Then, on the evening of May 30, 1930, the Department of Justice served Sarnoff with a summons, interrupting a black-tie dinner at which the newly promoted RCA president was an honored guest. The charges: RCA was using its patent portfolio to restrain competition. Government antitrust action against RCA would drag on for almost three decades, sparking patent disputes, endless hearings and standards battles. There were also critical compromises, including a 1932 consent decree in which GE and Westinghouse agreed to sever all ties to RCA-a remedy Sarnoff privately favored. And the case led to new laws, foremost the 1934 act launching the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But technology catapulted at such a terrific pace that the real battle was never fought in the federal arena, but in the marketplace.
In the marketplace, Sarnoff was already becoming less focused on his radio monopoly than on his attempt to extend it to the new frontier of transmitting moving pictures through the air. He only saw one major obstacle in his way: a Mormon farm boy named Philo T. Farnsworth. Born in 1906 in a Utah log cabin without electricity or a telephone, Farnsworth at age 6 declared his intention to become an inventor like his heroes Bell and Edison. The kid taught himself physics, studying Einstein’s theories and reading borrowed science books and magazines late into the night. As a teenager, he worked part time repairing radios and thought constantly about the properties of something known as the electron.
From his reading, Farnsworth knew that several inventors had achieved limited success with a mechanical television system, transmitting images along a wire between two spinning disks with spiral rows of holes to pick up patterns of light at one end and project them at the other. But he figured, correctly, that such a setup wouldn’t work fast enough to capture and reassemble anything but shadows and flickers.
According to surviving relatives, Farnsworth dreamed up his own idea for electronic-rather than mechanical-television while driving a horse-drawn harrow at the family’s new farm in Idaho. As he plowed a potato field in straight, parallel lines, he saw television in the furrows. He envisioned a system that would break an image into horizontal lines and reassemble those lines into a picture at the other end. Only electrons could capture, transmit and reproduce a clear moving figure. This eureka experience happened at the age of 14.
Farnsworth’s idea grew into an all-out obsession. In 1926, at age 20, he married a beautiful brunette named Elma “Pem” Gardner. The two boarded a train for California the next morning in order to be near Caltech and other centers for motion-picture sciences. They set up a makeshift television lab in the living room of their Hollywood apartment, moving a year later to an old warehouse at 202 Green St., on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. Now backed by wildcatting bankers who foreshadowed today’s Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Farnsworth was the 20th century’s skinny, pale, brilliant proto-nerd.
When he demonstrated a working model of his television in 1928 for a group of reporters, he was only able to show blurry images on a tiny screen. But the system delivered 20 pictures per second, enough to convince the eye it was looking at motion rather than a series of stills. The San Francisco Chronicle lauded the achievement under the headline: “S.F. Man’s Invention to Revolutionize Television,” and the story was picked up by wire services and papers nationwide.