Analog Angle Article

Philo Farnsworth on Broadway!

I almost fell off the chair, figuratively, when I read that a play was coming to Broadway about Philo Farnsworth and his battle with David Sarnoff and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) over patents for standard analog television (“Aaron Sorkin's Farnsworth Invention to open on Broadway in November,” Playbill, June 21, 2007, click here). Self-taught Farnsworth was a key innovator and contributor to the invention of TV; he was in high school when he came up with the 2D-to-serial raster-scan concept we now use automatically, among his other TV advances.

I think it's great that the non-tech world would highlight someone like Farnsworth in a Broadway play, where the public at large can get a glimpse into the technical and business challenges of a major inventor. Farnsworth's struggles in both areas are well documented, for example in “Tube: The Invention of Television” by David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher).

But I hope the play (which I will hopefully convince my boss to send me to see, at company expense) will be more than a good/bad, one-sided tale of the lone pioneer against the big, bad corporation. The full story of the TV's development is complex and took considerable corporate resources to make into reality, especially in those days of vacuum tubes. RCA, driven by Sarnoff, played an important role in making TV a mass product.

The technical and production obstacles were enormous, aggravated by the fact that the topology and components for transmit side are very different than those for the receive side; thus, the end-to-end challenge is formidable. Yet you need both ends for a functioning system, and you can't even validate one without the other.

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