Potatoes aren’t the only thing to spring from the fields of southeastern Idaho. In 1921, a brilliant young engineer had a “Eureka” moment that forever changed the world. While working on the family farm in Rigby, Philo Farnsworth figured out the principle of the image dissector, leading to his invention of the electronic television. He was fourteen years old at the time.
The only son of a humble Idaho farming family, the future genius showed engineering prowess at an early age, repairing generators and charging his mom’s old hand-powered washing machine with an electric current. Young Philo was fascinated by electricity (a novel innovation in rural 1920s Idaho) and spent his time brainstorming its possible uses. One day while working in the field and contemplating the even, wavy rows of dirt, he realized how light waves could be manipulated into a series of lines to display images.
Excited, Philo ran down to the schoolhouse and drew a diagram on the chalkboard for his science teacher. It was the first sketch of a television device and although the teacher likely couldn’t understand a bit of it, he encouraged the boy to continue developing his idea. Philo did so, and in 1928 was ready to demonstrate the world’s first all-electronic television system to the press.
Philo’s innovations weren’t limited to the world of TV — he would go on to invent the baby incubator, and make essential contributions to radar, the electron microscope and infrared glasses. It’s surprising that the Mormon farm boy from Idaho never became a household name; he certainly deserves to be. TIME Magazine, in fact, named him as one of the most important people of the century.
We visited a museum dedicated to the young scientist in his hometown of Rigby, where we saw some of the original models of his television, read about his life, and gave ourselves headaches by trying to figure out his scientific diagrams. We also learned the story of how the RCA Corporation (which became NBC) first tried to hire Philo, and then shamelessly attempted to steal his invention as their own. The ensuing years of court cases and patent fights threatened Philo’s mental well-being, and even his place in history.
It’s baffling how unknown Philo Farnsworth is. We’re a country that regularly puts individual genius on a pedestal; consider the almost embarrassing fawning over Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But here’s this kid who invents our favorite device ever and nobody knows his name. It’s something that should be corrected. Philo’s story is fascinating, and the chance to learn about his life is definitely worth a side-trip to Rigby.