Statue of Philo Farnsworth, Father of TV
Salt Lake City, Utah
The more time we spend with our smart phones and tablets, the less time we have for TV. If television really is on its way to obsolescence, then maybe it's time to start appreciating its history. Not just its legendary stars, but the man who actually made it happen: inventor Philo T. Farnsworth.
Philo was born in 1906 in a log cabin near Beaver, Utah. He later claimed that he was plowing a potato field in Idaho when he had the idea for electronic television: images scanned line by line, row by row. That was in 1922. Philo was 15. He called his invention an "image dissector."
Philo's apocryphal a-ha moment -- looking at rows of spuds, dreaming of television -- endears him to all TV babies. It may be too wonderful to be true. But if the story is repeated enough by tour guides and lazy screenwriters, then it becomes true, like so many things we see on TV...
Which leads to another too-wonderful story. In the mid-1980s -- Miami Vice in TV years -- the kids at Ridgecrest Elementary School in Salt Lake City learned that Utah had only a statue of Brigham Young in the U.S. Capitol. Each state is allowed two statues. The kids asked their neighbors and friends who deserved the second statue, and the overwhelming favorite was Philo Farnsworth. The folks around Ridgecrest Elementary apparently didn't know that Philo did most of his TV work somewhere other than Utah, but Utah's politicians were willing to overlook that. By the early 1990s Philo's statue stood in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Two exact copies went up as well, one at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, the other in Philo's birthplace of Beaver.
Philo's statue shows him to be thin as a rail. He stands holding one of his bulky image dissector vacuum tubes, thinking of ways to make it even more amazing. "Father of Television," reads the inscription on the statue's base. A plaque notes that Philo also "developed the first electron microscope and baby incubator," and that when he died in 1971 he was "working in cold nuclear fusion." In fact, Philo reportedly considered his failed "fusor" to be his greatest invention, and rarely watched television. These awkward facts have been forgiven, because we love what Philo gave us so much.
A fourth Farnsworth statue arrived in 2008, a new and different model (with more luxuriant hair) that was erected in San Francisco, the city where he first demonstrated TV. Once again Philo is depicted as deep in thought, this time holding a cathode ray tube, his other hand clutching a rolled up electrical schematic. Next to him is an early TV set. Perhaps, like Dr. Frankenstein, Philo is racked with doubts about the merits of his creation. Or maybe, like all Couch Potatoes, he's just waiting for something better to come on.