Electrical Engineer PHILO FARNSWORTH

The key to the television picture tube came to him at 14, when he was still a farm boy, and he had a working device at 21. Yet he died in obscurity

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For those inclined to think of our fading century as an era of the common man, let it be noted that the inventor of one of the century's greatest machines was a man called Phil. Even more, he was actually born in a log cabin, rode to high school on horseback and, without benefit of a university degree (indeed, at age 14), conceived the idea of electronic television--the moment of inspiration coming, according to legend, while he was tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way, line by line, just as you read a book. To cap it off, he spent much of his adult life in a struggle with one of America's largest and most powerful corporations. Our kind of guy.

I refer, of course, to Philo Taylor Farnsworth. The "of course" is meant as a joke, since almost no one outside the industry has ever heard of him. But we ought not to let the century expire without attempting to make amends.

Farnsworth was born in 1906 near Beaver City, Utah, a community settled by his grandfather (in 1856) under instructions from Brigham Young himself. When Farnsworth was 12, his family moved to a ranch in Rigby, Idaho, which was four miles from the nearest high school, thus necessitating his daily horseback rides. Because he was intrigued with the electron and electricity, he persuaded his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, to give him special instruction and to allow him to audit a senior course. You could read about great scientists from now until the 22nd century and not find another instance where one of them celebrates a high school teacher. But Farnsworth did, crediting Tolman with providing inspiration and essential knowledge.

Tolman returned the compliment. Many years later, testifying at a patent interference case, Tolman said Farnsworth's explanation of the theory of relativity was the clearest and most concise he had ever heard. Remember, this would have been in 1921, and Farnsworth would have been all of 15. And Tolman was not the only one who recognized the young student's genius. With only two years of high school behind him, and buttressed by an intense auto-didacticism, Farnsworth gained admission to Brigham Young University.

The death of his father forced him to leave at the end of his second year, but, as it turned out, at no great intellectual cost. There were, at the time, no more than a handful of men on the planet who could have understood Farnsworth's ideas for building an electronic-television system, and it's unlikely that any of them were at Brigham Young. One such man was Vladimir Zworykin, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He went to work for Westinghouse with a dream of building an all-electronic television system. But he wasn't able to do so. Farnsworth was. But not at once.

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