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Meet the most influential, unknown man of the 20th Century: Philo T. Farnsworth

There’s a statue at the Letterman Digital Arts center in San Francisco’s Presidio depicting a classically handsome man. He’s holding some rolled-up papers in one hand, and gazing at something that looks like an overly large, oddly shaped light bulb, which he holds in the other. At his side is a box that most everyone will recognize as an early television.

You may not know the name of this man honored in bronze, but you certainly know the result of his work. Philo T. Farnsworth is credited with inventing television. (At least in the U.S. There are also some European claims.)

Not only did Farnsworth invent television, he did it on Green Street in San Francisco, financed by a San Francisco bank.

According to author Art Peterson, a representative of the bank was impressed by Farnsworth’s early ideas, and arranged for the Crocker Bank to give him $25,000, “a big sum of money in those days.” Peterson is the author of Why is that Bridge Orange?, which he describes as “a history book that makes use of stuff that’s actually around now.” (A full-page color photo accompanies each of the 86 entries in the book. The Farnsworth statue is on page 101.)

Farnsworth’s interest in electrical and mechanical technology blossomed after a telephone call with a relative who lived out of state. If sound could travel like that, why not pictures?

As the story goes, the idea for television sprouted while he was plowing fields on his parents’ Idaho farm. In his mind, the dissected waves of soil became waves of electrons, which lead to what he called his “image dissector camera.”

It was while at the University of Utah that he met a couple of money men from San Francisco who were willing to support his television research.

A major reason most people don’t associate Farnsworth with television the way they might Guglielmo Marconi with radio is because of David Sarnoff, head of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America.

“Sarnoff had the nerve to sue Farnsworth for his patents, claiming he had them first,” Peterson explains. That roll of papers in the hand of the statue represent the patent documents.

The ensuing legal battles were long and expensive, but they didn’t discourage Farnsworth from working on other projects. They included an infrared telescope, and the prototype of a machine that eventually became the incubator for premature infants.

Much later, he moved back to Utah, where he secured a contract with NASA to work on nuclear fusion. But the space agency wouldn’t cover his operational costs. He sold all of his assets, in an unsuccessful attempt to remain solvent. Soon, the IRS padlocked his lab, because of back taxes.

It’s no surprise, Peterson says, that by that time, “Farnsworth was depressed, and in fact, was a drunk.”  He died in 1971.

Author Peterson remembers what he considers the best description of this troubled genius: ”That he is the most influential, unknown man of the 20th Century.”

Read more about other little-known San Francisco people and places in Art Peterson’s book, Why is that Bridge Orange?