Philo T. Farnsworth, 14-year-old Inventor of Television

Eighty-four years ago, the first known video transmission was made from an idea conceived by a child who was only 14 years old. August marks the birth of the man known as the Father of Television,Philo T. Farnsworth,  and it seems fitting to tell a bit of his tale. Was he a child prodigy? Or just a visionary with the drive to make something of his vision?

Growing up in a home without electricity, one can imagine he might have often had power sources on his mind. Born 105 years ago in 1906, its an interesting fact that as popular and worldwide his invention has become, hes not very well-known at all, and in fact, he lived his life in obscurity and died nearly penniless. Farnsworth came up with the idea of picture transmission when he was 14 years old* and showed his chemistry teacher sketches for a vacuum tube that would electronically copy images on a screen, one line at a time.

His first transmission was a 60-horizontal line image of a dollar bill and he subsequently applied for and earned the patent for an all-electronic TV in 1927. Electronics engineers at the time were testing other methods of transmitting images using spinning discs. In the 1930s,engineers at RCA (Radio Corporation of America) were in the process of inventing a different type of television using a cathode tube. Farnsworth became embroiled in a decade-long legal war that ended with RCA paying him a million dollars for royalties for patent licenses for several of his inventions including TV scanning, syncing, and contrast control.

Many of Farnsworths 165 patents for electronic inventions include amplifiers, a system for air traffic control, night vision devices, radar and cathode-ray and vacuum tubes. As remarkable as it sounds, television is still a young invention and is already disappearing from many households today. Farnsworth passed away in 1971, just when his invention was really starting to get a firm foothold in American households. Farnsworth didn't gain wealth from his invention, and, in fact, spent his lifetime fighting to hold claim to the patent. His wife continued to fight the battle until her death.

Want to see the man talk about his work? Here's a YouTube clip of him on the TV classic I've Got a Secret from the 1950s. After everyone is amazed that the inventor of TV was such an unknown man, notice what he says about TV at 6:15 on this clip. He talks about the future of TV, including better utilization of the bandwidth, hoping to expand it to 2000 lines rather than 525 lines, visual memory, and flat screens. This is Hi Def, folks! It took four decades longer to get this. What a visionary.

I love history, and the history of television in particular, and although TV might be approaching the end of it's life as we know it, as video producers we all owe a bit of gratitude to Philo T. Farnsworth for his vision and amazing mind. If you want to read more history of TV or video, check out LabGuy's site:

Among other things Lab Guy has his very own museum of "Extinct Devices" including his collection of old video tape recorders and old video cameras. Hum… I wonder if he'd be interested in that old Panasonic VHS cam sitting on our "museum shelf". * Some reports say Farnsworth was 15 or 16, but he says he was 14 on the I've Got a Secret show mentioned in this report.

PHOTO CREDIT: Farnsworth Archives,

Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.

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