What do Philo Farnsworth, the New York Mets, and The Wizard of Oz have in common?
Philo “Phil” Farnsworth is one of the most famous men most people have never heard of. He was born in Utah on August 19, 1906, His influence on society has been significant, and several of my own childhood memories are associated with his invention. Farnsworth was an American inventor who at the age of 14, while working on his family farm, conceptualized the electronic television — first called the “image dissector.” Others had been working on different variants of television like Vladimir Zworykin, and John Baird, and these individuals helped to inspire young Farnsworth to conceptualize the electronic television.
I had never heard of Philo Farnsworth or Justin Tolman until I read Paul Schatzkin’ s wonderful biography, The Boy Who Invented Television (2002), which brings to life the magnificent inspirational and tragic elements of Philo’s life. Among other things, the book profiles Farnsworth’s insatiable appetite for learning, and general curiosity during his young life. In his freshman year of high school, young Philo used his creative persistence to get in the most advanced math and science classes offered, including talking his way into a senior level advanced chemistry class taught by Justin Tolman. Schatzkin recalls a story about how young Philo, a freshman in high school, decided to defy his father’s advice to not share his idea out of fear it would be stolen, and instead approaches his chemistry teacher Mr. Tolman on the last day of class in the spring of 1922 seeking feedback about his ideas for an electronic television. Schatzkin shares that moment:
“Late one afternoon… Justin Tolman finally learned what was driving his young prodigy. After all the students had left the building, Tolman returned to his classroom and was startled to see a complicated array of electrical diagrams scattered across the blackboard. At the front of the room stood… Philo Farnsworth.” Seeing all of this, Tolman askes Farnsworth “What does this got to do with chemistry?” Young Philo goes on to say, “I’ve got this idea [I need to share with you] because you’re the only person I know who might understand it.” After a brief pause, Philo goes on to say, “This is my idea for the electronic television” at which point Mr. Tolman responds… “Television?”, “What’s that?”
That fateful afternoon, Mr. Tolman and Farnsworth discussed his ideas for hours. While Tolman was not able to fully understand this young genius, nor the significant potential of a television, being the good teacher he was, Tolman was able to offer words of encouragement and cliché statements like “you can do whatever you put your mind to.” According to Schatzkin’s book, Philo had cultivated a habit for taking notes and writing his ideas in a notebook he carried with him everywhere. It was sort of like an idea diary. As the conversation with [Mr.] Tolman wound down, Philo opened his idea diary, sketched a drawing of his TV concept, tore it out of his book and handed it to Mr. Tolman while saying “Hang on to this, you never know when it might come in handy.” As serendipity would have it, they both left the building that day, and never saw one another again for decades.
That illustration would prove invaluable years later during a 1935 patent suit ruling, during which Mr. Tolman testified on behalf of Farnsworth recalling details of his classroom presentation, and then surprised the court by presenting the hand drawn illustration young Philo had provided to him many years prior, as evidence that Farnsworth had developed this technology earlier. After years of research and development, and endless legal proceedings with multiple litigants wanting to either use his patent, or prevent him from using his own invention, Farnsworth grew emotionally and financially drained from fighting, and he sold his patents to Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for $1 million ($11 million in today’s dollars) in 1939 at the age of 33.
I am not sure it is clear what a magical pioneer Philo Farnsworth was, and the effect his invention has had on society and memories we all share. Philo held a common vision with a long history of entrepreneurs, and even modern-day tech titans. He hoped television would help families and communities share stories, become less ignorant of each other, and even lead to an era of peace. Yes, he has been credited in recent decades for having invented some of the earliest forms of what we now call television, but I am not sure we can fully fathom what it must have been like to see the very first TV broadcast, and what it took to design such a technology. It is difficult for me to compare what that experience must have been like with seeing the first “tweet” or booting up the first desktop computer loaded with MS DOS. Obviously, the TV became a widely adopted and used entertainment and information appliance, but if you ask the average person to explain to you how a TV works, most people will struggle to give a cogent response (myself included). But, if you ask people that are Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and even some Millennials to recall memorable TV experiences, most people can do so with ease.
For example, earlier in my life, during a time when most people normally experience what is called by some psychologist’s childhood amnesia — an inability of adults later in life to recall many early childhood memories — , several memories stand out for me, all having to do with TV, but in retrospect may seem quite unimportant, or even trivial by todays standards.
During my early childhood, my family had a black and white television (yes, I am that old), even though color TVs had come out, for y family at that time, they were too expensive. Growing up in New York City, I loved baseball, and watched it often on TV. The black and white picture you see is what I had perceived a professional baseball game to be like. To this day, I can remember my dad coming home from work and announcing he had tickets to a Yankees game that evening. I had mixed emotions. Although I was a New York Mets baseball fan, I was ecstatic, as I had never been to a live baseball game. I can remember walking into Yankee Stadium and seeing for the first time, the vibrant green color of the infield grass. That imprint has stayed with me after all these years.
I also remember watching the movie The Wizard of Oz. As a young child, my sisters and I would watch that movie each year on our black and white TV, usually around Thanksgiving time. One year, my uncle had purchased a color TV, and invited my sisters and I over to his apartment to watch the movie. As you most likely know, the early portion of that movie is in black and white, and it is only after Dorothy’s house lands (after getting swept up in a tornado) in “Munchkin land” and she opens the front door of her home, does everything in the movie turn into color. I remember seeing that for the first time. Silly I know, but memorable for me, nevertheless.
It is because of innovators and inventors like Philo Farnsworth that I was able to experience and retain those distinct memories. Who are the most influential inventors and innovators in your life that have helped shape memories for you?