This week, Tom talks inventions

I was speaking to a high school AP history/civics class a couple of weeks ago, with one of the topics being my well-founded mistrust of power in general and corporate power in particular. (The kids had been assigned to read a couple of my columns in advance of my visit.) I mentioned that, since the automobile had essentially been invented in the 19th century, we could probably all agree that the most significant invention of the 20th century was the television. It's somewhat strange that everybody knows about Edison and the light bulb and Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, but nobody has a clue about television. Before continuing, I digressed and told them that while most people would credit Marconi with the invention of the radio, it is actually Nikolai Tesla who holds the first patent for that invention.

The story of Philo T. Farnsworth is one of my favorites because it shows the possibilities that America offers and, at the same time, the ruthlessness and pettiness that the powerful can bring to bear if there is money involved. Philo Farnsworth was born into a Utah Mormon family in 1906. The family moved to a farm in Idaho and one day, while plowing the field, the 15-year-old Farnsworth had a flash of inspiration. He had been reading Einstein's work on electrons and the photoelectric effect (it was for the photoelectric effect, and not the theory of relativity, that Einstein won his Nobel Prize). Farnsworth had the idea that it would be possible to scan electrons onto a screen one line at a time in a back-and-forth motion, just the same as he was plowing his father's field.

He later drew sketches of his idea and showed them to his chemistry teacher, who was so impressed that he kept them rather than throwing them away. Jumping ahead, Farnsworth eventually built the first working television, scanning in series of images across a 150-line screen and doing so with a rapidity that fooled the human eye into thinking that it was seeing seamless action. What was probably most impressive was that he couldn't build the thing out of standard parts that already existed; he basically had to invent each and every part of his glorious machine, and he eventually held 165 patents.

Other scientists took note of his work. Physicist Ernest Lawrence visited him and was impressed with Farnsworth's "multipactor," which concentrated electrons and fired them in bursts, thereby increasing their intensity. Lawrence, who has a world-renowned research lab and a transuranic element named for him, returned from his visit with Farnsworth and began work on the world's first particle accelerator, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1939.

Meanwhile, Farnsworth had this bad-ass, transcendent invention. But, like many inventors, he lacked the business acumen and vision to turn it into what is now legally considered to be a necessity of life. His invention caught the attention of David Sarnoff, a fast-talking hustler who often told his too-good-to-be-true story of having manned a radio set for 72 straight hours in a department store that, due to atmospheric conditions, was uniquely positioned to receive the distress call and subsequent transmissions from the sinking Titanic. Sarnoff would become the head of the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, and later the head of NBC.

Sarnoff sent a creative but slimy inventor named Vladimir Zworykin to see Farnsworth. Believing that RCA wanted to buy his patents, a trusting Farnsworth showed Zworykin everything. With the knowledge that was gained under false pretenses, RCA soon built its own image dissector. To cover his butt, Sarnoff offered Farnsworth $100,000 for all of his patents. (Even back then, a reasonable offer would have been 100 times that much.)

Farnsworth took RCA to court and Sarnoff brought all of his power to bear in an attempt to crush the inventor. (Around that same time, Sarnoff used his legal and political clout to get the FCC to ban the introduction of FM radio to the public airwaves. FM's inventor, Edwin Armstrong, fought Sarnoff in the courts for 20 years. Armstrong lost his health, then all of his money, before committing suicide in 1954.)

Amazingly, in an American court of law, RCA's legal tactic was to claim that it was impossible for a 15-year-old boy to come up with one of the most brilliant scientific breakthroughs of all time. However, thanks to the introduction into evidence of the sketches that his high school teacher had kept, Farnsworth actually (technically) prevailed over RCA in court. In fact the court ruled that Farnsworth was "the undisputed inventor of television." RCA then basically ignored the court's ruling and presented its own television set at the 1939 New York World's Fair, using all of Farnsworth's patents without his permission and without paying him for them.

RCA was eventually forced to pay Farnsworth $1 million, but the inventor, broken and bitter, became an alcoholic and died a largely forgotten man in 1971.

In the U.S. Capitol, each state is allowed to have two statues of important sons or daughters. Utah is represented by Brigham Young and Philo T. Farnsworth.

In his later years, Zworykin (a bitch till the very end) claimed that he never watched TV and that his most significant invention was the off switch. Actually, the patent for the off switch also belonged to Farnsworth.