The technology and culture of the Western world changed in the moment 14-year-old Philo Farnsworth began plowing his family’s Idaho potato farm. It was then, in 1920, that the teenager observed the rows of plowed field and began to envision how moving images might be transmitted: In horizontal electronic lines, then reassembled to make a recognizable picture. Though he was not the sole inventor of television, Farnsworth helped pioneer its practical use.
Despite this stature, he appeared on national television just once. And no one knew who he was.
A decade after Farnsworth’s juvenile epiphany, the inventor patented his approach to television, which used electronic rather than mechanical means of transmitting images. While far from the only mind to contribute to what would become the television, his work came at a crucial point in the 20th century.
That ingenuity also put him in the crosshairs of RCA, which claimed they held a patent on a similar concept. While the two eventually came to an agreement—RCA began marketing the first consumer TV after paying Farnsworth $1 million for his patents in 1939—he was embittered by the whole experience. Inventing was fun; the cutthroat business world was not.
Despite Farnsworth’s years of toil, it was RCA head David Zarnoff who boasted of perfecting the box that would soon be the centerpiece of American home life. Not being agreeable to corporate overtures early in his career cost Farnsworth his due credit, at least in the eyes of the American public. At the 1939 World’s Fair, it was Sarnoff taking a victory lap and introducing television to the public. Farnsworth watched nearby on a department store television.
Despite being financially secure, Farnsworth felt erased from television’s picture. He drank to excess and, at one point, committed himself to a sanitarium. Actually appearing on TV was likely the last thing on his mind.
When it finally happened in July 1957, it only reinforced the notion of Farnworth as TV’s forgotten man. The program was I’ve Got a Secret, a primetime game show in which guests answered questions from a celebrity panel who were making an effort to guess their secret.
According to Farnsworth’s widow Elma, I’ve Got a Secret and similar shows had been after Farnsworth for some time, presumably owing to his stature as one of the reasons the programs existed in the first place. “A lot of programs like What’s My Line and all these wanted him to be on television,” she said. “Actually, he had been very ill. They approached him … it just hit him right, I guess, so he agreed.”
Farnsworth was introduced as “Doctor X,” a man who invented something at age 14. While viewers and audience members were let in on his secret, panelists Bill Cullen, Jayne Meadows, Faye Emerson, and Henry Morgan were in the dark. Each peppered him with questions, including whether his invention could be painful.
“Yes, sometimes quite painful,” Farnsworth replied, which drew chuckles from the clued-in studio audience.
“It was a great experience because that night [they] had Buster Keaton on as well as a fellow that had something like 22 snakes on his person,” Elma said. “The secret they showed the audience was that he had invented television when he was 15. Of course, they addressed him as Doctor Farnsworth, so they were thinking [he was a] medical doctor.”
After a round of questioning, none of the panelists could guess Farnsworth’s secret—which shouldn’t have been much of a secret at all. In the end, the inventor was thanked and departed the show with a cash prize of $80 and a carton of Winston cigarettes. The appearance did little to improve Farnsworth’s opinion of television, which remained low through his death at the age of 65 in 1971.
I’ve Got a Secret host Garry Moore was at least deferential. “I’d be out of work if it weren’t for you,” he told Farnsworth, a sentiment that’s true of virtually everyone who has ever made a living on TV.