Paul Schatzkin: The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story Of Inspiration, Persistence And Quiet Passion

Paul Schatzkin: The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story Of Inspiration, Persistence And Quiet Passion

Almost from the moment radio hit the mass market, science-fiction writers and cultural theoreticians were promising the imminent arrival of "radio with pictures," even though nobody had the slightest inkling of how to accomplish it. In the early '20s, Utah farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth read about the race to invent television in popular science magazines that described the nascent technology, which used spinning shutter wheels to produce flickering still pictures. One day, while plowing a field, Farnsworth envisioned an electronic scanner that could break down an image line by line for transmission. A poor high-school student at the time, Farnsworth kept his idea simmering until, by the end of the decade, he found investors willing to bankroll a project that existed only as sketches and hypotheses inspired by Einstein's relativity theories. Paul Schatzkin's book The Boy Who Invented Television covers the unnecessarily difficult process Farnsworth used to make his scheme work. The hunch that struck him as a teenager turned out to be fundamentally correct, but he needed to build the necessary tubes and tools from scratch, and he had to maintain the morale of his backers, who continued to pour money into a medium that would require far more infrastructure than they had anticipated. Then came the Depression and WWII—both of which cost the fledgling technology time and resources—and a well-funded challenge from RCA, whose president was adamant about leaving a legacy as "the father of television," and who had always proved willing to litigate his way into ownership of patents he didn't earn. The Boy Who Invented Television is flatly written and somewhat repetitive, and it tails off toward the end, after Farnsworth ends his association with television and makes an ill-documented run at developing cold fusion. But Schatzkin's exhaustive research is impressive, and he has a purposeful sense of structure, which pushes the Farnsworth story toward one inevitable, all-but-irrefutable conclusion. The author paints his subject as a visionary who was bored with the nuts and bolts of manufacturing, and who preferred to brainstorm, leaving the fine-tuning to others. For money to realize his ideas, though, Farnsworth had to work in the newly developed American corporate system, which was geared toward short-term returns and creation by committee. By the time Farnsworth was ready to pursue his other bright ideas, he was exhausted by the routine of translating his brilliance into bankable products.

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