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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But he didn't have to for very long. During World War II, the government suspended sales of TV sets, and by the war's end, Farnsworth's key patents were close to expiring. When they did, RCA was quick to take charge of the production and sales of TV sets, and in a vigorous public-relations campaign, promoted both Zworykin and Sarnoff as the fathers of television. Farnsworth withdrew to a house in Maine, suffering from depression, which was made worse by excessive drinking. He had a nervous breakdown, spent time in hospitals and had to submit to shock therapy. And in 1947, as if he were being punished for having invented television, his house in Maine burned to the ground. One wishes it could be said that this was the final indignity Farnsworth had to suffer, but it was not. Ten years later, he appeared as a mystery guest on the television program What's My Line? Farnsworth was referred to as Dr. X and the panel had the task of discovering what he had done to merit his appearance on the show. One of the panelists asked Dr. X if he had invented some kind of a machine that might be painful when used. Farnsworth answered, "Yes. Sometimes it's most painful."

He was just being characteristically polite. His attitude toward the uses that had been made of his invention was more ferocious. His son Kent was once asked what that attitude was. He said, "I suppose you could say that he felt he had created kind of a monster, a way for people to waste a lot of their lives."

He added, "Throughout my childhood his reaction to television was 'There's nothing on it worthwhile, and we're not going to watch it in this household, and I don't want it in your intellectual diet.' " So we may end Farnsworth's story by saying that he was not only the inventor of television but also one of its earliest and most perceptive critics.

Neil Postman is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Media Ecology at New York University

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