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CICIORA’S CORNER: ‘The Farnsworth Invention’

Thu, 01/31/2008 - 7:12pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

I went into Manhattan for the Broadway play, “The Farnsworth Invention.” It far exceeded my expectations, and I would highly recommend it. Hopefully, it will tour and be available in your city, but for now it has an open-ended engagement in New York. Being in New York means tickets are not inexpensive – midrange tickets cost about the current price of a Walter S. Ciciorabarrel of oil. We went to the “tkts” discount tickets window and got them for half price, each about the cost of a gas fill-up for a full size sedan.

You shouldn’t feel that you are unusual if you can’t identify the Farnsworth invention. Few people are familiar with the inventor’s name, but everyone knows the invention. Philo T. Farnsworth invented electronic television in 1921 when he was 15 years old.

That simple sentence puts forth two astounding facts. First, prior to the Farnsworth invention, television was mechanical. In 1884, German engineer Paul Nipkow invented a system using a rotating disk with a spiral pattern of holes to scan a brightly illuminated image at one location and reproduce the image at another location with a synchronized similar rotating disk. In 1925, John Logie Baird and Charles Jenkins demonstrated similar systems in the United Kingdom. As late as 1927, AT&T held a demonstration of mechanical television. The second astounding fact is that Farnsworth conceived of his invention as a 15-year-old boy, plowing the fields of his father’s Idaho potato farm.

Farnsworth’s mind was always engaged. He marveled at radio’s magic and wondered how it could be extended to convey pictures. While plowing the field, he came up with the concept of his “image dissector.” He reasoned that the image could be cut into horizontal strips, just like the plowing of a field, and then transmitted electrically at great speed, one strip after the other, and then reassembled at the receiver.

Interestingly, the basis for the display device was already at hand. In 1897, German scientist Karl Braun invented the cathode ray tube oscilloscope for studying electrical wave forms. In 1908, A. A. Campbell Swinton speculated that this “Braun tube” might be useable as a display device. But the capturing of the image was still left to mechanical spinning disks. That’s where Farnsworth made his major contribution, the image dissector.

“The Farnsworth Invention” is an exciting story of an inventor with a very small facility competing with a giant corporation, RCA, and its dynamic and powerful head, David Sarnoff, with his stable of Ph.D. scientists (can’t say too much that’s bad about those types!) and a large collection of patent lawyers. A major component of the story is the patent fight between the two entities. (At one point, every TV set utilized at least six of Farnsworth’s patents.)

The play uses an interesting dramatic device. The Sarnoff character tells the Farnsworth story, while the Farnsworth character tells the Sarnoff story. Human interactions of strong personalities play an important part in the story. While there are brief verbal descriptions of the technology which an engineer would appreciate, the non-technical member of the audience is not shut out by these small diversions. The thrust of the play is the dynamic of a David and Goliath engaged in a mighty struggle.

The play’s author, Aaron Sorkin of such TV wonders as “The West Wing,” states in his “Author’s Note” that there is a lot of ambiguity and controversy swirling around the story of the Sarnoff/Farnsworth struggle. Each has several biographical books published by various authors, but there is little agreement among the stories. The play presents two versions of the story, one from Sarnoff’s perspective and the other from Farnsworth’s viewpoint.

The last scene is acknowledged to be a fictional interaction between Sarnoff and Farnsworth because the two had never personally met. It highlights the fact that inventing television and making it a commercial success are two different tasks. Perhaps Farnsworth is best suited to one and Sarnoff to the other.

It’s a fascinating story of a fundamental part of our industry. I encourage you to see it.

I’m probably a bit biased here, having spent my entire professional life in television technology, first at Zenith on receivers and systems, then at Time Warner in cable, followed by entrepreneurial endeavors with EnCamera Sciences and HBA MatchMaker Media, and lastly as an expert witness in patent suits, mostly involving television. Consequently, I found the play mesmerizing. It was extremely well done and I’m guessing that most of the audience agreed. As I scanned the audience, they were giving the play their full attention.

The play’s curtain features graphics from a drawing in one of Farnsworth’s more than 100 patents with an overlay of the precedent drawing the 15-year-old made for his science teacher.

I looked around and wondered who in the audience was an engineer and who was a patent lawyer.

wciciora@ieee.org

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