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In the mid-’80s, Daniel Stashower was writing an article about his great-uncle Hugo Gernsback, an eccentric futurist and inventor who in 1926 founded Amazing Stories, generally considered the first science-fiction magazine.
Gernsback had been captivated by the idea of television: He envisioned a world in which hobbyists—tinkerers along the lines of today’s ham-radio operators—would build their own television sets so they could receive, and maybe even transmit, broadcasts; Gernsback himself, using primitive technology, had managed to broadcast images and sounds of musicians, dancers, and himself giving a lecture, all for an audience of perhaps a dozen viewers. To rally these pioneers, Gernsback in 1927 published the world’s first TV magazine, All About Television. “It was a noble experiment,” says Stashower, 41. “But, as with so many of his experiments, it sank.”
While writing about his great-uncle’s television escapades, Stashower strained to remember the name of the person who invented the medium. “I was reaching for a phrase—’Gernsback was a would-be…’—what?” he recalls. “Who was the television equivalent of Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell? I knew I was a reasonably smart guy, but I had no idea who it was.”
Eventually, Stashower—a Bethesda-based freelance journalist and the author of five mystery books—came upon the name Philo T. Farnsworth; intrigued, he made Farnsworth the focus of The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television, one of two books published this spring that chronicle the convoluted tale of how television came into being. (The other is Evan I. Schwartz’s The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television.)
The “genius” of Stashower’s title is Farnsworth, a Utah farmer’s son with an uncanny gift for mechanics. The “mogul” is David Sarnoff, the head of the hugely influential Radio Corporation of America—or RCA—who poured millions of dollars into the establishment of television.
Sarnoff needed Farnsworth’s patented technologies, including the “image dissector,” a photosensitive glass tube that would replace the unreliable spinning disks of early models. But neither man would submit to the terms of an agreement: Sarnoff always made sure that RCA bought out key inventors rather than paying them royalties, and Farnsworth loathed ceding control over any technical discovery that he believed would undergird the creation of television.
In 1935, Farnsworth won a hard-fought patent ruling against RCA. But it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Business factors, legal maneuvers, and, finally, World War II conspired to delay the medium’s debut for so long that the life of Farnsworth’s key patents had already expired by the time TVs began rolling off assembly lines. That meant that RCA didn’t have to pay Farnsworth royalties for many television components, including the image dissector. Farnsworth died, an ill and broken man, in 1971.
To Stashower, the face-off between an iconoclastic inventor and a corporate titan was irresistible. But he cautions that the battle cannot be reduced to a clean morality tale. “Sometimes Sarnoff is called a robber baron, and sometimes he’s described as the man who held the lamp while the brave men and women working for him created television,” Stashower says. “Neither is quite right. Sarnoff did a great deal to crush Farnsworth’s dreams, but he also funneled an enormous amount of money into television research [in the ’30s and ’40s], when there was no clear consensus that doing so would ever result in a profit. If he had been motivated only by money, then he would have had no reason to do that.”
Stashower’s book chronicles the transition from a time when independent inventors such as Edison and Bell could flourish to an era in which salaried corporate employees began making most of the key advances. This shift, along with television’s unusually long birthing period—which included several decades of research in a multitude of labs on more than one continent—made assigning credit for the invention of TV rather tricky.
“My wife is Scottish, and she swears that John Logie Baird, a Scotsman, invented television,” Stashower says. “A lot of people credit Baird with making the first public television broadcast, and they’re probably right. But when you talk about who invented television, you have to make a distinction between getting an image in a box and inventing the actual technology that went on to become what we know as television today. And Farnsworth is the guy who did that.” —Louis Jacobson
Daniel Stashower will speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Borders, 5871 Crossroads Center Way, Baileys Crossroads, and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at Barnes & Noble, 4801 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda.