Oct. 4, 2020

The greatest inventor you've never heard of.

The greatest inventor you've never heard of.

Have you ever come up with a brilliant idea, only to have someone else take the credit for it? How about an idea that would change the world forever?

Have you ever come up with a brilliant idea, only to have someone else take the credit for it? How about an idea that would change the world forever?

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Have you ever come up with a brilliant idea, only to have someone else take the all credit for it? If not, can you imagine what it would be like to make a discovery that would change the world forever, and then to have that discovery stolen from you?

Well in 1906, in a log cabin in Idaho a child was born to Mormon parents, farming folk. Philo T. Farnsworth would grow to into adulthood and be blessed with an exceptionally gifted mind. From his early years he loved to read & study scientific journals.

In America & Britain in the 1920s some of the most brilliant scientific and technical minds were working on what we now call television. None had been able to make the technology work in a practical fashion. In 1927 technicians were able to transmit an image of Herbert Hoover making a speech over a distance of 200 miles, but this was onto a piece of glass no bigger than a post it note. In Britain, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated a working version of a mechanical television. It required two 6 foot spinning metal disks to receive a picture onto a glass screen less than 3 inches square, hardly practical.

At the age of 15, whilst ploughing a field, Philo T Farnsworth suddenly had the realisation of how Einstein’s theory of electrons and the photo electric effect, could enable electrons to be beamed back and forth onto a flat surface in a very similar fashion to the way in which he was ploughing the field, one line at a time in an alternating pattern.  He set about designing a system for transmitting images electronically; he made a sketch of his design, and showed it to his chemistry teacher, who was so impressed that he kept the drawing. This turned out to be a fortunate thing!

Philo never had the money to pursue his project, until one day a chance meeting with 2 young businessmen changed all of that. A $6000 investment started Philo on his way; he set up a lab and began working on his project in earnest. In 1926 the things he needed couldn’t be bought off the shelf, most Parts had not even been invented then. Philo designed and built every valve and every tube himself. He patented his first parts in 1927, and before long he had 165 patents, but no way of taking the enterprise to commercial success. 

Word got around about Philo’s work and he became noticed by an entrepreneurial chap at RCA by the name of David Sarnoff. Sarnoff was from the world of radio, he had no technical knowledge, but he had a good head for commerce, and he was a visionary. In Sarnoff’s vision, he saw a television set in every household in America. Sarnoff had hired Russian expat, Vladimir Zworykin to work for RCA in the development of television. Zworykin went to visit Philo, and asked him to show how his project was developing. Philo thought that RCA wanted to patent his work and showed Zworykin everything he had. Zworykin offered Philo $100,000 for all of his patents, philo refused the offer for the insult that it was. 

Philo .T. Farnsworth still needing investment for his project accepted an offer from Philco the Philadelphia storage battery company. It was an unhappy arrangement, right from the start, and was not destined to last. Philco took RCA to court accusing them of trying to steal company secrets through their employees. The stress on Philo was beginning to take its toll. The final straw came with the death of his son, the executives at Philco would not allow him leave, to return to Idaho to bury his child, and so he left the company.

David Sarnoff was not one to lose at anything, and he never let anyone off the hook. RCA took Philo to court saying that a 15 year old boy could not have possibly have invented that which the most brilliant scientific minds of the time had failed to achieve. In the end, Philo won the case when his old chemistry teacher provided a single piece of evidence, the diagram that Philo had drawn when he was still at school.

RCA ignored the court ruling, and in 1939 at the New York world Fair demonstrated its working television, entirely dependent upon Philo T Farnsworth’s patents, neither paid for nor approved by him. After years of court cases RCA agreed to pay him $1 million and a royalty on every television sold. Unfortunately, Philo’s patents expired in 1940, right when the television boom was starting; he never received anything close to what he was entitled to from RCA. 

In 1950 David Sarnoff was pronounced the father of television and Vladimir Zworykin its inventor.

 Sarnoff died in 1971, Zworykin died in 1982 at the age of 92. He said he never watched televison  as it was mindless, and that his greatest contribution was the off switch. 

Philo T. Farnsworth became an alcoholic, he died drunk, depressed and forgotten in 1971 at the age of 64. The off switch was one of Philo’s earliest patents…