ITV Interview: Pem Farnsworth, Wife of Philo T. Farnsworth, the Inventor of Electronic Television


Elma "Pem" Farnsworth, who died on April 27th at the age of 98, was the widow of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of electronic television. In 2002, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored her late husband's memory by naming a new Emmy award after him, that recognizes technical achievement by a corporation. Mrs. Farnsworth granted [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow a brief interview immediately after the 2003 Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony, where she presented the first Philo. T. Farnsworth Emmy to Panavision. (Note: Philo T. Farnsworth came up with the basic technological concepts of electronic television at the age of 14, while preparing a potato field with a disc harrow, and transmitted the first television image on September 7th, 1927 at the age of 21. He was subsequently embroiled in a long and acrimonious patent dispute with RCA, which he eventually won, after one of his old schoolteachers came forward with a diagram of a basic television system that Farnsworth had drawn for him as a teenager. An excellent source on Farnsworth's life and numerous achievements is Paul Schatzkin's "The Boy Who Invented Television," published by TeamCom Books.)

[itvt]: Your late husband was Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television…

Farnsworth: To me, by the way, he was "Phil." He took the "o" off his name, because in grade school they called him "Fido." He was Phil long before I met him.

[itvt]: You were obviously closely involved in the birth of television, and you have witnessed some of the most important historical developments in the history of communications and media.

Farnsworth: Yes I have.

[itvt]: Among other things, you were the first person to appear on television.

Farnsworth: That is true.

[itvt]: How did that happen?

Farnsworth: It was in our laboratory in San Francisco. I guess the reason I was the first person to appear on television was because I was the only other person around in the lab at the time.

[itvt]: Did your husband realize how important his invention would prove to be?

Farnsworth: What he said is that the television would make it a smaller world, because one country could see how the other country lived, and therefore countries would be able to solve their problems around the conference table instead of on the battlefield.

[itvt]: Did he ever talk to you about how he saw television developing in the future?

Farnsworth: One thing I remember him saying was that eventually there will come a time when a television set could hang on the wall like a painting.

[itvt]: The laboratory you mentioned was part of a small company--quite similar to one of today's high-tech start-ups--that was set up by your husband, yourself and your brother, correct?

Farnsworth: Yes. We had gotten $25,000 in funding, and Phil had promised to have a transmission within a year. He succeeded, because he thought it out so well. He saw the problems that would happen--and there did turn out to be quite a few problems.

[itvt]: What kinds of problems did you encounter?

Farnsworth: Well, of course, the main thing was to get as many lines per inch as he could, because the more lines per inch you had, the clearer the picture. We spent a whole week in the Los Angeles library trying to find out just how fast you would be able to send a picture to fool the eye into seeing it as a picture, rather than as a lot of dots. So he had that to start with.

[itvt]: What were your responsibilities at the lab, while your husband was inventing television?

Farnsworth: First, I washed windows and swept floors. Then he had me do a lot of the drawings in his journals. I told him his line drawings were much better than anything I could do, but he said, "You'll do it better. We are all just learning." His attitude from the first was that he wanted me involved in anything he did, because his time would be so taken with his work, we wouldn't otherwise have that much time together.

[itvt]: That was sweet.

Farnsworth: For the first 9 months, my brother Cliff and I were the only help he had. Later, I got to the point where I was using the precision welder to make his electron multiplier tubes, which was a very tedious job. They were glad to have me take it over. So I had quite a bit to do with that. Electron multipliers, at that time, were tiny boxes that would shoot a stream of electrons: they were put in position so you would shoot a stream of electrons into one, and it would produce a great many more, and shoot them into the next box. It was like climbing stairs: every time you shot electrons into the next one, it would shoot out more electrons. So when they got through this, they were very much multiplied.

[itvt]: What was the first image generated by these electrons--i.e. the first TV image?

Farnsworth: The first image was a straight, horizontal line.

[itvt]: How much time did it take to move from being able to show a horizontal line to being able to capture your face?

Farnsworth: That line was received on September 7th, 1927, and in 1928 he was showing a full picture. In 1929, they made a film transmitter, and were able to have a continuous transmission, so that films didn't jump from one frame to the next.

[itvt]: I understand that one of your husband's proudest moments was when he saw the TV images that were beamed back when the first men walked on the moon.

Farnsworth: Yes. Phil turned to me and said, "That has made it all worthwhile!"

[itvt]: I take it that your husband told you how he came up with the idea of television? I heard that he was riding on a tractor, and that the idea just came to him.

Farnsworth: Actually, he was driving a 2-horse team. He was in a field planting potatoes. But, as Phil would say, he never invented anything: he was the conduit through which these things were given to the people.

[itvt]: So he felt that his inventions just appeared in his mind and that he simply communicated them to the public?

Farnsworth: Yes.

[itvt]: He had little formal training in electronics, correct?

Farnsworth: He used to say that invention was as if people were building a temple and had had to put up elaborate scaffolding to build that temple. They would get so involved with the scaffolding that they lost sight of the temple. He hadn't had much formal training, and so he didn't have all these preconceptions that many other people had--preconceptions that made it hard for them to let go of their scaffolding and actually build the temple.

[itvt]: The story of how he had to defend his patents against RCA is well-known. Those must have been trying times for you.

Farnsworth: When Phil gave a talk, he had slides with diagrams. Well, there was always a front row of people with cameras, and RCA would take the photographs those people took, build the equipment he was showing, and then go into interference with him in Washington. Now this was a very expensive thing to go through, and they had wrecked a number of lives that way. They were trying it with him, but they finally had to give in and take a license. RCA used to say, "We collect royalties, we don't pay them." He was the first one to make them take a license.

[itvt]: That must have taken tremendous courage on both of your parts. How did you keep your courage up?

Farnsworth: Well, Phil sometimes would get discouraged. He called me his "incurable optimist." So I would talk him out of it and he would go on.

[itvt]: Did your husband watch much television? What were his favorite television shows?

Farnsworth: Anything historical or anything that was really worthwhile.

[itvt]: How did you meet your husband?

Farnsworth: Well, I had met his sister. She had come down from Idaho, and I had come from a little farm on the Green River on Route 40. We met when we came to sign up for high school, and we both felt like country bumpkins in a big city, and so we decided that we would sign up for the same classes. She told me about her wonderful brother, and I didn't think a person could be that wonderful. I met him when he came in and signed up for Brigham Young University.

[itvt]: Could you tell us a little bit about what your husband was like as a person?

Farnsworth: When we bought our home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Phil made a rose garden out of a weed patch. He was out working in his rose garden one day, and some of the neighbors came by and, thinking that he was the gardener, asked him, "What kind of a guy is this Farnsworth, anyway?" He said, "Oh, just a common sort of guy." Anyway, he was a very humble man. But he always had a lot of ideas coming into his mind. However, his company never had very much money, so he wasn't able to work on all of them. One of the things he invented was the first baby incubator. Another thing he was concerned about was that we have to find a way to get rid of human waste, because otherwise, he said, we would end up covered in it. So he devised a toilet that would turn it to ashes, which could then be used for fertilizer. And, as you probably know, he was working on cold fusion before he died. Of course, his big dream was to travel in space. He used to say it was pretty cocky of us to think we are the only intelligence in the universe. He said that life might exist only beyond our galaxy, but that he would like to go out and find it. He didn't give up that dream until the last 6 months of his life.

[itvt]: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Mrs. Farnsworth.

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