Television as we know it turns 90 years old

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Thursday, September 7, 2017, marks an important anniversary, especially for those of us who work in television studios across the world. (KGO-TV )

At the corner of Green and Sansome streets in San Francisco sits a monument to an inventor so unknown that he once appeared on the old game show, "I've got a secret," identified only as "Doctor X."

"Is this (invention) some kind of a machine that might be painful when it's used?" one contestant asked.

"Yes, sometimes, it's most painful," he replied.

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Happy birthday to the television, that bright box we all love to stare at turns 80 years old today.



In fact, the invention caused a lifetime of pain for Philo T. Farnsworth -- the man who, at only 14 years old, came up with the idea that he later turned into the first working electronic television.

"He lived on a farm that had no electricity," recalled veteran TV producer and Farnsworth historian Phil Savenick. "And he became fascinated with electrons as a kid."

Savenick said Farnsworth would read science fiction and hobby magazines between his chores, and came up with the idea for electronic television while he was plowing a field behind a team of horses.

"I'm gonna scan the image and pull it across one line at a time like the horse," said Savenick, speaking as if he were Farnsworth. "And then we're gonna send it out as a trail of electrons to the receiver, and they're gonna reassemble it a line at a time."

That idea formed the basis for analog television as we know it and remains the principle upon which even modern digital image transmission is based. But even with help from wealthy investors, it took Farnsworth seven years to design and produce the glowing glass tubes that finally sent the first working television signal over the air on September 7, 1927.

The street corner now marked by a monument to Farnsworth in San Francisco is the spot where the breakthrough happened: a laboratory in a building where Farnsworth's family members gathered to mark the 90th anniversary of the event.

"There wasn't a place on earth that wasn't affected by the invention of television," recalled Farnsworth's grandson, Philo Krishna Farnsworth.

But the impact on the Farnsworth family was far from what their patriarch had envisioned.

"Being the descendant of a famous inventor, someone who changed the world, and not having the economic benefit of it -- that's a very personal part of it," said Farnsworth's grandson, who goes by his middle name, Krishna.

Almost immediately after building his first successful prototype, Farnsworth found himself embroiled in legal battles with giant companies like RCA over the right to produce television equipment based on his technology. Using his teenage drawings and old lab notebooks as evidence, Farnsworth prevailed and was granted a U.S. patent. It was the first time RCA had ever been made to license a patent from anyone.

"Every television company had to license his product," Savenick said. "He got a lot of money. But the next year, the world went to war."

World War II saw the manufacture of consumer goods grind to a halt, as factories switched their production to items needed for the war effort. RCA's factories were used to produce radar equipment, and Farnsworth worked on technology that was used for night vision. The production of commercial TV sets didn't begin in earnest until the war was over. By that time, Farnsworth's patents had expired.

The fact that he received no money from the wave of TV sets that swept into living rooms around the world was only one reason Farnsworth came to dislike the phenomenon he'd created. He also had low regard for most of the content sent out over the airwaves.

"It was a point of contention that we not watch television in our household," Krishna said. "My grandfather and my father were not happy with the programming that had become so prevalent, and so terms like 'the idiot box' were thrown around in our household pretty frequently. We did not own a television in our household until I was 8 years old."

But Savenick said he remembers Farnsworth's widow telling the story of when her late husband finally realized the power of what he'd created. It was the day astronauts first walked on the moon, broadcast live around the world from a camera Farnsworth designed.

"She turns to him and she says, 'So Philo, was it all worth it?'" Savenick recalled. "And he says, 'I think so. But up until this minute, I wasn't too sure.'"

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