Philo Farnsworth, RCA, and the Battle for Television

The parenthood of any invention of consequence is almost never cut and dried. The natural tendency to want a simple story that’s easy to tell — Edison invented the light bulb, Bell invented the telephone — often belies the more complex tale: that most inventions have uncertain origins, and their back stories are often far more interesting as a result.

Inventing is a rough business. It is said that a patent is just a license to get sued, and it’s true that the determination of priority of invention often falls to the courts. Such battles often pit the little guy against a corporate behemoth, the latter with buckets of money to spend in making the former’s life miserable for months or years. The odds are rarely in the favor of the little guy, but in few cases was the deck so stacked against someone as it was for a young man barely out of high school, Philo Farnsworth, when he went up against one of the largest companies in the United States to settle a simple but critical question: who invented television?

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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.

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