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One Reporter's Opinion: The Origins of Television, Part I - Television's Forgotten Inventor

Friday, 22 November 2002 12:00 AM

It is this reporter's opinion that three inventions have had the greatest impact on present-day civilization: the wheel, the printing press and television. The wheel gave us mobility; the printing press disseminated information; and television combined sight, sound and wide-range communications.

Let's make this perfectly clear – I wasn't there at the birth of the wheel or the printing press. But I was around at the time of the discovery of television, and Sept. 7, 2002, was the 75th anniversary of the greatest medium of all time.

Since my arrival on the scene coincided with the birth of television, you might say my career is a template in the industry and I have been privileged to personally know some of the great pioneers, such as David Sarnoff and Allen B. Du Mont, the inventor of the first commercially practical cathode ray tube.

I remember one of my first experiences in TV back in 1935. They poked a hole in the wall of a radio station – WDGY in North Minneapolis – placed something resembling a movie projector on one side of the wall and me, the reporter, on the other. They painted my forehead, nose and jaw with some kind of silver fluorescent paint (like the kind they used in silent films to bring out the actors' features) and projected my skeletal image one mile across town and called it "television."

Throughout the years that followed, TV became my life. In 1939, I was assigned by NBC to cover experimental television at the World's Fair in Flushing, N.Y. (Prior to World War II, television had been called an "experimental toy.") Sally Rand, the famed "fan dancer," who covered her vulnerability with a fan and a feather here and there, was the subject of one of our first broadcasts. Later I acted as host of the first network television when they forged the link between New York and Chicago.

I recall how primitive things were for us journalists as compared to what television reporters are faced with today. We'd start with a 16 mm camera in black and white, and I would cover six or more stories from early morning all the way to show time, rush the film over to a local lab and would get it all together, quickly edited and be on the air reporting my own stories that I had personally gone to the field myself to investigate. Working in TV back then, we did everything ourselves.

But we owed it all to one man in particular who, only 75 years ago, came up with an idea that has impacted our world in ways he could only dream about. How recently the discovery of television occurred! And the amazing thing is that it all came about because of a simple man with a wonderful imagination and a little ingenuity.

Most of us are unaware of the true origins of television ... and those who brought forth its birth. There is much discussion and argument on that front. Among those who claimed to have invented television was RCA's chief engineer, Vladimir Zworykin – WRONG!

The inventor of television was a 21-year-old self-taught genius, Philo T. Farnsworth. As a 14-year-old Idaho farm boy, he was obsessed with his vision of what television could be. They say it came about in his inventive mind as he tilled and plowed the horizontal fields on his farm. One day he realized that an image could be scanned onto a picture tube the same way, row by row.

Try to visualize this young lad when, at 21 years of age, in his modest San Francisco lab (Sept. 17, 1927), he transmitted the image of a horizontal line to a receiver in the next room. This is a moment in history all but forgotten by the millions of viewers who enjoy his invention day in and day out.

Like so many of our geniuses, Farnsworth was modest to the point of being completely unnoticed, yet, in my opinion, he ranks with all the great inventors and scientists in our recent history – Edison, Ford, Jonas Salk, Guttenberg and Bill Gates, to name a few. How soon we forget and how we take for granted his unique contributions that have vastly changed our everyday existence.

It took us only 75 years, but now let us pay homage to the inventor of that which gives us our daily bread, our living, our information, news, entertainment and vital warnings by learning about what went on in this young mind 75 short years ago. It is a story that will inspire generations to come.

Here are some great links for further reading on the subject:


For an excellent video about the origins of TV – The American Experience: "BIG DREAM, Small Screen" – go to: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/technology/bigdream/abprogram.html

For an excellent book about Farnsworth – "The Boy Who Invented Television" by Paul Schatzkin, go to: http://farnovision.com/bookstore/tbwit.html

* * *

Next time we meet, let's recall the life and contribution of Dr. Allen B. Du Mont, inventor of the first commercially practical cathode ray tube (the picture tube) in TV sets, which is also used in our computers. I, myself, knew the good doctor very well and know that Du Mont didn't actually invent the picture tube; a German scientist in 1897 was the inventor. But Du Mont figured out how to make it durable, and his tubes lasted thousands of hours and could be produced cheaply.

* * * * * *

The legendary George Putnam is 88 years young and a veteran of 68 years as a reporter, broadcaster and commentator ... and is still going strong. George is part of the all-star line-up of Southern California's KPLS Radio – Hot Talk AM 830.

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It is this reporter's opinion that three inventions have had the greatest impact on present-day civilization: the wheel, the printing press and television. The wheel gave us mobility; the printing press disseminated information; and television combined sight, sound and...
Friday, 22 November 2002 12:00 AM
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