May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Phil’s fascination with inventions began when he was very young. He hooked up a toy dynamo to the flywheel of his mother’s sewing machine, generating enough power to run a small toy motor. His father told Phil the stories about the inventors, and he got to thinking that an inventor would be a pretty nice thing to be. The first time Phil got an opportunity to be near electricity was when the family moved to Rigby, Idaho—his uncle was managing a ranch which had a power plant. On several occasions, the power stopped working and they had to call a repairman. Nobody else knew how to fix it. Nobody except Phil, He had spent a lot of time watching the repairman. Everybody was skeptical, but they finally let him try. He fixed it. He studied everything he could find about electricity—he couldn’t get enough! One day he read an article about [mechanical] scanning disc television. He said to himself, “That’s entirely too clumsy. You can’t get a good enough picture that way.” He was 13. He had been trying to figure out how he could use the electron to turn a picture into an electrical pulse. One day he was operating a horse-drawn disc-harrow in a potato field. The harrow made long, even lines in the earth. When Phil got to the end of the row, he turned around, looked down at these rows, and everything fell into place. It dawned on him like a thunderbolt. He could use an electron beam and manipulate it to scan the picture like you’d read a page, line by line. Two years later, in 1922 in a high school chemistry class, he disclosed his ideas by drawing his complete TV system on the blackboard.

My best friend in high school was Agnes, Phil’s sister. Agnes invited me home for lunch one day, and there he was. I was impressed, but romance was far from my mind. I was only 16, a sophomore. But he and I started dancing, and before long we were dating. Then, on my 18th birthday, Phil gave me a diamond ring. I said, “Oh, you can’t afford that.” He said, “I don’t want you to have something you’ll be ashamed of later, when we’re rich.” At the time, I had no knowledge of the invention that was locked inside his mind.

Phil talked Cliff, my brother, into joining him in Salt Lake City to assemble crystal radio parts in the basement of a boardinghouse where they lived. They practically had to starve themselves to buy parts. Just when Phil was getting real discouraged, fortune came upon him. Two Californians, George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, became interested in his television ideas and offered to invest $6,000 to get him started. A partnership was formed, but he was to go to California to begin his work. Phil said, “I don’t mind going, but I’II have to take my sweetheart.” We were married on May 27, 1926, in a simple home wedding. Mr. Everson loaned Phil his roadster for the occasion. After driving me to our Salt Lake City hotel room, where we’d spend our honeymoon, Phil returned the car and came back with a serious look on his face. He said, “Pemmie, I’m in love with another woman. And her name is television. He explained his ideas to me, and I agreed. It was very exciting, right on the edge of discovery. And that’s ; where we were our whole lives.

So anyway, we moved to Hollywood, and Phil pressed on. Soon it became apparent that more money was needed, and we got new investors who agreed to finance Phil with $25,000 if he could have a picture in one year. When people told Phil he was doing something impossible, he simply ignored them. One year later, on Sept. 7, 1927, the transmitter was connected by cable to the receiver in the next room. Cliff was at the transmitter with a square of glass with a line at the center. Phil called for him to put the slide in and, all at once, there was a fuzzy line on the small screen. Phil fussed with the control knobs, and it appeared before us. “There you are,” said Phil. “Electronic television!” At first we were stunned, then everybody was jumping up and down, shouting in disbelief and excitement. Leslie Gorrell was in Los Angeles at the time. Whenever he came to visit us, he’d say, “Haven’t you got that damn thing to work yet?” So Phil sent him a telegram: The damn thing works.

It took him another six months to get a two-dimensional picture. He had his first public showing at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in August 1934. We’d have a live program going in one room and people watching it in another. Everybody loved it. We had to refill the 50-seat auditorium every 15 minutes to handle the crowds. Now, David Sarnoff of RCA hoped to control the television industry just like he’d controlled radio. He offered to buy Phil out, and the tactics of RCA were: If they couldn’t buy Phil Farnsworth, they were going to break him. Finally, the patent examiners ruled that Phil was the originator of electronic television. In 1938, RCA was forced to take a license from Farnsworth. They’d never taken one before, they’d always bought what they wanted. There is one thing that I want to get clear. So many times it is said that Farnsworth invented a tube. He invented the whole thing. And I think his patents show that.

We didn’t have the money RCA had. When the war started, banks started calling their loans. Phil tried everything to bring in money. Finally, to avoid bankruptcy, he sold out to ITT in 1949. It was a very hard decision for him. He had hoped to cash in a little bit on television. When ITT came in, well, they started phasing us out. So, that was that. Phil finally gave up and died of emphysema on March 11, 1971. Today, when I turn on the television, I think of Phil, at times. I’m just grateful that he lived to see a man walk on the moon. The day that it happened, Phil turned to me and said, “See, Pern? This is what makes it all worthwhile.”

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