This Week in Patent History: 26-Aug-1930

This Week in Patent History: 26-Aug-1930

“This Week in Patent History” reminds us that inventors invent all around us every day by highlighting events over the years – This week: 26-Aug-1930.  Mary Bellis’ monthly calendars (Famous Inventions and Birthdays) inspired us (  Information and images for the selected event are taken from the web, especially Wikipedia (

Our first “This Week in Patent History” post (26-Aug-1930) salutes an invention found and used in every home.

Who is Philo T. Farnsworth?

Born August 19, 1906, Philo T. Farnsworth spent his teen years on the family ranch near Rigby Idaho.  A generator supplied his house with electricity for lights and farm equipment.  Philo was mechanically minded and soon took care of  and repaired the generator.  Always tinkering, he turned his mother’s hand-powered washing machine to an electrically driven one. He also invented a magnetized car lock.

The back-and-forth path when plowing a field inspired his concept for scanning images as series of lines.  At 14, he started working on an electronic television based on this concept.  He gave his high school science teacher several sketches  of it.

Philo T. Farnsworth Inventor of the Television - This Week in Patent History - August 20, 1930

Philo T. Farnsworth (wikipedia)

Philo and his family moved to Provo, Utah when he was 17.  His father died the next year and Philo cared for the family while in high school.  He applied to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, getting in with the second highest test score.  He left because  the navy would own his patents if he stayed in the military.  Farnsworth obtained an honourable discharge as the oldest son of a fatherless family.

Philo studied at Brigham Young University and later started a radio repair business in Salt Lake City.  It failed but he stayed in Salt Lake City.  Soon after, two San Fransisco investors backed Farnsworth’s TV research, in Los Angeles and later, in San Fransisco.

The electronic television

Patent History 26-Aug-1930 Philo Farnsworth invents the TV

Most TVs at the time had a mechanical scanner with spinning disks.  The disks had spiral hole patterns that swept across images in short arcs.  Photosensive material captured light from the image, producing an electrical signal corresponding to the light intensity.

Farnsworth wanted to use an all-electronic scanning system, believing that the old systems had speed limitations.

On September 27, 1927, his “image dissector” camera tube sent an image to another room of his lab. The image was of a straight line on a glass slide, backlit by an arc lamp.  Philo is said to have told his lab assistants, “There you are — electronic television!”  He was only 21.  Farnsworth showed the press his system on September 3, 1928, using a dollar sign image.  By 1929, Farnsworth had gotten rid of the last mechanical part, a motor-generator, from his TV.  He also sent the first images of a live person, his wife, that same year.

US Patent No. 1,773,980 “Television System” and 1,773,981 “Television Receiving System”

Philo had met with a patent attorney shortly after coming to California.  He filed a patent application for the first fully-functional all-electronic image pickup device (video camera tube) on January 7, 1927.  The patent issued on August 26, 1930 as US Patent No. 1,773,980.  He also filed an application the same day for a television receiving system.  It too issued on August 26, 1930 as US Patent No. 1,773,981.  26-Aug-1930 thus stands, in patent history, for the grant of the first modern TV system patents.

RCA Patent Battles

In 1930, RCA hired Vladimir Zworykin, a Westinghouse engineer, to lead its television group.  While at Westinghouse, Zworykin had visited Farnsworth and got several copies of Philo’s device for experimentation. The two developed electronic TV systems in different ways.

RCA and Zworykin started several patent suits against Farnsworth, based on Zworykin’s patents.  They were mostly unsuccessful.  Philo used one of his 1922 sketches to his Idaho school teacher as evidence in one of these suits.

In 1931, RCA offered to buy Farnsworth’s patents for $100,000 (now worth $1,688,000) and to join RCA.  Philo refused, joining the Philco company in Philadelphia until 1933.  Philo later formed the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1938.  ITT purchased this company in 1951.

Some of Philo’s “image dissector” TV cameras broadcast the 1936 Olympic Games from Germany.

In September, 1939, RCA agreed to a licensing agreement with Farnsworth for his television system patent.  It was worth $1,000,000 (now worth $18,460,000).  This allowed RCA to publicly sell electronic TV cameras.  RCA had already shown them at the New York World’s Fair on April 20, 1939.

Other Television Patents

Patent History: 26-Aug-1930 Television System Patents

In addition to the television (and receiving) system patents, Farnsworth got patents for:

Farnsworth had the first fully-functional and complete all-electronic TV system.  He developed a TV system complete with camera and receiver.

Other Farnsworth Inventions

In addition to his work on TVs, Farnsworth invented:

He also contributed to the development of:


Patent History: 26-Aug-1930 the legacies of Philo Farnsworth's invention of the TV

Farnsworth’s TV camera and other TV inventions paved the way for widespread use of TV technology. TV screens are now found in homes, offices and even shopping malls around the world.

Farnsworth’s wife once said that he was unsure about the value of his TV invention.  This uncertainty ended when he saw the televised image of man walking on the moon in July 1969.

Farnsworth died in 1971, holding 300 US and foreign patents, including by his count, 165 US TV patents.  The  National Inventor’s Hall of Fame inducted him in 1984.

In 1999, Time Magazine included Philo Farnsworth into the “Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century”

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