Old News: Philo Philes

Last night in my Media History seminar, I started to make a rhetorical point about how we (think we) know who invented the telegraph, the telephone, and so on, but nobody can really name the inventor of television. The point of the story was going to be that the invention of all those devices is much murkier than we believe, that the lone inventor is often a fiction of patent law and corporate PR. But as soon as I said, “But nobody can really name the inventor of television,” the class shouted in unison: “Philo!”

One thing I do not love about the blog format is its itchy, relentless now-ness. It doesn’t matter how nicely you organize your archives, once a post rolls off the front page it is basically lost to the world. RSS readers, handy as they are, only exacerbate this. People read the piffle you wrote this morning, not the deathless piffle genius of your glory days.

Which is why I’ve never been ashamed to recycle. I’ve been at this a while, and even though I know some of you reading this have been around for the long haul, you can’t all have been. As a particularly feeble slogan for TV reruns put it a few years ago, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” So here is a post from way back in Ought-Two, if you can believe it, about Utah’s own Philo Farnsworth, inventor of television.

(I’m trying to keep Old is the New New focused on whatever it is Old is the New New is focused on, but if you’re craving new content from me, I’ve been blogging up a storm lately at the Frontiers of New Media site, I keep meaning to post more about gaming at Claw Claw Peck, and I’ve dusted off my old personal blog to record tales of our excellent Utah adventure. Now, back to our rerun.)

Philo Philes

(Slightly abridged; originally published November 17, 2002.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s novel Carter Beats The Devil. It’s 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 the same vein as Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s not quite as highbrow, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is 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, 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 for 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) worked 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 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.

4 Comments

  1. Isn’t Philo one of the two Utah citizens in the congressional hall of fame or somesuch? You can probably guess the other one :-)

  2. It seems to me that if someone is ever going to do a movie of Philo’s life, it should be the other kings of gawky Idaho Mormon farm-geekery, Jared and Jerusha “Napoleon Dynamite” Hess.

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