Who Invented Television? Vladimir Zworykin in 1923 or Philo Farnsworth in 1927?
The first television image was transmitted in 1927, but the opening of “The Farnsworth Invention” on Broadway in 2007 revived the bitter old debate about TV’s inventor.
In 1935, Philo T. Farnsworth won a patent fight designating his 1927 invention as the first transmission of a television image. It took eight years to win that battle against David Sarnoff, the powerful head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Eighty years after Farnsworth demonstrated his TV tube in a San Francisco loft, the Farnsworth-Sarnoff controversy was revived, this time on a Broadway stage. And despite his clear legal victory in 1935, Farnsworth still seemed to be losing the public relations and history battle.
The Farnsworth-Sarnoff confrontations have always resembled an upside-down David-vs-Goliath encounter, with the powerful David Sarnoff being a winning Goliath in the marketing fight and a frequent winner in the battle for public recognition.
RCA Spent Millions Developing Vladimir’s Television System
Sarnoff challenged Farnsworth’s invention shortly after the patent application was filed. According to Neil Postman in TIME 100, the .magazine’s turn-of-the-century issue, Sarnoff said Vladimir Zworykin invented the Iconoscope for RCA in 1923. But the U.S. Patent Office dismissed Zworykin’s claim, in effect giving Farnsworth credit for inventing television.
Nevertheless, Sarnoff poured millions of RCA dollars into the commercial development and promotion of a Sworykin’s unit, which some critics said was simply an improvement of Farnsworth’s invention. In 1939, RCA was forced to pay royalties to Farnsworth for the use of his patents.
But rich RCA easily outpaced poorly-financed Farnsworth in the development of television. Farnsworth eventually gave up on his invention, went into depression, became an alcoholic and died a little-known man.
Pem Farnsworth Sought Recognition for Her Husband
For decades after his death, Pem Farnsworth, the inventor’s widow, struggled to give him the public credit he deserved. However, Sarnoff’s influence continued to cast a shadow on Farnsworth’s invention and Zworykin continued to receive considerable recognition as “the inventor of television.”
The tide seemed to turn in 2002, on the 75th anniversary of Farnsworth invention. That year Farnsworth was given full credit for his work in “The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion,” a book written by Paul Schatzkin and published by TeamCom Books.
Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway Play Revives Sarnoff Claims
But by November 2007 and the 80th anniversary of Farnsworth’s invention, Sarnoff and Zworykin were again moving into the public spotlight, this time in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway play “The Farnsworth Invention.” Critics say Sorkin employed “dramatic license” to credit Zworykin with inventing television, an idea that many play viewers are likely to carry away with them.
Farmsworth was a Utah Mormon farm boy. He is said to have envisioned the transmission of an electrical image while tilling rows of potatoes when he was 14 years old. Legend says the potato rows apparently inspired the use of lines in a television transmission. Farnsworth produced his successful invention at the age of 21.
Donald Godfrey, writing for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, said Farnsworth won 150 U. S. patents for his various inventions.
Ironically, Farnsworth later disowned the system he was credited with inventing. According to TIME, Kent Farnsworth, the inventor’s son, said his father considered television “kind of a monster.” He quoted his father saying “there’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household.”