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The untold genius who raced to invent TV

Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it. —The Manchester Guardian

Has it ever struck you as odd that any sixth grader can tell you who invented (or at least who takes credit for inventing) the automobile, the telephone and the light bulb, but very few adults know who invented television? This is partly because the development of radio and television marked a major transition in inventing things, from the domain of a few driven individuals in the mold of Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi to heavily funded corporate research and development facilities.

Once in a while an invention still seems to come out of nowhere. Or, more accurately, it seems to arise from the same sort of vacuum in everyday utility that needed filling, for example, by the likes of the Post-It note and Liquid Paper correction fluid. But for all we know about the provenance of most little innovations that make life easier, they might as well have been hit on by Santa’s elves or an infinite number of monkeys playing around with beer cans and little bits of wire and cardboard.

In fact, television was not invented by one person. The technology that now affords us a window seat on the inane misadventures of coffee shop employees and the romantic escapades of pop stars and talk-show hosts was mostly developed in the ’20s and ’30s by corporate research labs and shoestring pioneers working in feverish competition with one another to bring the idea of a “far-seeing” contraption into mass production first. A lot of what we know today was still science fiction back then. In fact, if the world had paid any heed to the name one early champion gave to the idea of reproducing moving images with mechanical parts, today’s MTV might be MTP instead, and the Gil Scott Heron observation that “The Revolution will not be televised” would sound more like a collaboration between Ray Bradbury and Gene Roddenberry: “The Revolution will not be telephoted.”

The Boy Genius and the Mogul sets up the race for the cathode ray as a dead heat between Philo T. Farnsworth, the Idaho farm boy who at 15 first conceived the idea of a scanning picture tube after observing the rows of hay that fell behind his horse-drawn mower, and David Sarnoff, the future head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Which is not to say that either man, like the picture tube itself, worked in a vacuum. Mechanical television, using a metal disc or prismatic rings to break down images into thousands of tiny parts that could be transmitted as electronic impulses, had been on the mind of inventor Charles Francis Jenkins for 25 years before Farnsworth related his idea for electronic television to his high school chemistry teacher. The idea of mechanical TV as a viable system would also persist long after RCA and Farnsworth’s laboratory began competing for the electronic patents both parties were certain would steer the industry.

Mechanical TV’s staunchest advocates were already obsolescent by the time Sarnoff and Farnsworth ended up in court for patent rights, but they inhabit The Boy Genius and the Mogul as some of its most peculiar characters. Readers looking for eccentric underdogs to champion can have their pick of the litter. There’s Scottish inventor John Logie Baird, who cast his lot into television research after initially trying his fortune in “rustless” glass razors, inflatable soles for shoes, and a hemorrhoid cream that “left [him] unable to sit down for days.” Part of Baird’s impetus was to convince a lady love that he had promise as a husband. Having returned from Trinidad (where he’d lost money in a failed scheme to export local fruits for jam and preserves), he was heartbroken to find that she’d married someone else while he was away. Undaunted, he confronted his love’s new husband and worked out a gentleman’s agreement by which he got to have her for several months out of the year, “with alternating holidays” no less. Baird’s improvisational genius with his mechanical TV prototype was no less impressive, cobbling a working model together out of an old tea chest, a motor, cardboard, darning needles, hat- and biscuit-boxes, glue, sealing wax, string and some headlamp lenses picked up at a bicycle shop.

And let’s hear it for Ernst Fredrik Werner Alexanderson, the Swedish contender for TV honors, who came to the United States in 1902 to work for General Electric. And who, writes author Daniel Stashower, “...was a man of such idiosyncratic habits that, according to one colleague, even Albert Einstein would have found him ‘a bit eccentric.’”: “With his disheveled blond hair and handlebar mustache, Alexanderson made a vivid impression. Famously absentminded, he would occasionally lapse into Swedish while greeting a colleague and had to be reminded that English was favored in Schenectady. Once, upon meeting a familiar-looking woman in the street, Alexanderson bowed politely before the woman revealed that she was, in fact, his daughter.”

The race ultimately came down to RCA and Farnsworth, who had been working on his TV idea for almost 20 years by the time he won a series of decisions in the courts and with the FCC in the late ’30s and early ’40s that put him on equal competitive footing with RCA. It didn’t last long, as it turns out, and it ended up costing him his health and nearly his sanity. After finally turning his back on TV (“too darned many cowboy movies on at the dinner hour,” among other things), Farnsworth spent much of the ’60s talking about fusion and force fields and power packs that could heat all of New York City for 30 cents a month.

Many people concluded that television had wrecked his mind. Even in 1962, he arguably wouldn’t have been the first.

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