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Inventing Television: Citizen Sarnoff and One Philo T. Farnsworth
Some believe we are undergoing a fundamental transformation of mass communication as the Internet replaces TV as the primary means of public communication and entertainment. This could have important consequences for the distribution of political and cultural power in society. Recently Nielsen//NetRatings reported that the average American online household is actively online over an hour a day and that Internet advertising is growing faster than any other medium. One way to better understand the political, technical, and economic character of these possible transitions is to look back at the issues that arose in the early days of radio and television broadcasting. One story comes immediately to mind.
It is the story of the invention and commercialization of television. Independent inventor Philo Farnsworth will play the role of our protagonist in our little teleplay. The antagonist is General David Sarnoff, the chairman of RCA and founder of NBC. He was a shrewd and ruthless businessman but also a visionary who laid the groundwork for our modern media system.
Whereas Farnsworth viewed Sarnoff as a gigantic but surmountable obstacle, Sarnoff viewed Farnsworth as just one more inventor to be held under his thumb. Buy him out cheap and reap the rewards. He did not realize that Farnsworth was different from all the other scientists and engineers he controlled, that this inventor was a throwback to an earlier Page 93 era. Out of the confrontation between these two mismatched men, the modern television tube would emerge, ingesting images of reality deep inside itself, then spitting out reordered flickers of phosphorescence into living rooms everywhere. By the time the inventor and mogul would die, in the very same year, the number of homes with televisions would surpass the number of homes with indoor plumbing. Philo T. Farnsworth and David Sarnoff were fighting over something more than just a box of lights and wires.
Fields of Vision
Philo T. Farnsworth grew up in a time not unlike our own. A war was being waged overseas (World War I) and people’s lives were being transformed by new technology (the automobile, radio). Philo was a farm boy in Idaho and a young genius who read about electricity and Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his theory on the photoelectric effect. Science & Invention magazine offered a twenty-five-dollar prize each month for the best invention to improve the automobile. The month before the winner had been Edna Purdy, who devised the first car alarm by attaching a horn to the bottom of the rear fender. If a stranger stepped onto the running board a circuit would be completed that would set off the horn. Philo had an idea that would top Purdy’s. Instead of an alarm, why not have a lock on the steering column? At the time, all Model Ts were started with the same flat metal key. Philo had been reading about atoms, and realized that by magnetizing the starting mechanism and key, one could create a unique trigger that would enable the car to start. Philo won first prize and used the money to buy himself a suit from the Sears catalog.
Philo rose before dawn every morning to give himself time to read and think. Among his favorite science journals was Radio News, which was mailed to his farmhouse every month for a two-dollar annual subscription. He became particular interested in the German inventor Paul Nipkow, who had devised a theoretical system for scanning images called the Nipkow disk. Bright light reflected off a person or object would pass through a spinning black disk that was punctured with small holes. As the wheel spun around, it would mechanically scan the image, turning the patterns of light picked up by the holes into electrical impulses. The impulses would then travel by wire to another disk spinning at the same speed as the first. The receiving side would transform the impulses back into the original image, projecting it onto an adjacent screen.Page 94
The more Philo thought about it, the more he became convinced that this mechanical setup would never work. How could the disk ever spin fast enough to pick up an image in enough detail? If it transmitted only shadows and flickers, people wouldn’t watch it. There had to be a better way, a method of sending images so quickly that it could fool the eye into perceiving pulses of light as sharp, fluid pictures. He had read about vacuum tubes, thus named because all the air was sucked from them before the glass was sealed. Inside was an environment perfectly suited for transmitting electrons without any interference from air molecules. He was especially intrigued by an article about a special oversized vacuum tube. In 1897, a German scientist named Karl Braun found a way to shoot an electron beam through a tube to a screen on the other end. The inside of the screen could be coated with a fluorescent substance that would light up when struck by the electrons. It was called a cathode ray tube . . . Philo was amazed.
One early morning in the summer of 1921, when Philo was about to turn fifteen, he once again rose to read and then head out to the fields, again to cultivate potatoes. The birds were chirping, the sun was coming up, and a clear blue sky slowly emerged. He climbed into the seat of a single-disk harrow that was pulled by two horses. Philo lapsed into his typical trance, meditating on the problem at hand, brainstorming for an idea. He already knew that electron beams could be controlled, manipulated, and redirected by magnets. Why wasn’t anybody capturing an image electronically, then using an electromagnet to guide the light through the tube and to project the signals onto the surface of the screen?
As Philo turned the horses to cultivate another row parallel to the previous one, he gazed back at what he had already done. He saw row after row of furrows. An inspiration struck him like a jolt of electricity to the heart. It hit him with so much force that he froze and nearly fell off his seat. He saw television in that field. Just as a field needed to be plowed line by line, light had to be captured line by line. Philo knew that light energy could be converted into electrical current. What if patterns of electrons could represent patterns of light? After an image was scanned, the process could be reversed. The electron beams could be shot through a tube and converted back into an image that could be recreated on a screen in evenly painted lines. Electrons moved so fast that an entire image could manifest itself this way in a wink. So you can say that the potato field led to the couch potato.
Philo wanted desperately to tell someone about his idea. He realized that he had sold his magnetic key idea much too cheaply. His father, Page 95 lacking the scientific knowledge to evaluate his son’s invention but recognizing its brilliance, urged Philo to keep this one a secret. The only other person Philo told was his high school science teacher, Mr. Tolman. Recognizing Philo’s scientific brilliance after overhearing the young man articulate Albert Einstein’s photoelectric theory of light to his rapt classmates, Mr. Tolman convinced the principal to let Philo stay after school for special advanced chemistry lessons. After swearing his mentor to secrecy, Philo explained to his invention to Mr. Tolman. Mr. Tolman listened with interest as Philo explained how this system would work and just how it would bring images from a distance into people’s homes, just as radio was now transmitting sound. He explained his concept for scanning images and said that pictures needed to be encoded just as the plow traverses a field or the human eye reads a page of print—row by row. He tore out a page from his notebook with a sketch of the image-scanning device. The sketch was of a cylinder with a lens on one end that would focus the incoming optical image onto a photoelectric cell. Philo explained how varying current could travel by wire to a nearby transmitter that would project electromagnetic waves from an antenna, just as with radio sound. Mr. Tolman’s conclusion was exactly what Philo wanted to hear. “This just might work,” he said. Many years later this conversation would prove very important.
When I interviewed Philo’s widow Pem, she told me that in the beginning, Philo was idealistic about what television would become. He was driven to find a way to bring the world together around great events. He thought television would be the world’s greatest education tool, that it would wipe out ignorance and illiteracy, and that it would stop war—war being a by-product of misunderstanding. With the enlightened images of television coming into living rooms, we would no longer have misunderstanding.
To him, that was the purpose of television. That was the public need. Education. Enlightenment. Idealistic stuff.
Making a Great Man
Now the other side of the story, the commercialization of the invention. If Philo Farnsworth was the quintessential independent American inventor, David Sarnoff was the quintessential American capitalist of his time. Sarnoff was born to a poor family in Uzlian, Russia. He immigrated to America at the age of nine, and at the age of fourteen, when his father was dying of tuberculosis, he hit the streets of New York to find a job to Page 96 support his family. After working several jobs as a newspaper delivery boy and messenger, Sarnoff showed up, with telegraph key in hand, at the Wall Street offices of the American Marconi Company, which was engaged in the radically new business of overseas wireless communications
Not long after Sarnoff joined the firm, Guglielmo Marconi himself paid a visit to the office. What happened next was later corroborated by the famous Italian inventor. Sarnoff went out of his way to shake the hand of Marconi and managed to strike up a lengthy conversation with him. In place of his real father, a weak man with a hacking cough, a man he hardly knew and didn’t especially admire, Sarnoff had idolized Marconi and would come to regard him as a surrogate father. The young Sarnoff was struck by the elegant way the trim Marconi dressed, held his cigarette, and moved around with a gold-plated walking stick, graciously greeting all the employees. He identified with the fact that Marconi had only a grade-school education. On the spot, Sarnoff offered to act as Marconi’s personal messenger. As luck would have it, his hero happened to need one at the time. On subsequent visits to New York, Marconi began treating Sarnoff not just as a messenger but as a protégé of sorts, answering Sarnoff’s many technical questions and offering the teenager access to company files and papers. Sarnoff thus became the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Sarnoff began to infuse his own life with a sense of destiny, as if every move he made was a step toward his final goal, and that goal was greatness. He began to see the birth of broadcasting not just as a once-in-alifetime event but a transformation that would only come along once in human history. He became determined to be the great leader of the most important company in the world’s most dynamic industry. Not just a businessman, but a Great World Figure and a prophet of the electronic age.
Sarnoff’s first big step on his march to greatness supposedly came after he was promoted at American Marconi, to the position of wireless telegraph operator. Ever the self-promoter, it was here that the first tale of Sarnoff’s greatness emerged. According to the tale, at 10:25 p.m. on Sunday night, April 14, 1912, Sarnoff was at his post when he heard the message: S.S. Titanic ran into iceberg. Sinking fast. In Sarnoff’s version, which was later adopted by the Radio Corporation of America as its official account, he was the sole link between the sinking ship and the rest of the world. The Titanic disaster not only cast a spotlight on the importance of radio, it also catapulted Sarnoff’s career. Sarnoff was promoted Page 97 to the high-profile position of patent policeman, and shortly after, commercial manager at the newly formed RCA. The corporation was born in 1919 not as an entrepreneurial venture but as a government proclamation. With its success during the war, wireless was deemed too important to be left to a foreign power, even a friendly one. The Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company pioneered the proliferation of wireless, but the company was headquartered in Great Britain. The U.S. Navy, and later Congress, decided that all the patents of its American subsidiary must be controlled by Americans.
Because of its leadership building the most powerful radio transmitters, General Electric was granted that opportunity. By congressional mandate, GE engulfed the assets, including the entire staff, of American Marconi and pooled the Marconi patents with its own. RCA was thus born as a monopoly, but Sarnoff thought that it wasn’t the right kind of monopoly. It was Sarnoff who convinced RCA leaders that the biggest opportunity for radio would be not as an overseas communications tool but as a domestic entertainment medium. In order to position RCA as the leader in entertainment radio, the company needed to obtain several patents held by other companies. In exchange for company stock, RCA struck deals for several components of the household radio receiver and broadcasting infrastructure, thereby consolidating the company’s position as the lead coordinating body and sales agent for radio receivers, transmitters, and other gear.
Having secured the patent rights to all stages of the broadcast radio, RCA now had to promote radio as an entertainment medium. As legend has it, Sarnoff single-handedly orchestrated the move of radio from an obscure communication tool to a commercial craze. Sarnoff would later tell the press the dramatic story of his master plan to manufacture the first big electronic media event. A boxing match to be held at an outdoor arena in Jersey City seemed to be the ideal event to usher in the new radio era. Cast as the role of the villain was legendary heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. The public loved to hate this man. Known as the Manassa Mauler, he was a scar-faced bruiser, alleged wife-beater, and, worst of all, a draft dodger. The valiant challenger was French champ Georges Carpentier, a handsome, graceful ladies’ man and decorated combat pilot. Sarnoff convinced the promoter to allow a microphone to be placed ringside. He arranged for a RCA radio transmitter en route to the Navy Department in Washington, DC, to be diverted to a secret shed near the arena. To broadcast the signal he recruited some of his engineers to construct a makeshift transmission antenna nearby. He enlisted Page 98 the help of Anne Morgan, daughter of financial baron J. P. Morgan, for PR. She arranged for charity listening events around the Northeast to be held at town halls, theaters, school auditoriums, Elks’ clubs and other locations. In exchange for a donation to her charity, attendees could gather to listen to the world’s first radio event. More than 300,000 people across the region gathered to listen as Jack Dempsey knocked out Carpentier in just eleven minutes (and it was a good thing the match ended so quickly as an electrical overload blew out the equipment moments after the referee’s final call). Indeed, the event was a massive success. Of course, this telling, much like the Titanic story, was just one of several episodes that David Sarnoff selectively edited, embellished, positioned, sharpened, backlighted, and recast with himself in the spotlight. That a man named Julius Hopp actually masterminded the event, and that Sarnoff had only the limited role of equipment supervisor, mattered little. Suddenly, everyone in the United States seemed to want two things: a radio and an opportunity to be on the radio. The Roaring Twenties were now good to go.
Of course, radio’s newfound popularity had its downside. Practically overnight more than 200 set makers at 5,000 parts manufacturers sprung up. Suddenly there were hundreds of applicants for radio broadcast licenses and hundreds more broadcasting without a license. A cover of Radio News magazine captured the situation with a cartoon cover of a monkey wearing headphones, operating a radio transmitter. Sarnoff thought the situation was a mess, and that people would soon lose interest in buying radio if the content didn’t become more sophisticated. So he proposed in an internal memo to create a national broadcasting company, or a public broadcasting service. Sarnoff’s idea for the service was, like Farnsworth’s vision, very high-minded—education, objective news reporting, lectures by Marconi and Einstein, classical symphonies, and perhaps some sports and entertainment. Someone had to bring order to the industry. Someone had to subdue the mob that was running away with the radio business. Someone had to enforce the patents. Sarnoff, already the head of RCA’s patent committee, was the logical choice to assume the role, and he jumped at the chance. In the spirit of the most wildly unpopular law of the day, Sarnoff would institute a prohibition on the radio industry. Sarnoff led a patent crackdown, suing smaller companies for patent infringement and refusing to sell radio components to dealers who did not exclusively carry RCA’s entire line of radios. Small independent radio producers united to attack the monopolistic prac- Page 99 tices of RCA in general and Sarnoff in particular. Sarnoff’s reputation as the lead bully of the repressive broadcasting industry was emerging. If you got on the wrong side of Sarnoff, he could steamroll right over you and see to it that no one looked back on your remains.
While David Sarnoff was a man obsessed turning radio into an entertainment device, Philo T. Farnsworth was obsessed with making his idea of television a reality. College seemed the obvious next step in Farnsworth’s efforts to actualize his dream. In order to pay tuition, he briefly joined the navy, but quit when he realized that any progress he made on his device while enlisted would automatically become government property. Unable to make ends meet working odd jobs, Philo dropped out of college. Luck placed him with a job at the Community Chest, a national charitable organization where he would meet three of the most important people in his life—his future wife, Pem Gardner, and two well-connected young fund-raisers named George Everson and Leslie Gorrell.
One day during a casual conversation Philo explained his invention to Everson and Gorrell. While neither man much understood the science of the contraption, this was an era of wild speculation on Wall Street, and Everson revealed that he had dreams of making a killing. “I have about six thousand dollars in a special account in San Francisco, he said. This is about as wild a gamble as I can imagine. I’ll put the money up. If I win, great. But if I lose it all, I won’t squawk.” Philo’s dreams finally had a chance at becoming a reality. Philo Farnsworth, George Everson, and Leslie Gorrell formed a partnership right on the spot. Farnsworth would own 50 percent of the venture, with Gorrell agreeing to reimburse Ever-son half his start-up capital if the venture was to go bust.
Philo’s personal life was looking up too. A romance was budding between him and his sister’s high school friend Pem Gardner. Pem listened with interest to Philo’s talk of sending pictures to the airwaves. Soon Philo asked the eighteen-year-old to become his wife and travel with him to Los Angeles, where he would be setting up shop to work on television full time. Indeed, young Philo was a man obsessed. Even on their wedding night it was his invention that was on Philo’s mind. Phil carried Pem over the threshold, but as soon as he put her down, he explained that he had to return to Everson’s office to work out final details before their morning departure to California. Phil went over his Page 100 invention and business plans with his nervous investors through the night, all while Pem was waiting on her wedding bed in her gown. By the time Phil arrived back at the room, all disheveled and windblown, Pem was visibly racked with worry and dismay at the thought of having her wedding night ruined. To top it off, Phil opened his explanation of where he was with an attempted joke. “Pemmie,” he said, embracing her and staring deeply into her eyes, “I have to tell you something.” Pause. “There is another woman in my life. And her name is Television!” Indeed, television would be ever-present in their marriage, with Pem working side by side with her husband as he worked toward bringing his invention to the world.
As prices for radios fell, this new entertainment medium became easily accessible to the middle-class masses. In the mad scramble to reach this new audience, everyone was starting stations. The Chicago Tribune launched WGN (for World’s Greatest Newspaper), Sears started WLS (for World’s Largest Store), and a preacher in Richmond began broadcasting over WLSV (Will the Lord Save Virginia?). Hospitals and colleges took to the airwaves, as did cities, towns, and states (KFKB stood for Kansas Folk Know Best). Clothing retailers and pharmacies, banks and insurance firms, poultry farms and ice cream parlors, electronics stores and radio dealers—all had their own stations. Companies saw radio as an efficient new way to communicate with their customers, and so they began hiring announcers and technicians by the thousands.
Of course, RCA still owned the patents to all the technology that radio broadcasting required. Yet Sarnoff knew that the company could not sue everyone. Additionally, claims that RCA was a monopoly that could stifle competition were gaining traction at the Federal Trade Commission, which filed to formally charge RCA and the entire radio combine, including GE, AT&T, Westinghouse, and United Fruit. This placed RCA in a peculiar situation. On one hand, RCA was being lambasted for its far-reaching powers. On the other hand, its stifling bureaucracy rendered it unable to compete. Start-ups were able to get newer, better designed, and cheaper radios to market before committees of the radio combine were able to circulate the minutes of their meetings. RCA was charged with holding a monopoly over radio at the same time that 75 percent of the radio market was being captured by other companies.Page 101
One late night at the office, David Sarnoff was struck with an idea. Instead of trying to put the other radio makers out of business through expensive litigation that would only inflict tremendous damage on RCA’s already fragile image, why not just license RCA’s patents? For 7.5 percent of sales RCA would provide its entire pool of patents to anyone who wanted them. The plan worked brilliantly, and soon 90 percent of radios sold were licensed by RCA. Radio was suddenly no longer just a craze but a burgeoning industry, and Sarnoff’s patent-licensing scheme made RCA fabulously profitable, much more so than it could ever have been selling radios alone.
Now that RCA was in the business of patent licensing, it faced tremendous pressure to produce more patents. While Philo T. Farnsworth was toiling independently in California to produce his television, David Sarnoff was busy establishing RCA’s first research and development department. Instead of purchasing patents from independent inventors, Sarnoff hired engineers from the best universities. He paid them competitive salaries, provided them with ample research budgets, and offered them a chance to join his crusade to change the world, working in the most dynamic industry the world had ever seen. Engineers would be paid their salary, and when their work led to a patent, the corporation would seize it. Producing patents was the engineer’s job. To make sure this agreement was understood and enforced, the corporation would issue a check for each patent filing in the amount of one dollar, payable to the engineer.
One RCA engineer by the name of Bill Eddy thought that the one-dollar checks were an absurdity. To him, the honor of receiving the check was worth far more than the dollar itself. Each time he was issued a check, he would paste it on the wall of his working space. Like many RCA engineers, he was quite prolific in filing patent applications. Pretty soon, he proudly covered an entire wall with these checks. Meanwhile, the comptroller in the accounting department was wondering why he could not balance the books. After asking around, Sarnoff’s finance chief found out about Eddy’s wall. A team of accountants descended on Eddy’s cubicle, but they couldn’t pry the checks off the wall without ripping them. Finally, they called some maintenance workers to hack down the whole section of plasterboard. They carried the wall away from the premises, dissolved the plaster in a special solution, removed the checks, waited for them to dry, took Eddy to the bank, got him to endorse the checks, gave him his small pile of bills, and balanced the books of RCA. Page 102 Under the direction of Sarnoff, RCA brought such policies to a whole new level, systematizing the process of invention as never before.
As Sarnoff and the engineers at RCA were busy rationalizing the invention process, Farnsworth and his wife were going it alone. Philo set up a lab in the living room of their Hollywood apartment. It was a particularly exciting time to be in Hollywood, not because of the start-ups, but because the movie industry was on the cusp of a technological transformation, incorporating sound with images. Philo brought home lamps, crystals, prisms, lenses, different types of wires, a barrel of shellac, various epoxies and glues, a hand-cranked coil winder, an electric generator, and all sorts of tools. Before long, equipment was coming out of closets and overflowing into the backyard. Everson and Gorrell, Philo’s financiers, were thrilled when they arrived. They offered to help in any way they could. Pem, Everson, and Gorrell helped Philo secure the equipment needed to make custom vacuum tubes and busied themselves constructing coils. The coils would guide and focus the electron beams through the vacuum tube. When juiced with electricity, the coils would develop a charge that would help deflect beams of electrons through the inner space to an anode, a positively charged metallic finger. In essence, Philo was trying to use an electromagnet to focus electron rays within the vacuum tubes. This would become the basis of Philo’s first great invention—the image dissector.
One particularly exciting evening the doorbell rang. Pem answered it, only to be startled by two burly officers from the Los Angeles Police Department flashing their badges in her face and launching an accusation. “We’ve had a report that someone is operating a still around here,” one of the officers shouted. As Philo invited him in to take a look around, Everson spied the cop and decided he wanted no part of this trouble. His hands were dripping with stinky, sticky, orange-colored goo, so he put them up in the air and fled, attempting to escape out the back door, where he was nabbed on the spot by two more policemen. One of them chided, “Oh, no you don’t, buddy!” That cop escorted Everson back inside and joined with his partner to search through all the equipment. Basically, the officers ransacked the place. Farnsworth started explaining to one of the officers that he wasn’t making booze but doing something completely different. He was trying to build an electronic television. The cop looked at him as if he were nuts. Finally, when these examples of Page 103 L.A.’s finest became convinced that there wasn’t any alcohol, they shook their heads. “They’re doing some kooky thing called electric vision, or something,” mumbled one of them. “They ain’t got no still in here.”
As summer drew to a close Everson and Gorrell left L.A. to tend to business in other cities. Philo and Pem enjoyed their new life in California and continued to toil over the image dissector, but the initial money was running out. That fall Philo was prepared for the first test of his compete electronic television system. This system included a camera, transmitter, and small reception tube to accept the signal. He invited Everson and Gorrell to witness the event. When everyone was assembled, and everything was connected, Farnsworth switched on the electrical generator. First, everyone heard a loud bang. That was followed by a few pops, then a slow hissing and a sizzle. Pungent smoke rose from the assortment of devices. By the time Farnsworth could shut the power off, it was too late. He had blown up the entire contraption, including his prized image dissector.
Farnsworth was humiliated, but Everson and Gorrell were still optimistic. Even if they could not produce a working device, they could still use Philo’s sketches to apply for a patent. The patent attorneys at Lyon & Lyon were intrigued by Farnsworth’s idea and requested a meeting with him to discuss the issue. The meeting lasted the entire afternoon, and Farnsworth rose to the occasion. He put on a passionate performance, explaining his idea with a brilliant clarity and answering every question with confidence and precision. The attorneys and several engineering experts agreed that the idea had merit, and that Farnsworth and his crew should pursue a patent.
What Philo needed now was money. After months of searching he and his partners landed at the Crocker First National Bank in San Francisco in the office of J. J. Fagan, an executive vice president of the bank with a reputation as a shrewd businessman. After hearing their story Fagan proclaimed, “Well, that’s a damn fool idea. Somebody ought to put some money into it!” The bank agreed to put up $25,000, with Farnsworth promising television transmission within a year. Additionally, the bankers would make available in San Francisco a laboratory space. There was a minor glitch, discovered when it came time to sign the papers. Still only twenty, Farnsworth was not yet old enough to enter into a contract on California. Everson had to assume the responsibility as the boy’s legal guardian. It made for an embarrassing moment. Off Philo and Pem went to their new headquarters at 202 Green Street, on the base of Telegraph Hill.
In addition to his management duties, Sarnoff continued to brainstorm about the future. One of his favorite subjects—the future of radio programming—began as a series of internal memos starting in 1922. The novelty of radio was wearing off, Sarnoff wrote, and programming needed to improve greatly because “the broadcasting station will ultimately be required to entertain a nation.” Not only would this endeavor be expensive, but it would call for specialists in talent and public taste. Let us organize a separate and distinct company, he wrote, to be known as the Public Service Broadcasting Company, or some similar name. As Sarnoff envisioned it, the business model of the company had to be one of a nonprofit organization. He didn’t favor taxing the public to support programming, an idea that was being put into practice for the government-owned stations in England and other European countries, but Sarnoff clearly viewed broadcasting as a public service of the highest order. He favored putting aside 2 percent of RCA radio profits toward a programming fund.
At the same time, around 1925, a company called AT&T began what it called toll broadcasting. The model was simple. Come down to the station, say whatever you want into the microphone, and pay by the minute. Lots of companies took the company up on the offer. To fill in the small gaps of time between the ads, people would sing, play piano, and give lectures, but nothing too fancy. By sending the programming and commercials over phone lines to affiliate stations, AT&T was able to move radio from a local to a national communication tool.
Sarnoff was outraged. Radio was to be a public service, not a forum for crass commercialism. At a high-profile radio conference in Washington, DC, organized by commerce secretary Herbert Hoover, Sarnoff denounced AT&T’s actions and urged everyone to join him in his indignation. As it turned out, Hoover himself was Sarnoff’s staunchest ally. “If a speech by the President is to be used as the meat between the sandwich of two advertisements,” Hoover proclaimed at the conference, “there will be no radio left!” There was one problem with his protest. The Commerce Department had no authority over radio. No one did, until the Federal Radio Commission, forerunner of the FCC, was established a few years later, thanks in part to a Supreme Court decision.
Sarnoff was convinced that AT&T was violating federal antitrust laws—using its telephone monopoly to gain a monopoly over radio. Sarnoff realized that he had two options: either enter into a lengthy and Page 105 expensive court case, or settle the dispute using arbitration. Luckily, the patent-sharing agreements between RCA and AT&T contained a provision for secret and binding arbitration of any disputes. Both parties agreed to arbitrate the antitrust issue privately, lest they bring the messy battle into the public spotlight.
The settlement was a resounding win for RCA. AT&T was forced to divest its radio network. It was sold to RCA for $1 million. The new RCA network, transmitted over AT&T’s phone lines for a modest fee, became known as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
As his reward for almost single-handedly founding NBC, Sarnoff was promoted to executive vice president and given a raise, to $60,000 per year. But here’s the twist. When Sarnoff and RCA launched NBC in 1926, they forgot all about its high-minded, anticommercial ideals. NBC would be funded by advertisers right from the start. After all its effort and investment of time and money, RCA wouldn’t have it any other way. It didn’t want any government regulation. AT&T proved that there was big money to be made in broadcasting commercials. Herbert Hoover by now was running for president, and he forgot his original indignation over the airwaves being filled with advertised chatter.
Sarnoff’s ego having been gratified by the glory of building RCA into the first electronic media conglomerate, the next order of business was something now getting considerable press attention, a technological leap that had been looming on his horizon for years. He now turned to focus on it almost exclusively. Sarnoff needed a plan for controlling the new art of television, which he envisioned supplanting radio and becoming, as one of his early memos put it, the ultimate and greatest step in mass communications.
Life on Green Street
Backing for his project secured, Philo headed to his new lab in San Francisco. The dream of television was on the horizon. Of course, much like Sarnoff’s, Farnsworth’s dream was a romantic one. Television would become the world’s greatest teaching tool. Illiteracy would be wiped out. The immediacy of television was key. As news happened, viewers would watch it unfold live; no longer would they have to rely on people interpreting and distorting the news for us. They would be watching sporting events and symphony orchestras. Instead of people going to the movies, the movies would come to them. Television would also bring about world peace. If people were able to see those in other countries and Page 106 learn about their differences, why would there be any misunderstandings? War would be a thing of the past.
Philo set up shop in the sparse Green Street lab, and was able to hire a few helpers, including Pem and her brother Cliff. Farnsworth had no experience running a laboratory. In fact, he had never seen the inside of a research lab or manufacturing plant. He had little idea how difficult it was to accomplish what he wanted. Instead, he would rely on instinct and old-fashioned trial and error. He attacked the assignment with no engineering experience, but to compensate he had courage and genius, Everson later wrote, “The courage was not the foolhardy type born of ignorance. His was the courage of the pioneer who knows the goal but has little knowledge of the intervening terrain.” Lab journals show Farnsworth moving at a furious pace. The small staff was working twelve hours a day, six days a week, trying out one technique after another, and doing their best to learn from their failures. “I’m a professional mistake maker,” Philo told Pem.
By August 1927 Farnsworth had conducted eleven failed experiments of his complete system, but he was sure that he was coming close. September 7, 1927, was the day that they were to conduct experiment number 12, a test of the entire apparatus. They had partitioned the room into two parts. Cliff placed a slide with the image of a triangle in front of the image dissector in one section of the lab, while everyone else gathered around the receiving tube behind the partition. The two tubes were connected by an amplifier and wires. Within a couple of seconds, a line appeared across the small bluish square of light on the end of the tube, wrote Pem. It was pretty fuzzy, but Philo adjusted the focusing coil, and the line became well-defined. “Turn the slide, Cliff,” shouted Philo. When he did so, the received line also turned ninety degrees. They didn’t see the full triangle, but even so, this line represented a historic first. “That’s it folks,” Farnsworth exclaimed. “We’ve done it! There you have electronic television.” In a telegraph to his backers Philo announced his good news in one short line: “THE DAMN THING WORKS!”
While the staff at the Green Street lab was celebrating the achievement of electronic television, excitement was brewing in engineering circles over television of another kind. Achievements in mechanical television were receiving a great deal of press coverage. John Logie Baird of Great Brittan was proclaimed the winner of the race for television when he successfully broadcast a shadowy image of a Maltese cross using the spinning disk method. The well-funded staff at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories used a similar method to transmit a blurred approximation of Page 107 Herbert Hoover’s face while separate phone lines connected to remote speakers carried his statement: “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance.” Even though mechanical television was to electronic television what smoke signals were to radio, David Sarnoff kept a watchful eye on the activities and pushed his engineering department to develop a marketable mechanical set.
The press’s attention to mechanical television posed a significant threat to Philo Farnsworth. Of particular national interest was the public showcase of Charles Francis Jenkins’s Radiovisor, as detailed in Hugo Gernsback’s radio and invention magazines. Jenkins’s company became a Wall Street darling virtually overnight, securing $10 million in investment capital. The financial euphoria surrounding the Radiovisor put Farnsworth in a knotty bind. After all, the bankers who were backing his venture were not interested in television per se but in the highest return on their money. Farnsworth needed to get his electronic television system to a commercial stage as quickly as possible, but he didn’t want to excite his investors so much that they would want to sell the company out from under him.
In January 1928 Farnsworth made his next great breakthrough when he wound electromagnetic coils around the camera tube so that it would sweep the image across the anode of the dissector one line at a time, a focusing technique used in commercial television systems for the rest of the century. By May, he brainstormed a theory for narrowing the transmission wave band, so that picture signals wouldn’t crowd out sounds assigned to adjacent frequencies. By August, all the small improvements added up to something big. His scan was now up to 150 lines of resolution.
It was time to demonstrate the device to his investors at the bank. As the assemblage stared into the receiving tube, Farnsworth said, “Here’s something a banker will understand.” And at the center of the blue screen appeared the image of a dollar sign. The group broke out into laughter, as the men began slapping their knees in approval. Cliff, in the other room, then began smoking a cigarette in front of the camera tube, and the men saw the vague outline of smoke wafting on the screen. The bankers in their day had witnessed plenty of people blowing smoke at them, but nothing like this.
The demonstration was a huge hit with the bankers. As Farnsworth had feared, they recommended that he quickly try to sell the company. While their techniques were greatly different, Farnsworth, just like Sarnoff, envisioned himself as the father of television. He would not sell Page 108 out. He did agree, however, to recommendations for a press demonstration. The bankers saw this as an opportunity to find a buyer. Philo, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity to prove to the world the workability of electronic television. Indeed, papers across the country reported how a young inventor in San Francisco had revolutionized the television.
Given the limited success of Sarnoff’s engineers in developing a commercially viable television, one can only imagine his shock when he read that some kid from California, working independently, had gotten so complex an invention near to a commercial stage. Sarnoff refused to be beaten, and he knew just the engineer that would help RCA compete. Vladimir Kosma Zworykin was a Russian-trained engineer who had himself been researching the potential use of cathode ray tubes to transmit images using electricity. He had been running some preliminary tests of his ideas at RCA’s sister company, Westinghouse, in Pittsburgh. Zworykin promised Sarnoff that with a $100,000 research budget he could develop a working electronic television system.
By now, Farnsworth’s elaborate demonstrations were attracting high-profile visitors. Among them were Guglielmo Marconi, David Sarnoff’s longtime mentor; Herbert Hoover Jr., son of the president; as well as Hollywood leading man Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his Oscar-winning wife, Mary Pickford. While the attention made Farnsworth feel like a celebrity, the bankers at J. J. Fagan wanted a visitor who was capable of swallowing the entire outfit, someone from one of the big electrical concerns, someone serious about pioneering the future, someone with real money in tow. The next guest fit the bill—the head of television research at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation—Vladimir Zworykin.
Zworykin arrived at Green Street in the middle of April 1930. For three days, all of the activity at the laboratory was centered on impressing this esteemed visitor. Farnsworth simply wanted to license his patents to Westinghouse, while the bankers wanted to sell the company outright. In any case, they showed Zworykin every courtesy as they revealed to him everything in the lab. No one was especially concerned that Zworykin would try to swipe intellectual property. Engineers at Zworykin’s level were all members of international professional societies that promoted clear odes of ethics. Besides, virtually all the demonstrations at the lab Page 109 were already described in patent applications and technical journals.
Little did they know that David Sarnoff was behind this visit. Westinghouse had no intention of licensing patents or buying the company. Sarnoff had planned to have Zworykin visit Farnsworth and then move the entire Westinghouse television operation to the RCA labs in Cam-den, New Jersey. After visiting Farnsworth, Zworykin took the train back to Westinghouse labs, where he and his assistants re-created, as best they could, a replica of Farnsworth’s Image dissector while it was still fresh in his mind. Then Zworykin packed it up, collected the rest of his things, and boarded another train to New York, where he reported to Sarnoff. Any pretense that Zworykin had come to see Farnsworth as a colleague, on a cooperative scientific mission, was now shattered. This bit of corporate espionage was a clear act of aggression. The war over television was hereby declared.
The reorganization moving all research to the RCA labs placed Sarnoff in nearly complete control of the new field of television. But in light of the stock market’s plummet, this strategy backfired. Having lost jobs and life savings, the public was eager to punish large corporations for their personal woes, and the Congress was happy to oblige. Years-old antitrust suits against the RCA radio behemoth reemerged. Suddenly, Sarnoff recognized the real risk—that the government would dissolve the radio monopoly. Leading the new television industry might be RCA’s only hope for survival.
When Sarnoff peered into the future, he saw himself as the Moses of a great new industry, the television industry, developed around an invention that would lead humankind toward its destiny. Anything that would interfere with that goal had to be shoved aside. Nothing would ever stand between RCA and television, especially not a young inventor who had designs on controlling the patent structure of the new art. As a result, Sarnoff established a clandestine task force. Composed of both engineers and patent attorneys, this new team became known, informally, as the Get-Around-Farnsworth Department.
By 1931 it was clear that Zworykin was nowhere near finishing a marketable version of electronic television. David Sarnoff decided that he would pay a personal visit to Farnsworth headquarters at the Green Street lab in San Francisco. Throughout his visit he expressed interest in the equip- Page 110 ment and seemed impressed with the demonstrations. Afterward, however, his entire demeanor changed. He asserted that Zworykin’s work on his own television receiver made it possible to avoid Farnsworth’s patents. As for a television camera, he said that RCA was working on something that could equal Farnsworth’s image dissector. “There’s nothing here we’ll need,” Sarnoff concluded. Shortly after Sarnoff’s visit, RCA offered to purchase the entire company for the insulting price of $100,000. The offer was rejected outright.
Sarnoff had made up his mind about Farnsworth even before visiting Green Street. His lowball offer wasn’t a matter of money, but of pride. To Sarnoff, the resulting publicity around Farnsworth would be far worse than the dollar cost. A large payment to Farnsworth could be interpreted by the press as a validation of this kid’s status as the father of television. Sarnoff believed that television was destined to be invented at RCA under his own command, even if it had already been invented somewhere else. Sarnoff, it seemed, visited Green Street only so that he could to claim that he had satisfied his basic curiosity.
Not long after Sarnoff’s visit, Farnsworth received an offer that he could live with. Philco radio company in Philadelphia was struggling to survive. Between patent-licensing payments to RCA and plummeting radio sales, profit margins were slim. The company wanted to spread into a new market. To Farnsworth’s delight, the owners did not want to buy his company but rather form an alliance. Philco would fund all of the television laboratory’s expenses and provide research space in exchange for broad, nonexclusive licenses on all Farnsworth’s patents. Philo T. Farnsworth, along with his wife and several key employees, quickly moved to Philadelphia.
Back at RCA, Vladimir Zworykin and his team were making steady progress on his own electronic television. The most important of these achievements occurred by accident. In an attempt to create an original television camera not based on a Farnsworth design, an RCA engineer was experimenting with surfaces that could temporarily store electronic representations of images. He coated with silver a sheet of mica crystals attached to a wire mesh, then put it in the oven to bake. He forgot all about it and left it in way too long. By the time he pulled his sheet out of the oven, he felt like a failed pastry chef, figuring his creation was ruined and that he’d have to start all over. When he looked at the result, however, he saw that his concoction had crystallized into a beautiful uniform mosaic of insulated silver. When Zworykin tested it, he found that this Page 111 new photoelectric surface worked wonderfully. He called it the “final link” in his plan to create the first electronic television camera using the principle of temporary storage, which made the camera far more sensitive and reduced the need for bright lights. Zworykin called the newfangled instrument the Iconoscope.
In Philadelphia, Farnsworth knew that progress was being made at RCA because his equipment would occasionally pick up broadcasts from RCA’s experimental television studio across the river in Camden. Farnsworth was also making progress. His team was also running successful tests of an experimental television station. Of course, the RCA team would occasionally pick up these signals as well. One afternoon, the team at Philco received a phone call from the RCA labs. One of the Philco cameras was stationed at the University of Pennsylvania pool. “You know your camera at the swimming pool?” the RCA engineer queried. “do you know that some of the students are swimming without bathing suits?”
In 1932, the Great Depression took a toll on RCA. The company posted a million-dollar loss, and continued antitrust litigation distracted Sarnoff from his television project. Meanwhile, Philco was forced by RCA to sever its ties with Farnsworth. The end run to commercialize televsion without RCA had failed. Farnsworth later learned that when Sarnoff found out about the Philo-Philco plan, he threatened to rescind the Philadelphia company’s license to produce radios under RCA’s patents, which would effectively put Philco out of business. Farnsworth moved the laboratory to rented space near his home. To fund the enterprise, George Everson went to New York to sell stock in Farnsworth Television.
Who Owns What?
No matter how hard Philo T. Farnsworth worked at his suburban Philadelphia laboratory, he wasn’t making progress in advancing television to a commercial stage. According to the party line laid down by David Sarnoff, it was RCA that was developing true commercial television, and when it was ready, RCA’s own pending patents based on the work of Zworykin’s team would be available to manufacturers for license. RCA notified all the potential licensees of Farnsworth’s patents that the Patent Office must have made a serious mistake. This calculated and clandestine campaign of misinformation and threats cut off Farnsworth’s ability to license his patents, which he had counted as his main source of potential revenue.Page 112
The situation between Philo and RCA was growing worse, as Sarnoff continued ambushing Farnsworth in order to position RCA as the inventor of commercial television. While Farnsworth actively promoted his progress, Sarnoff made sure that RCA remained silent on the technical information about the company’s progress on television. When Farnsworth gave presentations, the front rows were filled with engineers photographing his slides. These ideas would often make their way into patent applications by competitors, including RCA. Conversely, David Sarnoff insisted that he have final approval on any statement made by any member of the organization about the future of television.
Finally, Farnsworth decided he had had enough of RCA’s espionage, delays, and propaganda. He needed the Patent Office to clarify the situation once and for all. With the help of Donald Lippincott, his trusted patent attorney, Farnsworth filed suit against RCA. This legal action became known as Patent Interference Number 64,027. At issue was nothing less than the big question: who invented electronic television? While Sarnoff was content to let this question linger as long as possible, in order to buy time for Zworykin, Farnsworth knew that the dispute had to be resolved before he could move ahead. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The winner of the case would be granted controlling rights to the invention of television.
To establish the chronology of events, RCA brought in a former Westinghouse engineer named Joseph Tykociner to testify that Zworykin had described, constructed, and demonstrated his television idea to him long before Farnsworth’s patent applications. Of course, this testimony, lacking any written record, was dubious. Additionally, Tykociner and Zworykin had been in contact throughout the period when Zworykin began working on television for RCA. Tykociner must have been coached to revise his story, charged the Farnsworth team.
When it came to establishing the Farnsworth chronology, Lippincott and his team faced a big problem. Upon conceiving his idea, Farnsworth only disclosed it to two people: to his father, now deceased, and to his high school science teacher, Justin Tolman, who had since left Rigby, Idaho. Farnsworth hadn’t been in touch with Tolman since moving away from Rigby, and he had no idea of his whereabouts or whether the teacher remembered much about the matter in question. If they could not produce a witness, no court could possibly believe that a farm boy at the tender age of fourteen could have come up with an invention as complicated as electronic television.Page 113
Luckily, Farnsworth’s legal team was able to locate Tolman, who clearly remembered the description Philo gave to him long ago. In court, he was able to replicate the sketch that his student had drawn on the blackboard. While it was a much simplified version, the elements matched all of those in Farnsworth’s patent application. What happened next was truly remarkable. Asked whether he could show written evidence, Tolman reached into his breast pocket and produced a folded-up, well-worn sheet of notebook paper. When he unfolded it, Tolman revealed a shockingly simple sketch of the image dissector. “This was made for me by Philo in early 1922,” he said. The teacher had saved the drawing all these years.
This testimony, coupled with the accusation that RCA had engaged in an act of corporate espionage, sending Zworykin to the Green Street lab in 1930, seemed to leave no doubt about who the true inventor of television was. Still, the court took several months to decide the issue. The court eventually affirmed Philo’s controlling patent, officially anointing him as the father of television.
Of course, Sarnoff was not going to leave the decision solely up to the courts. As luck would have it, Sarnoff’s old friend Joe Kennedy was appointed by President Roosevelt to be the first chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission. Under Kennedy’s leadership, the SEC investigated about 2,300 cases of possible securities fraud. He didn’t go after any major members of the New York Stock Exchange. Rather, almost all the cases involved manipulation of small-time, over-the-counter stocks. At this point, Farnsworth Television was one such creature. Faced with a whopping $30,000 legal bill from the trial and $5,000 per month in salaries and lab costs, Everson and company president McCargar were living on company expenses in New York, selling as much stock as they could to pay bills. This coincided with a run-up in the price of company shares, which was fortunate. But such activity could also smell fishy to Sarnoff’s friend at the SEC.
In the months preceding the court ruling Philo decided to do some showing off. He agreed to do a ten-day demonstration of his invention at the Franklin Institute, a prestigious science museum in Philadelphia. When the exhibit opened, Farnsworth staged a surprise at the main entrance. He pointed a mobile camera at the incoming stream of visitors, while a receiver just inside the door televised their faces, allowing people to watch their friends and family members. The demonstration was a huge success, with a line quickly forming of people waiting to pay Page 114 seventy-five cents to see Philo’s amazing machine. Yet the demonstration was not financially successful for the Farnsworth Television Company and left the entire staff exhausted.
Two years later, in 1936, Sarnoff arranged for RCA’s first public television demonstration, an event that would end up being referred to as the first TV dinner. All of RCA’s major licensees were invited to a complementary dinner at the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Broadcast on television were speeches by several members of the RCA leadership, followed by entertainment fare including a fashion show, monologues, comics, and several film clips. Unlike Farnsworth’s show at the museum, the RCA demonstration served as a wake-up call to the entire radio industry. Never mind that the screens were much smaller and of much lower resolution than the ones Farnsworth had displayed two years earlier.
Meanwhile, Farnsworth now controlled an impressive array of more than twenty-five patents, plus at least seventy-five pending applications. He had largely achieved his goal of building up a formidable patent structure around the art of electronic television. Licensing revenue was bound to pick up at some point, but now was the time to shift gears from research to development and become a full-fledged manufacturing company. The Farnsworth team arranged to take over a high-end radio manufacturer called Capehart Company, of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Farnsworth’s company needed to raise funds to begin a lab at the new location, but could not do so until the SEC approved its public offering plan. With World War II on the horizon, the stock market took a plunge. Raising funds seemed impossible.
In Philadelphia Farnsworth was getting depressed and drinking heavily. To get away from his problems, Philo, Pem, and two friends went on a trip to Maine. While there, Farnsworth fell in love with a rundown old farmhouse. He insisted on buying it on the spot. Pem thought he was mad, but realized that the project would at least get his mind off the company’s financial woes.
In 1939 Farnsworth was summoned to testify before Congress in what would be called the “Monopoly Investigation.” FDR had become convinced that concentration of economic power was a structural problem that was preventing economic recovery and urged an investigation. Consisting of members of the House, the Senate, and various executive branch departments, the officially named Page 115 Temporary National Economic Committee had begun its investigation in the summer of 1938. Its mission was to scrutinize industries ranging from insurance to banking, from finance to manufacturing, looking for instances of systematic anticompetitive behavior harmful to workers and consumers, then coming up with legislation to address antitrust loopholes. The centerpiece of the hearings was a probe into patents. Since patents by definition grant the holder a limited monopoly over an invention, committee members had great hopes that they would find smoking guns buried in patents. Some of the biggest industrial behemoths in the country drew much of their power from pools of patents. Foremost among these companies were General Electric, AT&T, and RCA, which was known simply as the radio monopoly.
Here was Farnsworth’s big chance to get back at RCA. None of the top executives from the radio monopoly were invited to appear at the hearing, and they were distraught over the fact that Farnsworth could launch into specific monopoly charges. Farnsworth could have described the constant harassment from RCA and its many attempts to interfere with his patent applications. He could have recounted how Vladimir Zworykin appeared at his laboratory under false pretenses, then reported back to David Sarnoff with what he learned. He could have told how RCA was spreading misinformation about the validity of Farnsworth’s patents, and how he had to endure years of expensive litigation to clear it up. He could have exposed Sarnoff’s unfair relationships with radio manufacturers who were contemplating getting into television. He could have told how RCA had intimidated Philco during the time Farnsworth was its partner. He could have complained about how RCA had been influencing the FCC to delay television until it had come up with its own quality system.
Instead of attacking RCA, Farnsworth acted as if had just come straight off the potato farm. He gave the committee his life story complete with the technical details about obscure scientific matters. Things began to get interesting when a committee member asked why television usage was at a more advanced stage in England and Germany than in the United States. Farnsworth offered a vague explanation of how the governments in those countries were footing much of the cost of programming. In addition, he said, the FCC has been slow in its effort to adopt a unified broadcasting standard for the United States. Then he switched to his optimistic view that television would be in the American home before very long.Page 116
He offered virtually no unkind words for the patent process in general, mainly because he truly believed the U.S. system was excellent and deservedly was the envy of the world. RCA’s anticompetitive business tactics that had haunted Farnsworth for a decade were left unexamined, in part because the committee members didn’t know what to ask about.
There were several reasons Farnsworth failed to speak up when he had the chance. He was certainly naive about how the game of business and politics really worked, but the idea of seeking assistance from the government also went against his self-image as a self-reliant individual. What’s more, he believed that things were going pretty well and that television was close to becoming a commercial reality. He didn’t know that he’d be proven wrong by events in the immediate future.
All’s Fair, World’s Fair
In 1939 New York City was to host the World’s Fair. The theme of this event was Building the World of Tomorrow. Sarnoff saw the fair as the ideal stage on which to promote RCA as the leader of the new television age. The publicity leading up to the opening of the fair reinforced the stature of RCA. Life magazine pictured RCA executives huddled around their newest model television, which was to debut at the fair, not mentioning, of course, that it had been built illegally, infringing the patents of someone else. RCA spent millions to build and operate a 9,000-square-foot pavilion where it could showcase its new television technology. Shaped like a colossal radio tube, the immense yellow structure was branded with bright red RCA logos. As visitors entered, they walked past the TV cameras, which entitled them to an “I was televised” wallet card with spaces for printing their name and the date. The Radio Living Room of Tomorrow exhibit featured an immense wall unit that housed a combined radio, record player, television, music recorder, film projector, and facsimile machine.
On display were RCA’s first commercial TV sets, housed in cabinets that projected straight up through a lens that magnified and reflected the image to be viewed indirectly on a mirror built into the unit’s lid. To avoid the appearance of visual trickery, RCA designed transparent Lucite plastic cabinets for these sets, which exposed the innards of the apparatus.
RCA also used the World’s Fair as an opportunity to officially bring their televisions to market. “The corporate sales force stocked all the major stores in the New York City area with enough inventory to respond Page 117 to the expected demand. Promotional dollars ensured that RCA televisions were placed in street-level store windows at all of the city’s famous department stores, including Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and Wanamaker’s. These sets carried luxurious $600 price tags, although less expensive models as low as $150 were soon added to the line.
At a press conference just before the opening of the fair, David Sarnoff made a grand announcement to the press.
It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. Television is an art which shines like a torch of hope to a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of mankind. Now ladies and gentlemen, we add sight to sound!
He also announced that the NBC radio network would begin to operate as a television network too.
In doing all this, Sarnoff not only was violating Farnsworth’s patents but also was bypassing the sovereignty of the FCC. “Without FCC adoption of commercial standards, Sarnoff was gambling that public enthusiasm would stampede the industry and the commission behind the RCA system,” wrote RCA’s Kenneth Bilby. While Philco and Zenith did object loudly, the FCC remained indecisive, neither condoning nor condemning Sarnoff’s plan. Technically, Sarnoff may have been bending various rules and laws, but at this special moment, he was able to manufacture a little bit of extra authority to do so with impunity.
Philo T. Farnsworth was also in New York during the fair, though he refused to attend. He was only there to attend meetings of the Farnsworth Television Company. Having recently received the go-ahead from the SEC for its initial public offering, the company was deciding how to proceed with the three million dollars in capital it had raised. In light of RCA’s guerilla tactics, they also had to decide whether or not they would sue for patent infringement.
On the afternoon of April 30, Farnsworth was walking back to his hotel from that day’s board meeting. When he saw RCA televisions projecting the opening ceremony in a department store window, he stopped cold in his tracks. David Sarnoff was on the air, yielding the podium to President Roosevelt. Farnsworth stepped closer to the window and listened to the sounds that were being piped out to the streets. Other pedestrians were stopping to watch and listen too. Sarnoff was clearly Page 118 taking credit for the invention in a way that Farnsworth knew he could never match, creating an impression that could never be erased. Sarnoff was doing this through the very power of television itself.
Farnsworth’s entire existence seemed to be annulled in this moment. The dreams of a farm boy, the eureka moment in a potato field, the confession to a teacher, the confidence in him shown by businessmen and bankers and investors, the breakthroughs in the laboratory, all these years of work, the decisions of the official patent examiners, those hard-fought victories, all of those demonstrations that had come and gone, the entire vision of the future. All of this was being negated by Sarnoff’s performance at the World’s Fair.
Farnsworth couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The agony set off sharp pains in his stomach. All along, television was supposed to bring pictures of reality to the people. It never occurred to him that his invention would be used to subvert reality, to manufacture impressions that were not true. He really had created a monster.
With his introduction of television at the World’s Fair, David Sarnoff had left RCA exposed to a patent-infringement lawsuit from Philo T. Farnsworth. RCA could have lost such a battle, given the fact that it had lost all its previous patent fights against Farnsworth. With RCA television sets for sale in department stores and with NBC broadcasting an extensive schedule of baseball, boxing, Broadway shows, and live dramas from Radio City, the risk of an embarrassing and expensive lawsuit was now too high for Sarnoff to endure. Faced with no alternative, he agreed in May 1939 to open serious negotiations to license the Farnsworth intellectual property his engineers were already incorporating into RCA products.
The negotiations proved a great victory for Farnsworth. He held strong in his refusal to sell his patents outright. RCA reluctantly agreed to pay $1 million plus continued royalties on every television sold. The jubilation about reaching an agreement was short lived. Shortly after, the United States entered into World War II. Upon entry, the government suspended all manufacturing of consumer electronics in order to divert capacity to the war effort.
With television now on hold, David Sarnoff became as determined to win the war as he was determined to win the television battle. He saw his military involvement as an honor of the highest degree and as tangible proof that he was an American patriot who had shed his immigrant Page 119 heritage. In the early 1920s, he had joined the U.S. Army Reserves as a member of the Signal Corps, and RCA chairman James Harbord used his own military connections to win for Sarnoff the rank of lieutenant colonel, even though Sarnoff lacked the required experience.
RCA was rapidly converted into a military contractor, producing radar tubes, sonar systems, and radio transmitters for the Allied communications effort. In 1944, when Sarnoff was summoned for active duty, he reported directly to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Without revealing the full details of the secret plan to storm the beaches of Normandy and free Europe from the Nazis, Eisenhower told Sarnoff to construct a powerful broadcasting station that could centralize all electronic communications in one place and relay information across the entire continent, an assignment that also brought Sarnoff into personal meetings with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. On D-day, June 6, 1944, the Allied Forces Network that Sarnoff had put in place worked as planned; Allied generals used the network to coordinate history’s most massive military operation, and military journalists reported the news of the invasion to the rest of the world with unprecedented quickness. After France was liberated, Sarnoff played a key role in reconstructing war-torn French Radio, linking Paris once again with London and New York. Upon his return to the United States, Sarnoff was appointed an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt. When he returned to his post at RCA, he let the word spread that he was no longer “Mr. Sarnoff”; he was now to be called “General Sarnoff,” or simply “General.”
The war had not empowered Philo T. Farnsworth. He was convinced that his controlling patents would expire before his vision of television would be realized. This sent him into a deeply depressive state at a time when depression wasn’t treated like the disease it is. He began drinking not just at night but during the day.
The move to Fort Wayne, Indiana, did not help with Philo’s condition. The shift in focus from invention to manufacturing and from progress to profit was more than Farnsworth could handle. He had a nervous breakdown, couldn’t get out of bed, and, at only one hundred pounds, appeared to be on the edge of death. A brief stay in a hospital revived his body, but not his spirit. Finally, in 1947, the day Farnsworth had been dreading arrived. His seventeen-year patents on the television camera and television receiver expired. Farnsworth still held more than one hundred other television-related patents, some of which were quite valuable, and many had up to ten years of life remaining, but the two golden ones had now lapsed into the public domain, and all promises of royalty Page 120 payments for them ceased, just weeks before the sudden breakout of a nationwide television obsession that seemed at first like a fad but grew only more intense over time.
Starting in the fall of 1947, television caught on even more ferociously than radio did a quarter of a century earlier. American consumers bought 1 million sets within two years, with 80 percent of the market controlled by RCA. In 1948, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater debuted on NBC, and CBS responded with a variety hour hosted by Ed Sullivan. The average television family was now watching for more than three hours each day, and early TV owners often had to set up numerous chairs in their living rooms to share their viewing with their neighbors. Restaurants, nightclubs, and movie theaters in major metro areas experienced a sharp drop in business. When an NBC drama series called Kraft Television Theater plugged a new product called Cheez Whiz, Americans bought tons of Cheez Whiz, and the meaning was clear: if television could sell Cheez Whiz, it could sell anything. Advertising dollars quickly shot past the $100 million mark, and RCA’s total television investment to date was rapidly recouped many times over.
On January 7, 1949, RCA and Sarnoff officially laid claim to the invention of TV. NBC aired “Television’s Twenty Fifth Anniversary Special.” The program commemorated the date that Vladimir Zworykin filed his patent application. David Sarnoff told the story of television’s invention and introduced Zworykin as the inventor of television. That broadcast probably reached a greater number of people in a half hour than all the people who had ever heard or read the name Philo T. Farnsworth over a lifetime. The following year, Sarnoff lobbied the Radio and Television Manufacturers Association to bestow on him the title “Father of Television.” His effort was successful, and RCA memos informed employees that these designations were official: only David Sarnoff was to be called the Father of Television, and only Vladimir Zworykin was to be called the Inventor of Television. No one disputed it.
Despite the expiration of his patents, the Farnsworth Corporation still hoped to cash in on the television craze. The company designed a complete line of televisions, from small tabletop models to large consoles in wooden cabinets. The problem was that high demand had created a shortage in necessary parts. Many of these parts could only be obtained through RCA, and somehow the Farnsworth Corporation always ended Page 121 up on the bottom of the priority list. With bank loans coming due, the company was forced to sell. The International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT) purchased the company and renamed it the Farnsworth Electronics Company. Of course, what ITT was really after was the brain of Philo T. Farnsworth.
Farnsworth got to work on various electronic components. However, at night he began to focus on a new invention that would occupy him for his remaining years, much as television had in his youth. Philo T. Farnsworth spent his remaining years trying to master the art of nuclear fusion. He was after one of the holy grails of modern science, a safe way to tap a virtually endless source of cost-free energy. While Philo turned his efforts to fusion, Sarnoff continued pursuing the potential of television. While he never quite got the grasp of entertainment programming, he did have a penchant for recognizing television’s political potential. He worked as the unofficial image consultant for his old friend Ike Eisenhower during his presidential bid, producing twenty-second spots promoting “Ike for President.”
Farnsworth largely separated himself from television, save an appearance on I’ve Got a Secret, where he stumped the panel as to his true identity as the inventor of television. Vladimir Zworykin, too, became disillusioned with his invention. When asked what specific feature of a television he was most proud of, he replied, “Da svitch, so I can turn the damn theenk off!”
Epilogue: Perceptions and Reality
When the FCC was formally launched in 1934, it said that broadcasting existed for the purpose of serving the public interest, as we all know. But that public interest doctrine began slowly eroding, especially when the television age began. It turns out that both Farnsworth and Sarnoff, toward the end of their lives in the 1960s, were disappointed with what television had become.
This story of the early days of television technology at first glance may appear to be a classic narrative pitting the reckless and idealistic young inventor against the older, world-weary and well-connected industrialist. But glance again. Both men were children of their times. Both struggled from humble beginnings, and both had to confront the harsh realities of raising capital and managing fundamental technical research. Both adventured gamely into public relations gimmicks and gambles. Both attempted to utilize the patent and court systems to their best advan- Page 122 tage. In the end Sarnoff used his connections and superior economic resources more shrewdly and perhaps with fewer ethical reservations, but certainly with extraordinary competitive success.
The irony here is that both men began with strikingly similar dreams of what television could become as an institution of public service and education. Neither man ever abandoned his vision of such an institution. Neither man, in the hubbub of capitalization, invention, and marketing, had the time or energy to pursue these visionary purposes for television. The search for a balance between public needs and private enterprise remains with us still. Such stories are likely to be echoed in the days and years ahead as the Internet, a child of the public sector and academic and military research, becomes yet a new engine of capitalism and human aspiration.
This chapter includes material used by permission from the author’s book, The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit and the Birth of Television (HarperCollins)