Philo T. Farnsworth Biography

Philo T. Farnsworth was an American inventor best known as a pioneer of television technology.


Born in Beaver, Utah, on August 19, 1906, Philo T. Farnsworth was a talented scientist and inventor from a young age. In 1938, he unveiled a prototype of the first all-electric television, and went on to lead research in nuclear fusion. Despite his continued scientific success, Farnsworth was dogged by lawsuits and died, in debt, in Salt Lake City on March 11, 1971.

Early Life

Inventor Philo Taylor Farnsworth was born on August 19, 1906, in Beaver, Utah. He was born in a log cabin constructed by his grandfather, a Mormon pioneer. An amateur scientist at a young age, Farnsworth converted his family's home appliances to electric power during his high school years and won a national contest with his original invention of a tamper-proof lock. In his chemistry class in Rigby, Idaho, Farnsworth sketched out an idea for a vacuum tube that would revolutionize television—although neither his teacher nor his fellow students grasped the implications of his concept.

Pioneer in Television

Farnsworth continued his studies at Brigham Young University, where he matriculated in 1922. He was forced to drop out following the death of his father two years later. His plans and experiments continued nonetheless. By 1926, he was able to raise the funds to continue his scientific work and move to San Francisco with his new wife, Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth. The following year, he unveiled his all-electronic television prototype—the first of its kind—made possible by a video camera tube or "image dissector." This was the same device that Farnsworth had sketched in his chemistry class as a teenager.

Farnsworth rejected the first offer he received from RCA to purchase the rights to his device. He instead accepted a position at Philco in Philadelphia, moving across the country with his wife and young children. Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Farnsworth fought legal charges that his inventions were in violation of a patent filed prior to his by the inventor Vladimir Zworkyin. RCA, which owned the rights to Zworkyin's patents, supported these claims throughout many trials and appeals, with considerable success. In 1933, the embattled Farnsworth left Philco to pursue his own avenues of research.

Farnsworth's contributions to science after leaving Philco were significant and far-reaching. Some were unrelated to television, including a process he developed to sterilize milk using radio waves. He also continued to push his ideas regarding television transmission. In 1938, he founded the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. RCA was ultimately able to market and sell the first electronic televisions for a home audience, after paying Farnsworth a fee of a million dollars.

Later Life

After accepting the deal from RCA, Farnsworth sold his company but continued his research on technologies including radar, the infrared telescope, and nuclear fusion. He moved back to Utah in 1967 to run a fusion lab at Brigham Young University. The lab moved to Salt Lake City the following year, operating as Philo T. Farnsworth Association.

The company faltered when funding grew tight. By 1970, Farnsworth was in serious debt and was forced to halt his research. Farnsworth, who had battled depression for decades, turned to alcohol in the final years of his life. He died of pneumonia on March 11, 1971, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Pem Farnsworth spent many years trying to resurrect her husband's legacy, which had largely been erased as a result of the protracted legal battles with RCA. Philo Farnsworth has since been inducted into the San Francisco Hall of Fame and the Television Academy Hall of Fame. A statue of Farnsworth stands at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco.

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