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Philo Farnsworth and Green Street

by Susan Saperstein

California Landmark 941 commemorates Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s laboratory where the first television image was transmitted. The landmark plaque at the corner of Green and Sansome Streets refers to him as “The Genius of Green Street.”

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Phil Farnsworth in 1935 with a television set he invented. Photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

On September 7, 1927, in his lab at the bottom of Telegraph Hill, 21-year-old Phil Farnsworth’s invention transmitted the blurry image of a line. With his “Lab Gang,” as the researchers called themselves, he perfected the technology, in the next year transmitting shapes, and a few years later sending signals from the lab at 202 Green Street to the Merchants’ Exchange Building on Battery and Washington—8 blocks away.

Phil Farnsworth was born in 1906 in a Utah town settled by his grandfather, who had come west with Mormon Church leader Brigham Young in 1856. As a young boy, Phil was fascinated by anything related to machines and electricity. At age 13 he won a magazine contest by developing an ignition lock for Model T Fords (an idea he had because all Model T keys were identical). At 14 he drew a design for his high school chemistry teacher about his idea of an “image dissector tube,” a tube capable of shooting a stream of electrons towards a screen.

Farnsworth had a variety of jobs before the age of 21, including logging, radio repair, door-to-door sales, railroad electrician, and a short stint as an Officer Candidate at Annapolis. Shortly after leaving the Navy, he met two professional fundraisers from California. George Everson and Leslie Gorrell were impressed with Farnsworth's organizational skills and hired him to work in Southern California in their bulk mailing business. This is where both men heard about Farnsworth’s ideas of an electronic television system. They offered funding and formed a venture partnership known as Everson, Farnsworth & Gorrell.

Everson found additional financial backing from the Crocker Bank and its president, William W. Crocker (grandson of transcontinental railroad tycoon Charles Crocker). This group of investors formed the Crocker Research Laboratories and moved Farnsworth to San Francisco.

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The Sansome Street side of the Lab today. Photo courtesy of Eric Bennion.

The Lab Gang also included Farnsworth’s wife Pem and her brother Cliff Gardner. In fact, Phil often said, “My wife and I started television.” Pem said in an interview in 1980, “The Gang worked most nights, but on the weekends they would have parties. There was always lots of dancing. Phil was a marvelous dancer.” The owner of the Green Street building, Biaggio Scatena, told the Chronicle in 1977, “He was a nice boy. He was very friendly.” Scatema said Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, visited the Green Street lab.

News of the television was announced in the San Francisco Chronicle in September 1928. Around this time, a fire in the lab – with its high voltages, volatile chemicals, and vacuum tubes that could implode – destroyed equipment. They repaired the lab and started again.

Others were also trying to create television. In 1924, Charles Jenkins invented radiovision ? a mechanical scanning drum showing moving silhouettes. In 1925, Scottish engineer John Baird demonstrated mechanical transmissions of images using arrays of transparent rods. And Vladimir Zworykin, a one-time guest of the Green Street lab, in 1923 applied for a patent for his iconoscope – an electronic image scanner that was not functional until some years later.

Although it was Farnsworth who first successfully demonstrated the transmission of television signals in 1927, for ten years the two men were involved in court battles with the US Patent Office—Zworykin’s battle funded by his employer, Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

Instrumental in Phil’s case was his high school chemistry teacher’s testimony and the drawing of the image dissector tube the 14-year-old had shown him. Eventually Farnsworth won a suit against RCA entitling him to be legally called the “Father of Television.” Phil Farnsworth won 14 separate challenges to his ideas with the Patent Office, filed 86 patents while working at Green Street, and held over 300 US and foreign patents. In 1931, Philco Radio Corporation offered to fund Farnsworth’s research if he would move the lab to Philadelphia. Pem did not want to leave San Francisco, and Phil supposedly told her they would be back soon. Pem said, “Our hearts were always in the West.”

After leaving S.F., Phil Farnsworth was employed by various technology companies and univer-sities, and had several companies of his own. He was involved in research in the electron micro-scope, infant incubator, radar, atomic energy, and nuclear power. He was a workaholic, and his health often deteriorated from non-stop research.

Although he was widely unknown as the developer of television, Pem Farnsworth worked hard after his death in 1971 to ensure his place in history. She told one newspaper, “I used to get upset with it. But he didn't. He just said, ‘Historians will take care of that.’” In 2002, the Emmy Awards of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognized Philo T. Farnsworth as “the inventor of electric television.” Pem Farnsworth accepted the award for her husband.

Sources: SF Progress, June 25, 1982 San Francisco Focus, September 1980 San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 1977

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