the invention of television -- 12/07/17

Today's encore selection -- from Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. The invention of the television:

"The story of television begins -- like any good American success story should -- with a birth in a log cabin.

"More precisely, it begins in a log cabin near Beaver, Utah, where Philo Taylor Farnsworth -- or Phil, as nearly everyone would call him -- was born on August 19, 1906. A precocious child, everyone around him was certain Phil was a genius -- and he didn't disappoint. In 1919, at age thirteen, Phil invented a burglarproof ignition switch for automobiles, earning him an award from Science and Invention magazine. At seventeen, he entered Brigham Young University, spe­cializing in chemistry and electronics. By age twenty, he was running his own business.

"But it was an idea that came to him at age fourteen -- allegedly with one of those remarkable Eureka! moments that are probably too good a story to be entirely true -- that would ensure Phil a place in the pantheons of both popular culture and history. In 1920, while tilling a potato field in a monotonous back and forth pattern with his horse-drawn plow, Phil imagined that an electron beam might scan an image in exactly the same way, moving across the image line-­by-line.

Philo Farnsworth adjusting television camera

"He was right -- and on September 7, 1927, in a makeshift labora­tory in a San Francisco loft, Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the world's first electronic television image: a straight white line scratched into a piece of black-painted glass. When the glass slide was slowly rotated ninety degrees, so, too, did the image on the screen. 'There you are,' Farnsworth said with typical aplomb, 'electronic televi­sion.'

"Farnsworth would become increasingly irritated with his best­-known invention over the next twenty years -- he even prohibited his own family from watching it -- but his annoyance was definitely not shared by an eager viewing public. Even with little on television to watch in 1950, such scant fare had little effect on the public's enthu­siasm for the remarkable machine. As one historian later put it, 'the simultaneity of television overrode all defects; when people could see things happening far away, they couldn't get over the wonder of it.' ...

"A relatively new and rare commodity ­in 1948, there were an estimated 350,000 television sets in use, com­pared with 66 million radios -- televisions were expensive. In 1950, a sixteen-inch black-and-white television -- like the boxy Admiral, with an 'Automatic Picture Lock-In' guaranteed to 'bring you steady, clear reception even in hard to reach areas' -- would set a family back $250, the equivalent of about $2,000 today. Fancier tele­visions with footed cabinets or, for the big money, those with a radio and record player built in, could run as much as $399, about $3,500 today."



Brian Jay Jones


Jim Henson: The Biography


Ballantine Books


Copyright 2013 by Brian Jay Jones


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