Farnsworth’s First T.V. Demonstration

U.S. #2058 pictures Farnsworth and first television camera.
U.S. #2058 pictures Farnsworth and first television camera.

On September 7, 1927, inventor Philo T. Farnsworth made his first successful presentation of the “image dissector,” a crucial part of the first televisions.

Farnsworth was born August 19, 1906 in Beaver, Utah. He spent the first decade of his life in a small log cabin there, before his family moved to a relative’s 240-acre ranch near Rigby, Idaho.

U.S. #2058 FDC – In his later life, Farnsworth became involved in research on radar and nuclear energy.
U.S. #2058 FDC – In his later life, Farnsworth became involved in research on radar and nuclear energy.

Farnsworth was thrilled to find his new home had electricity, which was powered by a generator. Though he had little knowledge of electricity, Farnsworth was fascinated by the generator and studied it whenever he could. And one day when his father and other adults were unsure why it had stopped working, young Farnsworth stepped in and got it working again.

Soon Farnsworth, barely a teenager, had turned the farm’s attic loft into his own science lab. One night in 1922, he read an article about how it could be possible to combine radio and motion pictures and transmit them into homes. Fascinated, he thought about the idea for months. At one point, he considered spinning mirrors, as he’d seen in science fiction, but that would be too slow. Then he had the sudden realization that he could capture light in a jar and then transmit it through individual electron beams.

U.S. #2058 FDC – Farnsworth held 300 patents, most of which were for radio and television.
U.S. #2058 FDC – Farnsworth held 300 patents, most of which were for radio and television.

Farnsworth was so excited to share his idea, he went to school the next day and told his teacher, sketching a series of electrical diagrams on the chalkboard and proclaiming, “This is my idea for electric television.” He worked with his teacher for several weeks until they found a concept they believed would work.

But it would take several more years before Farnsworth could make his invention a reality. In the meantime he attended Brigham Young University and spent his spare time learning about vacuum tubes and cathode ray tubes. He was unable to finish college following his father’s death. So Farnsworth worked a series of odd jobs while he took correspondence courses in radio technology. At the suggestion of a friend, he chose not to publish his idea for fear someone might steal it.

U.S. #1502 includes the T.V. camera tube invented by Vladimir Zworykin.
U.S. #1502 includes the T.V. camera tube invented by Vladimir Zworykin.

One of Farnsworth’s bosses, George Everson, was intrigued by his television idea and agreed to give him $6,000 to test it. Farnsworth and his new wife moved to Hollywood and turned their dining room into a laboratory. But he soon found that Everson’s investment alone wouldn’t be enough. So Everson arranged for him to meet with an electrical engineer. Once the engineer agreed that Farnsworth’s idea was possible, more people agreed to invest.

U.S. #3186f – From the Celebrate the Century series.
U.S. #3186f – From the Celebrate the Century series.

After a series of professional glassblowers told him what he wanted to create was impossible, Farnsworth enlisted friend Cliff Gardiner to learn the craft and become his chief glassblower. Meanwhile, on January 7, 1927, Farnsworth applied for his first patent (this is often considered the date that television was invented). Farnsworth and Gardiner created the first television camera tube, which they called the “image dissector.” This tube would dissect an image line-by-line with electrical charges and then transmit them.

Farnsworth used a chemistry flask for the first picture tube, which he called an “image oscillite.” It took several months and multiple tests to everything working right. Then on September 7, 1927, Farnsworth, Gardiner, his wife, and his investor prepared to test the television again. Farnsworth painted a black horizontal line on a glass slide. He believed that if the receiver showed the line going in the right direction, it was a success. In another room, Gardiner dropped the glass slide between the image dissector and a carbon arc light. There was a bit of static at first, but once it cleared, the group in the other room could see the straight line. Gardiner then rotated the slide, which the group in the other room was able to watch through the receiver. They were the first television viewers!

U.S. #4414 – Early T.V. Memories sheet.
U.S. #4414 – Early T.V. Memories sheet.

Farnsworth continued to perfect television technology in the coming years. He had his first public demonstration in the summer of 1935. Four years later, Franklin Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to appear on television, though it was only broadcast to a handful of televisions in New York City. Though demand for televisions skyrocketed in the coming years, Farnsworth’s company had been poorly managed (by others) and was eventually sold. In his later years, Farnsworth wondered if his work on the television for so long had been worth it. But when he watched a man walk on the moon in 1969, he knew it was. He died two years later and was eventually named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Scientists and Thinkers of the 20th Century.

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  1. Just to imagine that something like the cathode ray tube could be what he turned it into is amazing. It amounts to a dream, an ah ha moment, and the ability to make it happen. Ironically, my father referred to the TV as the boob tube, not because of what it was but what was on it. Today we refer to those “what was on it” people as pioneers of a medium that revolutionized communications. I wonder what Farnsworth thought of the Kennedy/ Nixon debate.

  2. It is hard to imagine that plowing straight furrows on a farm field was the inspiration for the cathode ray tube and the concept that images could be transmitted electronically. Great ideas come from some of the most interesting and unrelated places.

  3. If you ever stumble, by accident, into Rigby Idaho, you will find a small museum dedicated to Philo T Farnsworth…. his ideas… his failures and successes. Extremely interesting and educational.
    You need GPS or a good map to find it. I wonder what Philo would think of GPS?

  4. Thank you Farnsworth. Really a shame that I didn’t even know who he was. Everyone knows Bell, Marconi, Edison, but Farnsworth?

  5. I saw my first TV show in 1947 when my parents purchased their first television. All our neighbors would come and sit on our living room floor to watch a 7″ screen with a magnifying glass attached to the front display a wrestling match or early sitcom. Philo had to scratch of information to promote his idea. Today, information is found on screens, at our fingertips. I wonder how many creative juices are being activated by this knowledge. And time marches on.

  6. One iconic object used by TV owners of the 50’s and 60’s disappeared from use with barely a whimper. The vacuum tube test box that was found in nearly every hardware or drug store. The TV goes on the fritz so you access the tube rack, grab a handful of tubes that look burned or very worse for wear and head to the tube tester. Plug your tubes in the proper pin pattern receptacle and the machine would respond GOOD or BAD. Open the door below to grab a new tube in the box. Philo lived to see the early days of solid state circuits for his TV’s. Wonder what he’d make of the new digital cameras and LED screens. Still the same basic principle. Great that his teacher took interest in his “wild” idea and worked with him to flesh out his ideas.

  7. No mention of Farnsworth’s successful battle with Sarnoff/RCA/Zworkyin over patent rights to TV. It’s a shame that some of the greatest inventors had to fight off corporations and were distracted in their scientific efforts, such as the airplane and laser.

  8. Very impressive story of vision, encouragement, determination, creativity, hard work, co-operation, trust, support, each demonstrated by almost another contributor; everyone a role model. The whole process should be taught as a case study for R&D in universities and companies. Special credit for those who decided to issue the stamps and who compiled the contents. I worked in R&D as an engineer and as a manager and know what it takes to get something done.

  9. I got my first flat screen TV’s just one month ago. One of the TV’s I donated was 22 years old and still working. What a great invention. I always though of “the boob tube” as me being a boob, hooked on sitting in front of the TV tube too much.

  10. Thank you Mystic for such an introduction to a pioneer, inventor & genius behind what I take for granted. Fascinating details!

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