Philo Philes

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil. It’s a novel about the adventures of a Houdini-style illusionist in the 1910s and 1920s, who gets mixed up with the mysterious death of Warren Harding, Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the fight for control of television. It’s in much the same vein as Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s only, say, 75% as good, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is the real life Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo Farnsworth was an earnest, gawky farm boy born in an honest-to-gosh log cabin near Beaver City, Utah in 1906. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, rode to high school on horseback, and never went to college. When he was nineteen, he pretty much invented electronic television.

The invention of television is a messy, complicated story, and it’s almost impossible to pick one single “Inventor of Television” out of the melee of mad Scots and visionary Russians and guys in basements in Cleveland who all had a hand in TV’s birth, but Philo is a definite contender. He was the first to use a scanning electron beam to create a picture. All previous efforts were mechanical, and usually involved spinning giant wooden disks. (Lovers of outre steampunk technology take note.)

Philo’s story is great—he was just this “aw shucks” milk-drinking Mormon kid who got the idea for the parallel scanning lines of the electronic picture tube while tilling the furrows of his family’s potato farm. He married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and said to her on their wedding night, “Pemmie, I have to tell you. There’s another woman in my life. Her name is Television.”

The whole thing sounds like a made up Boy Inventor story—Tom Swift and His Electronic Picto-Vision! In fact, I often think it should have been one. It could have been serialized in Chum Magazine in the 1940s, or made into a Disney double feature with Davy Crockett, called “The Boy Who Invented Television.” Young Philo would have made a great 1950s TV character. He could have worked with the Pinkertons maybe, having wild adventures across the West with his best girl Pemmie at his side, doing battle with his ingenious electrical inventions against the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust.

About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

Alas, in real life, the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust (aka David Sarnoff and RCA) screwed Philo over pretty darn good. He never got the recognition he deserved, and though RCA eventually paid him off for the patents they squeezed out of him, he spent much of his life bitter and unhappy about how he and his great invention had been misused.

There’s a couple of books about Philo out now: The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower. There’s also this tribute site with the excellent URL farnovision.com. All of them basically follow the romantic “noble-lone-inventor-versus-greedy-fat-cats” model. But Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting New Yorker column (saying “interesting Malcolm Gladwell column” is usually redundant, IMHO) about Philo’s story, turning the model on his head. Gladwell says the story exposes the value of big corporations, and points out how much happier Philo’s life would have been if he’d only worked with RCA rather than tried to go it alone. I don’t know. It’s one thing to say Philo was naïve and stubborn and that he paid dearly for trying to fight the big boys. It’s another thing to say that this is therefore how things ought to be.

But anyway. Mad props to Philo T. That’s all I really wanted to say.

9 Comments

  1. About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

    That is such an odd and beautiful idea… I love it!

  2. I smell a cool rollicking good old time-travelling Adventure! game, I don’t know about you…

  3. mmm…should have read this before you came over so I could extort more books from you.

  4. Operators are always standing by to take your book orders & requests. Especially when you wine & dine us like you did tonight. Yummm.

  5. I’m two years late, but: my paternal grandfather met Philo Farnsworth at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. At least, I’m pretty sure he did. He definitely saw an early electronic television set in action.

  6. That rules! Did your grandfather punch Philo and take his lunch money? (I know, that post talks about how much I like Philo, and I still do, but I also think he was a bit of a nerd.)

  7. He was 14, in a city with a population greater than six thousand for the first time in his life, had his twelve-year-old little brother in tow, and had just driven in from the cornfields of Iowa. I think he was probably too busy gawking and picking his jaw up off the ground to mug any nerd.

  8. Pingback: The Farnsworth Invention

  9. Pingback: Old News: Philo Philes

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