Philo Farnsworth

In 1920, while working on his family’s Idaho farm, 13-year old Philo Farnsworth conceived of a way to electronically photograph an image, then reconstruct the picture elsewhere. He spent years poring over books provided by his science teachers to study electron theory and photoelectric materials. Although he designed a complete television system on paper, he could not find locally the right kind of equipment for such a project.

As he continued to work on his concept in the early 1920s, television — as a means to electronically transmit moving images with sound over distances — was unheard of by the general public. Many experimenters were at work on variations of a mechanical scanning method but these heavy, complicated devices were far too cumbersome for home use. The images they produced were only faintly recognizable. Farnsworth was convinced that images could be produced using wholly electrical means by manipulating electrons.

Philo Farnsworth
Farnsworth with television transmitter in 1927, part of a patent application (Perham Collection of Early Electronics, History San Jose, 2003-1-1311)

After persuading two California businessmen, George Everson and Les Gorrell, to invest their life savings–a total of $6,000–so he could build a prototype, Farnsworth and his friend Cliff Gardner set up a laboratory in San Francisco in the fall of 1926. Farnsworth’s wife Pem (Elma Gardner) studied mathematics and drafting in order to help them; she drew many of the technical plans. Gardner learned how to blow glass in order to create specially shaped vacuum tubes. Farnsworth and Gardner successfully transmitted a picture on September 7, 1927.

Cliff Gardner in glassblowing lab
Cliff Gardner in 1927 with his glassblowing equipment at Farnsworth’s lab at 202 Green Street, San Francisco. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics, History San José, 2003-35-77a)

After many more years of research, and patent battles between Farnsworth and RCA, in 1941 television was finally ready for market. However, World War II interrupted plans when the government declared a blackout for commercial television. After the war, television took off in households, and by 1964 it was estimated that 93 percent of all American homes had a television set.