The rejection brought the full wrath of the mogul down on the inventor. “Sarnoff decided to break him in patent court,” says Pem Farnsworth. In other words, Sarnoff would do to Farnsworth what he did to those who had developed key radio inventions but had refused to cooperate fully with RCA. Sarnoff and his team of lawyers would launch a legal assault aimed at overturning the patents on appeal, which would tie up the inventors emotionally and financially for years. “That was RCA’s M.O. at the time,” says Kent Farnsworth.
The legal challenges to Farnsworth’s basic television-system patents lasted for nearly four years. They slowed development of television, delayed its introduction to the public, squandered the company’s already thin resources, drove Farnsworth to drink, and contributed to his developing a bleeding ulcer.
Sarnoff’s mischief didn’t end there. At the time of his visit to Green Street, Farnsworth was trying to make an end run around RCA, meeting with Philco’s senior executives on the East Coast. Philco was the largest manufacturer of radio sets in America, selling more units than RCA. But every time there was a flurry of publicity around television, its stock would drop. Investors saw television as the next big thing, and Philco wanted in. So it agreed to take out a license from the Farnsworth Company and produce TV sets-until Sarnoff stepped in.
Sarnoff and Zworykin learned of the collaboration by picking up test transmission signals from Philco headquarters, which sat just across the river from RCA’s Camden labs. Sarnoff threatened to rescind RCA’s patent licensing arrangement with Philco, according to Pem Farnsworth-just as Microsoft would, decades later, allegedly use the Windows license to keep PC makers exclusively loyal to the company. Without that license, Philco would no longer be able to produce radios legally, and its core business would be gone. So Philco was forced to break off its dealings with Farnsworth, leaving him without a major U.S. customer. That’s the Farnsworths’ version of the story, anyway; RCA naturally doesn’t admit to such foul play. “There could have been a threat [from Sarnoff to Philco],” says Magoun. “But we don’t know that.”