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Utah School Children Won Recognition for Philo T. Farnsworth

History Blazer, November 1995

One can little imagine the world without television. Its impact can be felt everywhere. Yet few people today know who the “Father of Television” is or that he came from Utah. In 1971 when Philo T. Farnsworth died he had still received little recognition for his contribution, the first modern electronic television.

Farnsworth was born in 1906 near Beaver, Utah. He became interested in electronics and decided to become an inventor early in life. By the age of 13 he had won his first national contest, sponsored by Science and Invention magazine, for a thief-proof lock. In 1922 he drew a design for his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman. The drawing had nothing to do with the class assignment, but Tolman kept it. Farnsworth believed that he could transform electricity into pictures by controlling the speed and direction of fast-flying electrons. This “image dissector” drawing would become legally important years later.

Farnsworth had very little advanced education, only two years at Brigham Young University. Most of what he learned about physics came from reading anything that he could get his hands on. He also took correspondence courses in physics from the University of Utah.

Farnsworth moved to Salt Lake and met George Everson who helped him obtain financial backing to further develop his image dissector. Philo married his college sweetheart, Pem, and they moved on to California. With no experience in high-vacuum physics, Farnsworth nevertheless found a way to seal a flat lens end on a dissector camera tube and create a very high vacuum in the tube. On September 7, 1927, he demonstrated the first operational, all-electronic television system. The image seen was of a simple line. Later, in May 1928 a two-dimensional image was seen—Farnsworth’s wife Pem. Many people were working on ideas for the transmission of visual images at that time. By using the sketch that his teacher had kept, Farnsworth won a legal suit against RCA. This victory entitled him to be legally called the “Father of Television.”

At the time of his death Farnsworth owned two patents personally, his corporation over 150 patents. Eight patents were pending, with an additional eight not having been acted upon. Referring to six of the patents, his wife said, “Indeed, if they were to be removed from present day television, we would be left with…just a radio.” Farnsworth died in 1971 at the age of 64. He was bitter and nearly destitute, but, primarily, he felt hurt by the lack of public recognition for being the creator of television.

In 1985 students and teachers from Ridgemont Elementary School in Salt Lake City set about to correct this oversight. The students had gone to the legislature to learn about the process by being a part of it. They heard U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch say, “Isn’t it too bad that we are authorized to have two statues back in Washington and we only have one, that of Brigham Young.”

In 1864 a law creating Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol and providing for two statues from each state was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. On June 1, 1950, a marble statue of Brigham Young, colonizer of the West, and the first governor of Utah Territory, was placed in Statuary Hall as Utah’s first representative. The students wanted Philo T. Farnsworth to be the second. Their first attempt to achieve legislative recognition was thwarted by supporters for J. Willard Marriott, who is credited with inventing the drive-in restaurant. The 1985 Farnsworth bill had passed the House of Representatives but was held up in a Senate committee by determined Marriott supporters.

The students and teacher did not give up, though. The next year brought them the hoped for success. Initially bottled up in the Rules Committee of the Senate, the resolution was released when students asked for help from the media. In 1987 the Legislature passed House Joint Resolution No. 1 sponsored by Donald R. LeBaron and Richard B. Tempest. Governor Norman H. Bangerter signed the legislation and commissioned James R. Avati to sculpt a bronze statue of one of the greatest electronic inventors, Philo T. Farnsworth.

After two years of struggle, the students saw the statue of Farnsworth join Brigham Young in Statuary Hall in Washington. The inventor of television was also recognized for his contributions in developing radar systems, peaceful uses of atomic energy, vacuum tubes, electron microscopes, and incubators as well.

Today Philo T. Farnsworth is recognized as one of Utah’s most brilliant citizens. His examples of innovation and hard work are credited for all to see, as he is titled publicly the “Father of Television.” Utah’s children, Ridgemont Elementary School’s students, had righted a wrong.

Sources: Elma G. “Pem” Farnsworth, Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier (Salt Lake City, 1989); Allan Kent Powell, ed., Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press 1994); Acceptance and Dedication of the Statue of Philo T. Farnsworth (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office 1991).