Retrotechtacular: An Unexpected Meeting With Philo T Farnsworth

It is not often that you look for one of your heroes on the Internet and by chance encounter another from a completely different field. But if you are a fan of the inimitable silent movie star [Buster Keaton] as well as being the kind of person who reads Hackaday then that could have happened to you just as it did here.

Our subject today is a 1957 episode of CBS’s TV game show I’ve Got a Secret! in which [Keaton] judges a pie-eating contest and is preceded first by a young man with a penchant for snakes and then rather unexpectedly by a true giant of twentieth century technology.

[Philo T Farnsworth] was a prolific engineer who is probably best known as the inventor of electronic television, but whose work touched numerous other fields. Surprisingly this short segment on an entertainment show was his only appearance on the medium to which his invention helped give birth. In it he baffles the panel who fail to guess his claim to fame, before discussing his inventions for a few minutes. He is very effacing about his achievement, making the point that the development of television had been a cumulative effort born of many contributors. He then goes on to discuss the future of television, and talks about 2000-line high-definition TV with a reduced transmission bandwidth, and TV sets like picture frames. All of which look very familiar to us nearly sixty years later in the early 21st century.

The full show is below the break, though [Farnsworth]’s segment is only from 13:24 to 21:24. It’s very much a show of its time with its cigarette product placement and United Airlines boasting about their piston-engined DC-7 fleet, but it’s entertaining enough.

Brief mention is made of [Farnsworth]’s other work in the field of nuclear fusion. Sadly his fusor design never reached the point of energy parity, but it is one that can be replicated with relative ease. Here at Hackaday we’ve featured several Farnsworth fusors over the years, including one housed in a former propane tank, and another in a glass oil cup cylinder.

26 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: An Unexpected Meeting With Philo T Farnsworth

    1. also i wouldn’t call his fusor a dead end. rather a step along the way. its pretty much the grand daddy to the polywell, which very well may be a contender for breakeven.

    1. I recognize that look, and I don’t think it’s so much of disbelief. It’s more that glazed look when you’ve gone completely over someone’s head. Dr. Farnsworth probably lost them early, at “bandwidth”.

      I wonder also, at that time how many people had basic understanding of how a TV works? At least enough to realized it was scanned, and therefore understand the meaning of “lines”.

    1. Trick is, the things he was talking about were already possible or within the realm of possibility.

      In 1940’s the French achieved a 1042 line television in black and white (René Barthélemy), and they compromized for a 819 line transmission system for bandwidth reasons that began broadcasting in 1949. It was only ever used to broadcast two channels – one in France and another one in Monaco.

      As for flat screens:

      It was a cathode ray tube arranged so that the electron gun was either at the side or at the bottom of a flat evacuated glass sandwich, and different electrostatic plates were used to deflect the beam over a 90 degree angle to hit the screen. This was in development around the time this television program was broadcast.

      1. Sony’s Watchman portable television product line used a flat screen CRT with the phosphor surface at nearly a right angle to the electron gun. They were all monochrome. The Watchman MEGA used a conventional style CRT and the color ones used LCDs.

        1. That was one of the drawbacks of flat CRT. You couldn’t do color because the shadow mask or aperture grille doesn’t work right when there’s no straight line from the electron gun.

          Point being that the aperture grille works like a pinhole camera that blocks the view from the sub-pixel to the other two sources of electrons. With the beam bent over an angle, the beam couldn’t maintain the configuration.

          The Geer-Aiken two color tube likely used a washboard embossed pattern on the interior of the screen where electrons coming in from one side could only hit one side of the wedge-like pattern and therefore light only every alternate line on the screen, enabling the use of two colors, although the descriptions I’ve read sound like they were using two partially transparent screens on each side of the glass sandwich and directing one color to the front and another to the back phosphors, which shone through to the front.

          Theoretically it would be possible to populate the surface with three-sided pyramids that are angled to face three electron guns separated by 120 degrees at the sides, so that each electron gun can only hit the pyramids on its side. Or, employ both methods and project two colors at the front and the third on the rear screen.

  1. When he talks about a “memory file” and having part of the picture pasted on the screen, I think he was anticipating both MPEG-type compression, identifying unchanging parts of the image, and E-ink like screens, which would hold those unchanging parts without refreshing.

    1. (+1) I’m also convinced that he was describing the principles of video compression, especially as it was all in the context of reduced bandwidth. I was frustrated when the presenter had to cut him short and move the conversation along!

  2. What struck me is that with the laughter and jokes that even so relatively shortly after introducing TV people were already cynical about it, and well familiar with the unpleasant/stupid side of it.
    And not just the public but even Farnsworth himself.

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