TV’s inventor on TV

The inventor of television, Philo Farnsworth, had only one notable television appearance.

Harris & Ewing, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Philo T. Farnsworth came up with the idea for electronic television when he was fourteen years old. Prototype televisions of the time had moving parts (spinning discs, mirrors, and the like); Farnsworth’s idea did away with the moving parts entirely. The cathode ray tube had been around since the late 19th century; Farnsworth found a way to practically and effectively scan images so they could be projected onto the cathode ray tube.

(I mention all this because, while Farnsworth’s invention of the image dissector paved the way for a practical electronic television system, the contributions of many other inventors also made it possible.)

Farnsworth set up a lab in San Francisco and transmitted his first television image in 1927. The image in question was a straight line, just a line, but it was enough for a patent and television was on its way.

Fast forward thirty years. One of the hot shows on American television was I’ve Got a Secret. A panel of four attempted to guess the secret held by a guest; they could only ask the guest yes/no questions. Guests on I’ve Got a Secret included Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Ronald Reagan, Neil Armstrong’s parents (the same day he was selected to be an astronaut), Colonel Sanders, and the last surviving witness of the Lincoln assassination. Usually the panel picked up on the person’s identity or secret pretty quickly, but at least one guest stumped them: Farnsworth.

This would be Farnsworth’s only public appearance on his own invention. He was not a fan of particular aspects of broadcast TV, advertising in particular. (I’ve Got a Secret, by the way, was sponsored by a cigarette company. I guess because at the time cigarette companies had some really big secrets to keep?) He was introduced as Doctor X and the panel decided this meant he was involved in some kind of medical research. It perhaps didn’t help that he had a rather puckish sense of humour. When asked

Is this some kind of a machine that may be painful when it’s used?

He replied:

Yes, sometimes it’s most painful.

To a great laugh from the audience. You can see the full show here:

(Also on that same show, by the way, Buster Keaton and a man who has ten live snakes hidden on his body.)

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