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He didn't do it until he was 21. By then, he had found investors, a few assistants and a loving wife ("Pem") who assisted him in his research. He moved to San Francisco and set up a laboratory in an empty loft. On Sept. 7, 1927, Farnsworth painted a square of glass black and scratched a straight line on the center. In another room, Pem's brother, Cliff Gardner, dropped the slide between the Image Dissector (the camera tube that Farnsworth had invented earlier that year) and a hot, bright, carbon arc lamp. Farnsworth, Pem and one of the investors, George Everson, watched the receiver. They saw the straight-line image and then, as Cliff turned the slide 90[degrees], they saw it move--which is to say they saw the first all-electronic television picture ever transmitted.
History should take note of Farnsworth's reaction. After all, we learn in school that Samuel Morse's first telegraph message was "What hath God wrought?" Edison spoke into his phonograph, "Mary had a little lamb." And Don Ameche--I mean, Alexander Graham Bell--shouted for assistance: "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you!" What did Farnsworth exclaim? "There you are," said Phil, "electronic television." Later that evening, he wrote in his laboratory journal: "The received line picture was evident this time." Not very catchy for a climactic scene in a movie. Perhaps we could use the telegram George Everson sent to another investor: "The damned thing works!"
At this point in the story, things turn ugly. Physics, engineering and scientific inspiration begin to recede in importance as lawyers take center stage. As it happens, Zworykin had made a patent application in 1923, and by 1933 had developed a camera tube he called an Iconoscope. It also happens that Zworykin was by then connected with the Radio Corporation of America, whose chief, David Sarnoff, had no intention of paying royalties to Farnsworth for the right to manufacture television sets. "RCA doesn't pay royalties," he is alleged to have said, "we collect them."
And so there ensued a legal battle over who invented television. RCA's lawyers contended that Zworykin's 1923 patent had priority over any of Farnsworth's patents, including the one for his Image Dissector. RCA's case was not strong, since it could produce no evidence that in 1923 Zworykin had produced an operable television transmitter. Moreover, Farnsworth's old teacher, Tolman, not only testified that Farnsworth had conceived the idea when he was a high school student, but also produced the original sketch of an electronic tube that Farnsworth had drawn for him at that time. The sketch was almost an exact replica of an Image Dissector.
In 1934 the U.S. Patent Office rendered its decision, awarding priority of invention to Farnsworth. RCA appealed and lost, but litigation about various matters continued for many years until Sarnoff finally agreed to pay Farnsworth royalties.