THE LAST LONE INVENTOR: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television

Evan I. Schwartz, Author . HarperCollins $24.95 (336p) ISBN 0-06-621069-0

For pop history chroniclers, the story of Philo T. Farnsworth is almost too good to be true. He conceived the idea of the television tube at age 14 in 1921, was quashed by David Sarnoff's RCA and died embittered, forgotten and with only a microscopic fraction of the wealth that the device generated for others. Schwartz (Digital Darwinism) sticks closely to this version of events, but the slant is justified. While there are other contenders to the title of "Father of Television," Schwartz's cogent and elegant book persuasively argues Farnsworth's case and describes the heartbreak that defined his life. As Schwartz notes, Farnsworth "wholly underestimated what he was up against," i.e., corporate-controlled innovation. Patent law is at the heart of the book, as it both afforded Farnsworth his crack at immortality and provided RCA with myriad legalistic stratagems to expand its monopoly. A number of patent rulings went in Farnsworth's favor, but that made remarkably little difference to RCA's eventual control of the medium. Despite his technology background, Schwartz is more comfortable describing the historical context and legal and PR aspects than he is delving into the science of TV. The arc of the narrative is necessarily predictable, as Farnsworth's anonymity provides the book's raison d'être. Given his adversary, Farnsworth's naïveté and some horrendous luck made his defeat virtually inevitable. Apparently intent on distorting the historical record to craft his own image for posterity, Sarnoff may one day be remembered—thanks in part to books like this—primarily as the executive who crushed Farnsworth. B&w photos. Agent, Elyse Cheney. (May)

Forecast:A Farnsworth revival seems to be underway, with Daniel Stashower's The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television (Forecasts, Mar. 11), Donald G. Godfrey's Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television (2001) and a Farnsworth appearance in Glen David Gold's novel Carter Beats the Devil last year. Perhaps due to the similarity of source material, there is little to differentiate the Schwartz and Stashower books—there's scarcely an anecdote that doesn't appear in both. Miramax owns the rights to the Schwartz; since competition with the Stashower book could adversely affect both, long-term prospects might be more hopeful than any immediate impact.

Reviewed on: 04/29/2002
Release date: 05/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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