manipulate media. He had already planted false stories about himself and the “heroic” role he had played in keeping up radio communication with the sinking Titanic and the rescue ships, shown later to be sheer fabrications. Sarnoff that he and RCA would own television as completely as radio. To this end, he built RCA laboratories and hired Valdimir Zworykin to lead his team. Zworykin also had a similar idea to that of Farnsworth but had no working device. By the time he could build one, Farnsworth had already built and received his patents. If RCA had to own television, they had either to buy out Farnsworth or build around his patents: they had to find an alternate way of delivering television. Unfortunately for RCA, every time they tried it, they ran up against Farnsworth’s patents.

The mystery is why did not Sarnoff pay Farnsworth and legitimately take over the patents. RCA spent 10 million dollars for research to Zworykin and his team and had little to show for it. Farnsworth and his team spent only 1 million dollars and held all the vital patents. So why was Sarnoff fighting Farnsworth instead of buying him out?

The answer to this lie in the psyche of the two men and the social forces they represented. Sarnoff was not willing to concede that the vision of television could be shared, the inventor in his mind did not own the idea, and he did. To this end, he even managed in the 60s to get the Television Manufacturers Association declare that he was the Father of Television and Zworykin its inventor. He represented the power of modern global corporation and he was not going to concede defeat to a lonely inventor. Farnsworth was not willing to bow down to the corporatisation of research. The era of the solitary inventor was quickly fading. Large, well-funded corporate laboratories were taking their place in the 1930s and reducing the inventor to a contract engineer, something Farnsworth was not willing to accept.

Sarnoff may have won the battle for television; RCA did become the monopoly in television in the US that he sought and was only brought down later by the Japanese. But the history is slowly being corrected. School children in Utah discovered that every state had a right to two statues in the National Statutory Hall and Utah had only one. They petitioned the Congress successfully that the other should be Farnsworth as the Father of Television. Today, it is increasingly percolating through that there is a story about the media which was so cynically manipulated by RCA and Sarnoff which is about how the media itself came about. It is also a powerful social indictment of how history is “created” and what intellectual property is all about. It is not one of honouring the inventor and his ideas but about corporate monopoly and greed. The story of television and Farnsworth brings this out in vivid details.