Monday, March 10, 2014

Philo T. Farnsworth, The Forgotten Man

I always thought it was a bit of hyperbole when Rush Limbaugh would refer to the mainstream media as the “state controlled media”.  That is, until I started reading about Philo T. Farnsworth.  “Farnsworth” you say, “who the heck was he?”

If there was ever a parable exhibiting the power of mainstream media and it’s statist roots, it is the amazing story of Philo T. Farnsworth, the greatest American inventor you likely never heard of. 

Farnsworth was the inventor, among other things, of electronic television.  He was the first person to conceive, build, and demonstrate a television and camera pair, broadcasting over the air with no moving parts.  Oh, and he invented all this when he was 14 years old.  Oh, and he won a patent challenge against RCA, so this history is not in dispute.  Oh, and he died broke and depressed, largely denied his legacy and place in history. 

But you remember learning about this amazing story in school, right?  What’s that?  You never heard of him?  How can that be?  I’ve made it a point to quiz every millennial, gen-xer, and boomer I come across to see if they are even aware of this amazing story.  So far, crickets. 

Fascinated by Farnsworth, I’ve begun reading everything I can on him and have been trying to understand how this incredible man and his story could have been largely erased from history.  It didn’t take me long to figure it out.  It was deliberate. 

Farnsworth’s rival for the title of “inventor of television” was essentially GE/RCA/NBC embodied at the time by engineer Vladimir Zworykin and RCA head David Sarnoff, both major contributors in their own right towards modern television.  GE/RCA/NBC had a near monopoly in the early days of broadcasting, beginning with radio and continuing into TV.  Today, they still embody the mainstream media with their flagship NBC network, it’s subsidiaries, and tentacles in government. 

Turns out, GE/RCA/NBC became a media monopoly the old fashioned way;  they got it by government fiat.  A federal mandate essentially created the media giant from the patents and assets of Marconi America, which was a division of the London based company founded by the first person to demonstrate signal transmission over the air, Guglielmo Marconi.  The US government was concerned that such a powerful industry as broadcasting should not be foreign owned, so they created what became NBC by diktat.  This embarrassing detail has also been effectively scrubbed from history.

In other words, the mainstream broadcast media was created by the state and granted an absolute monopoly during its early days.  Sarnoff was tireless in his efforts to control every related patent and extend his monopoly in broadcasting to the recievers (radios and TVs) as well.  Thus, David Sarnoff, the first king of this new media, could create any narrative he wanted both about himself and the invention of television.  He chose to erase Farnsworth, and elevate himself and Zworykin.  It worked beautifully and enduringly despite losing in the courts.

The rest, as they say, is history (ish). 

(Update - Further reading led me to learn of a screenplay, intended to be a movie, which was eventually made into a Broadway play called "The Farnsworth Invention".  The production did not succeed.  One of the reasons critics found fault with the play is that it actually misrepresented the outcome of Farnsworth's successful patent defense against RCA!  How could someone tell the Farnsworth story and get one of the most important facts backwards?  The play was written by Aaron Sorkin, who among other things, is the creator of "The West Wing".  The network that aired "The West Wing" was of course...NBC.)     

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