Philo Farnsworth - The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of


Philo Farnsworth (August 19, 1906 – March 11, 1971) grew up on a farm in Beaver, Utah and was a technical prodigy from an early age.

In fact, as a 14-year-old farm boy, his inspiration for scanning an image as series of lines came from the back-and-forth motion used to plow a field.

He would then sketch out an idea of a vacuum tube in his Chemistry class. Neither his teacher nor fellow students knew the potential of what was being unlocked in Farnsworth’s mind.

While still in High School, he would enter Brighman Young University as a “special student”. But his father died, and he had to return home to support his family.

He would continue to tinker with the first concept of the television, and made his first successful electronic television transmission on September 7, 1927, and filed a patent for his system that same year.

Farnsworth would spend the next few decades tinkering and fighting lawsuits from larger companies looking to steal his technology. Even though he was the father of the television, he never made a lot of money on his invention. In fact, the lawsuits drained his bank accounts and left his company bankrupt.

The experience left him rather bitter. In his later years, he refused to even watch television.

Then in 1969, his wife forced him to sit and watch the moon landing on live television which was only possible due to one of his inventions. He told his wife, “This made it all worthwhile”.

Here is a beautiful 10-minute documentary, narrated by Philo’s great granddaughter:

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I continue to mention the importance of the mentor apprentice relationship in preparing oneself to master opportunities as they come around.

Here is another example related to Philo Farnsworth:

David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard, was a part of Fred Terman’s Stanford University graduate course in radio engineering in the 1930s. Terman had his students learn directly from the trailblazers of the emerging technology. Packard said:

In the 1930s Terman’s graduate course in radio engineering included visits to some of these firms. I remember visiting Kaar Engineering in Palo Alto, Eitel-McCullough in Burlingame, and Charlie Litton’s shop, which would in time become Litton Industries in Redwood City. I also went to San Francisco to meet Philo Farnsworth, who was developing a television camera tube.


Farnsworth, among others, played a vital role in inspiring and shaping David Packard and Bill Hewlett. Without those early influences, many you’ve never heard of before, Hewlett Packard might not have existed at all or as it did.

Time is often dismissive of influences, because they recede. As Bono said here:

“It’s like in evolution: there are certain pure situations that hang around longer, but the ones that got them there don’t have time to leave fossils. We have a giraffe, we have a horse. But where’s the horse with the long neck? The link species disappear.”

But don’t forget the significance of influences. Those long-lost individuals might have wonderful insights to teach us. For instance, Philo Farnsworth provided a great example on Properly Preparing Our Inner Creativity & Pattern Recognition.