The Wonder of TV
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“The Wonder of TV,” Friend, Feb. 1985, 40


The Wonder of TV

When we watch television, we probably don’t think about what a “fool” idea TV was once thought to be. We just take it for granted that it pulls pictures out of the air and then converts them into images that we can see on our TV sets. Little thought is given to how marvelous this means of communication is.

But the way it was invented is marvelous indeed.

Not widely known is the fact that television was actually invented by a fifteen-year-old boy, and if it were not for the urging of his high school teacher, the boy might never have gotten the patent for it.

It all began in the early 1920s in Rigby, Idaho, when a teacher, Justin Tolman, recognized a student’s genius. He saw a very rare potential in young Philo Farnsworth and did all he could as a teacher to encourage and develop the youth’s scientific talent.

Although Phil, as he was called by his family and friends, was busy with school and other activities—he played the violin in the school orchestra and taught himself how to play the piano—his inventive mind traveled far beyond the limits of the classroom and his community.

Most people who listened to Phil’s ideas weren’t able to understand the boy’s advanced concepts. And they didn’t put much faith in his theory that pictures could be sent through the air and instantly received and seen on screens hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

Phil’s teacher, Justin Tolman, was truly amazed at the youngster’s grasp of electronics and his ability to solve problems with innovative solutions. He watched for hours after school as Phil expertly drew diagrams on the blackboard, illustrating his television theory. Tolman was sure that, given the equipment to conduct experiments, the boy could produce this wonderful invention. But where could such elaborate equipment be found? Certainly not in the high school lab!

It wasn’t until several years later, when Phil was married and attending college, that he was able to get the financial backing he needed to perfect his television. Then, when he applied for a patent on his invention in 1927, he discovered that a man named Vladimir Zworykin, who worked for RCA, was applying for a similar patent. Which of these inventors should the patent be awarded to was a real problem for the United States Patent Office. From the documents his backers provided, it appeared that Vladimir had had the idea first.

But if Phil’s high school teacher, Justin Tolman, could be found, it was possible that the teacher could vouch for Phil’s claim of having had the concept for television first. Tolman was found, and the patent office asked him to appear before them. Assured that Tolman had no chance to talk to Phil beforehand, the patent authorities questioned Tolman at great length, and his memory proved to be excellent. He described in detail all the diagrams that Phil had drawn on the school blackboard as a student so many years before.

Impressed with Tolman’s clear description of Phil’s television, the patent office awarded the patent to the young inventor.

Philo Farnsworth, who died in 1971, had lived a very productive life and had been awarded a great number of patents in the field of electronics.

Illustrated by Jerry Thompson