Last week I had the pleasure of attending a new play, which opened on Broadway (in NYC) called "The Farnsworth Invention." The reason that I bring up a new play here is because it's all about the birth of television back in the 1920s and 1930s. If it had not been for Philo T. Farnsworth and David Sarnoff, many of us would not be working in this industry today. The play gets into the history of who really invented television as we know it today. To quote the tagline from the play, "The turning point of the 20th century was not on television. It was television.
The Manchester Guardian of 1932 thought of television in this way. "Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it." Happily, this has proved not to be the case. As the play tells us, Farnsworth is the real inventor of Television, but David Sarnoff, who created RCA (Radio Corporation of American) and NBC, knew what to do with it. Farnsworth represents the end of an era that fostered lone inventors like Edison and Tesla as it gives away to the corporate research laboratory. In the 20th century, new discoveries were worth untold millions of dollars, and it soon became apparent that entire industries could be built around them. Soon, technological advances such as television were far too lucrative to be left in the hands of independent inventors. In order to avoid the surprises that could potentially bring down their empires, corporations needed to control the playing field. Big businesses like General Electric, RCA, Philco and Westinghouse began launching corporate research labs, employing large teams of scientists and engineers who gave up their patent rights, and their independence, in exchange for steady paychecks. This proved to be the death knell for inventors like Farnsworth. The play even goes so far to say that Zworykin, who worked for Sarnoff, actually stole a key component and reverse engineered it in their labs to make his version of television work.
Even though Farnsworth sued Sarnoff and RCA, he eventually lost his patent claims on a technicality of a previous held patent by Zworykin from 1923. By 1930, scientists were now property of large corporations whose minds could be milked for new innovations, earning an insignificant bonus for each patent application filed- at GE and RCA, the bonus was a mere $1 per patent. Things haven't changed all that much in over 80 years.
Seeing this play was bittersweet for me because the company that David Sarnoff created back in the 1920s is all but gone today. It's a company that I've covered as journalist steadily for almost 25 years. For a company that helped invent television, show it publicly at the World's Fair in 1939, launch Color TV in 1954, create widescreen TV in the early-to-mid 1990s, launch Satellite TV (DirecTV), and finally HDTV, the company is now no more than a 3-letter word today. Fortunately, for both Sarnoff and Farnsworth, they each passed away at age 80 in 1971
Personally, I think that anyone involved in television " on any level " should see this play as it gives us a better understanding of how this industry that we are involved with was created. Once we know that it was created by two giants of ingenuity and creativity, we might be able to get an idea of where we can go with television in the future.