The Farnsworth Invention

A play based on the life of a television (or any other) inventor is in itself unusual, and for such play to open on Broadway is indeed a rarity.

Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” is just that, having opened at the Music Box Theatre in New York Oct. 15 after a trial run in California.

Those of us who have spent our careers in the technical side of television know that there’s not that much glamour or drama, save for doing an occasional beauty contest remote and worrying about whether everything will come together by airtime for a live show. So, is it really possible to use such a theme to develop something captivating enough to hold an audience’s attention for two acts?

Well, Sorkin has succeeded in doing this, as witnessed by the packed house performance I attended recently. However his methodology for achieving this success does warrant a closer look.

In taking issue with a particular chamber of commerce’s version of the landing of the Mayflower, Will Rogers once exclaimed, “Don’t be misled by history, or any other unreliable source.” Sorkin seems to have followed this recipe in putting together his latest drama.

While it is admirable that the playwright has rescued the names of Philo Farnsworth, David Sarnoff and Vladimir Zworykin from the legion of the obscure—names that are virtually unknown to many of the present generation—it is lamentable that he has taken so many, many liberties with the facts surrounding their lives.

(click thumbnail)For those not thoroughly familiar with television’s history, two of the main players in the race to divorce the medium from its mechanical ancestry and take it into the age of electronics (and ultimately commercialization) were Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin. “The Farnsworth Invention” is a concatenation of Farnsworth’s life, along with his interactions with David Sarnoff, head of the once all-encompassing and all-powerful Radio Corporation of America.

One of Sarnoff’s early corporate visions was the development and popularization of television. In the late 1920s, he hired Zworykin, a Russian émigré working at Westinghouse who had an avid interest in television, to head up the project to make this dream a reality.

Farnsworth, while a poor but brilliant Utah farm boy, also visualized the creation of an electronic television system. Both inventors spent their most productive years producing workable television systems. While there were commonalities in some areas, their approach to creating an imaging device differed greatly.

Zworykin called his the “iconoscope,” a tube in which photons impinged upon a photo-emissive “mosaic” and created a charge on miniscule capacitors that was later scanned off by an electron beam.

Farnsworth’s camera tube, the “image dissector” was wholly unlike the iconoscope in design and operation. It operated by the action of light representing the scene being televised striking a thin photo-emissive element that instantaneously created an electronic representation of that image on the reverse side. This “electric image” was moved bit-by-bit by scanning coils through a small aperture and into a collector electrode at the other end of the tube.


While both approaches worked, by today’s standards they were relatively insensitive to light. Early television studio base lighting for an iconoscope was around 1,000 foot-candles. The image dissector required even more.

Sorkin’s play is set around Farnsworth’s work in developing both the image dissector and a complete television system. Farnsworth’s research was seriously underfunded and his team of research assistants was both miniscule and largely self-taught. Nevertheless, Farnsworth did succeed in producing electronic television images as early as 1927.

Sarnoff was interested in Farns-worth’s work, as it presented something of a challenge to the system that Zworykin was developing. At one point, Zworykin visited Farnsworth’s San Francisco lab and took away directions for constructing an image dissector.

While Sorkin does capture the nucleus of the conflict between Sarnoff and Farnsworth, many of the facts are severely twisted. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the “secret” that Zworykin is supposed to have pirated.

Although there are several references to “the light problem,” the audience is led to believe that the real key to success in camera tubes was the sealing of an optically flat faceplate onto the barrel of the camera. (Zworykin had been told by several authorities that such a thing was impossible; Farnsworth’s glass blower didn’t know this and just did it.)

The real truth lies with the “electrical” or electronic image created by Farnsworth’s tube and entered as a claim in his 1927 television system patent application, (the patent was awarded in 1930.) Zworykin’s 1923 patent application (his patent was not granted until 1938) makes no mention of an electronic image. This resulted in a patent “interference” situation developing, and led to litigation.

Without ownership of the principle of the “electronic image,” it was impossible for RCA to develop imaging devices beyond Zworykin’s iconoscope, even though superior pickup devices were possible by the mid-1930s.


(click thumbnail)Actor Jimmi Simpson (as Philo Farnsworth) holds his television camera tube creation—the image dissector.In Sorkin’s version of the facts, Farnsworth is the loser in this litigation. Contrary to history, RCA’s Zworykin received priority for the invention. At this point in the play, Sarnoff appears on the scene to comfort Farnsworth and to offer him a job.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the real world, the priority of Farnsworth’s claim was upheld, requiring RCA to pay for the non-exclusive use of an invention. Farnsworth’s company controlled the electronic image technology.

The play is replete with many other inaccuracies and misrepresentations, including:

  • Farnsworth being both a smoker and a unreliable lush during his early and most productive years;
  • The portrayal of his wife, Pem, as a heavy and careless smoker;
  • Farnsworth beginning his television research in San Francisco;
  • The first-ever radio broadcast of a fight (Dempsey-Carpenter, 1921) by RCA using a 50 kW transmitter;
  • Sarnoff and RCA executives listening to radio broadcasts in the early 1920s on a cathedral radio receiver (these did not exist until around 1930);
  • Farnsworth’s getting soused in a bar as he views the 1969 manned lunar landing;
  • The portrayal of Farnsworth as a forgotten failure, penniless and drunk at the time of his death in 1971.

There are many more, but in the interest of brevity I’ll stop here.

One of the more laughable visual props is the representation of part of Farnsworth’s television apparatus. It is supposed to be heavily scientific, but in reality is a steel beer barrel that is wrapped by some strapping with large holes bored into it, and is adorned with an obligatory meter and wires. (Someone should really tell the designer that plastic cable ties were not part of the electronics scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.)

Someone should also tell the director and actors that the word “kilocycles,” was never pronounced by anyone in the business as “keylo-cycles.” Please, repeat after me—“kill-o-cycles!”

All in all, the play is well produced, and while the sets are on the sparse side, there’s excellent acting, costuming, lighting and occasional special effects. There’s certainly enough drama to hold it together for its two acts, even though much of this is contrived.

Actors Jimmi Simpson and Hank Azaria excell as Farnsworth and Sarnoff, respectively.

However, if there’s anyone in the crowd who knows beans about Farnsworth and his career, they will soon be gnashing their teeth and then biting their tongue in order to keep from yelling “foul” in a crowded theatre.

If you want to be entertained for a couple of hours, and can fully suspend disbelief, by all means head for the Music Box Theatre and see “The Farnsworth Invention.” If it’s a history lesson you’re after, run for the nearest fire escape and continue on to the library or even the Internet.

James E. O'Neal

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.