Before Farnsworth, there were various types of mechanical TV that used spinning disks (Nipkow disks) and electrical transmitters, none of which ever gained traction. John Logie Baird invented the most widely known mechanical TV.

Electrical Television

Farnsworth had a small group of innovators, who invested $25,000. They eventually told him to give up so he and his team ー he was self-taught, but his co-innovators were from top schools, including MIT ー worked for free. On Sept. 7, 1927, they managed to televise movement of a single line. They followed up by televising movies a mile. Their lab was in LA.

Farnsworth invented electronic television and filed for a patent Jan. 7, 1927. Farnsworth received two patents in Aug. 1930, one for the camera and another for the receiver.

Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin was working for RCA bigwig David Sarnoff (see Armstrong) on the east coast. Farnsworth had an initial investment of $100,000 and virtually unlimited future funding. Eventually, Zworkin requested a visit to Farnsworth’s lab.

RCA Steals Farnsworth’s Technology

Farnsworth’s motives for allowing them in were unclear; historians speculate they thought Zworkin and RCA (or Westinghouse, his prior employer) would license his technology and patents rather than insist on buying the company. Significantly, Farnsworth did not want to sell his company. In April 1931, Sarnoff visited Farnsworth’ lab.

Notwithstanding no real IP, Zworkin had filed a patent in 1923 for an unfinished television. Eventually, in 1935, patent examiners declared Zworykin’s application did not describe a workable innovation leaving Farnsworth the sole patent holder for television.

Indeed, Sarnoff didn’t care and simply ignored the patents. Eventually, WWII eventually started and no television sets were sold. After the war, RCA licensed the patents for $1 million plus a royalty, though the patents were close to expiration. Farnsworth, the innovator of television, never made money from television and died, poor, in 1971.