Philo T. Farnsworth’s Invention

Martha Sonntag Bradley
History of Beaver County

Philo T. Farnsworth

Born and raised in Beaver, Philo T. Farnsworth won his first national contest by age thirteen after the family moved to Franklin, Idaho, a year earlier. The contest, sponsored by Science and Invention magazine, highlighted his invention—a thief-proof lock. At age sixteen he drew a design for his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, which explained his belief that one could transform electricity into pictures by controlling the speed and direction of fast-flying electrons. Philo called his invention an “image dissector;” his teacher kept this drawing.

Farnsworth attended Brigham Young University for two years, but learned most of what he knew about physics from correspondence classes he took from the University of Utah. Eventually, Farnsworth moved to Salt Lake City and began efforts to raise funds to develop his idea for the “image dissector.” He married his longtime sweetheart—Pem Farnsworth—and moved to California. Although he had no training or previous experience in high-vacuum physics, Farnsworth was a quick learner—finding a new way to seal a flat lens end on a dissector camera tube to create a very high vacuum. This new application of this technology led to his demonstration of the first television system in September 1927. Although others were working on the transmission of visual images, his high school design allowed him to establish the claim—that he was the first to conceive of the basic technology of television.

In 1936 he attracted the attention of Collier’s Weekly, which described his work in glowing terms. “One of those amazing facts of modern life that just don’t seem possible—namely, electrically scanned television that seems destined to reach your home next year, was largely given to the world by a nineteen year old boy from Utah…Today, barely thirty years old he is setting the specialized world of science on its ears.”

Over the next decades, Farnsworth secured two patents to his designs, and his corporation eventually secured over 150. He died in 1971 at the age of sixty-four. Farnsworth never became financially wealthy because of invention, nor did he ever during his lifetime receive the recognition he rightly deserved as the “father of television.” In 1987, however, the Utah legislature passed House Joint Resolution No. 1 sponsored by Donald R. LeBaron and Richard B. Tempest to commission an artist to sculpt a bronze statue of Philo T. Farnsworth, the father of television, for the Utah State Capitol.