Top 50 Stories: 1953 - Philo T. Farnsworth

Idaho whiz kid who invented TV didn't get the fame and money he deserved.

csewell@idahostatesman.comJune 24, 2014 

philo t. farnsworth tv idaho
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Sixty-one years ago, Boise's first television station began broadcasting. On hand for the dedication of KIDO was the father of television, Philo T. Farnsworth.

While many know Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and Graham Bell invented the telephone, few know who pioneered television.

In 1921, while tilling a field on his family's farm in Rigby, 14-year-old Farnsworth came up with an idea that led to the first television set. He worked out his idea on a chalkboard in his Rigby High School science class. Six years later, in San Francisco, the self-taught genius patented his idea and put it into action, projecting an image onto a screen.

Soon thereafter, electronics giant RCA offered to buy out Farnsworth. He declined and that started a long legal battle between the inventor and RCA over who held the patent. Meanwhile, RCA's publicity department continued to proclaim its engineer, Vladimir Zworykin, had invented television. In 1935 the court ruled in Farnsworth's favor. Farnsworth may have won the battle, but he lost the war, never receiving accolades or the kinds of profits you'd expect for the inventor of television.

At the time of his death in 1971 in Salt Lake City at age 64, Farnsworth held more than 100 U.S. patents, some of which contributed to the development of radar, infrared lights, electron microscopes, baby incubators and astronomical telescopes.

"But Farnsworth was sad and bitter that the public did not recognize his work to make television a reality," Utah's Division of State History says. "He died with little money or fame."

His wife and Utah schoolchildren worked to give his legacy the credit it was due. His statue now stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Utah's historians note, and Time magazine named Farnsworth among the 100 most important people of the 20th Century.

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