The Polemical life of a man for whom all was worthwhile  

By Iride Aparicio

Photos by: Joyce Goldschmid

DOMINIC FALLETTI as Farnsworth & MICHAEL SALLY as Sarnoff (standing)

DOMINIC FALLETTI as Farnsworth & MICHAEL SALLY as Sarnoff (standing) 


PALO ALTO, CA -- Who was PHILO T.  FARNSWORTH? During his life, he was a controversial inventor. He died in 1971 and 43 years later, a play based on his life, is causing controversies.

FANSWORTH, was an American inventor whose mind could be compared to the mind of THOMAS EDISON. Yet the man, who the Courts declared “The sole and only inventor of  the first functional electronic television system,” has been neglected and even forgotten for years. 
AARON SORKIN, Academy Award and Emmy Award winner American Screenwriter, Producer and Playwright, wrote a script based on the inventor’s life. On April 29, 2004. NEW LINE CINEMA, an independent film studio in Hollywood, announced to the press that they had acquired  the script with the name of THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION. There were no further announcements until  a year later, when it was announced to the press, again, that SORKIN was adapting his screenplay for the stage. The play debuted in The Abbey Theatre, in Dublin Ireland, and later in the in LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE in San Diego California on February 20, 2007. The play debuted on Broadway at the MUSIC BOX THEATRE in December 3 of the same year.    

To give Silicon Valley’s theatre goers a play that is both technical and entertaining, The Palo Alto Players brought THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION their city this year, where is being presented until June 29th, at the LUCILLE STERN THEATER in Palo Alto.

“The story you are about to see is true. Mostly,” writes the play’s Director DAVE SIKULA, in the play’s  program. “With some minor exceptions – and one major exception—everything you are about to see happened. That’s the most remarkable thing about this play. The way AARON SORKIN managed to take a complex true story with lots of turns and tangents, and make it a coherent and gripping American story.

The play is acted by fifteen actors playing different roles. The action, like in a movie script, moves seamlessly from scene to scene. The scenes are short and they change often. They move fast. The dialogue sounds natural, like a conversation of people talking with each. Most sentences are  short. At times, the subject of the conversations gets technical and use technical  names, and technical language, to describe the technical subjects, some of them shown in projections (The video projections were provided by GEORGE MAURO).  The acting is good, the overall characterization of the actors is masterful.

The play relates two stories. One is the story of an American Mormon 14 years old boy by the name of  Philo Farnsworth, (DOMINIC FALLETTI)  with little formal education and mostly self educated in Electronics. The other story is the story of a Russian boy, David Sarnoff (MICHAEL SALLY) who came to American as a boy, and after working in the telegraph and radio company for years, his  knowledge helped him climb the corporate ladder to the top. He became the president of RCA.  

The play starts with SALLY as narrator, addressing the audience. He gives us his name, David Sarnoff, and explains to us that the only reason we can see him is because the light is reflecting off, of him, and light bounces.

He then says that “The ends do justify the means and that’s what means are for” a sort of foreboding phrase that the audience won’t understand until the end of the play. His monologue takes us back to the year 1921, when the only people thinking about electrons were the writers of comic books and their readers, one of them a 14 years old boy from Indian Creek Utah, the older of five children in a Mormon family, Philo Farnsworth. While riding a three-disk plow pulled by a mule that made three parallel lines in the in the potato field in Rigby Idaho, where the family had moved, Philo observed that looking from the distance, all the individual  lines of potatoes were forming a picture. He wanted to send pictures over the airwaves, like the sound in radios, so, while looking at the tracks left by carriage, he imagined tiny electrons traveling in a line creating a a motion picture.  

l-r TOM CALDECOT as teacher and FALLETTI as Farnsworth  
            l-r TOM CALDECOT as teacher and FALLETTI as Farnsworth

The next day at school Philo asked his 9th grade science teacher. “When light hits photoelectric material (material produced by light) it releases a spray of electrons (elementary particles of negative charge found outside the nucleus of the atom) right? And as his teacher stared at him astonished, Farnsworth continued: Photoelectric material, like Selenium, releases a spray of electrons when light hits it, but a Cathode ray (an stream of electrons projected by a Cathode, (The electron emitting electrode in an electron tube) it does essentially the opposite, right? It takes invisible electrons and makes them glow?”

At age 14, Philo had already discovered the principle of television. How he managed to put it together, was later explained in the play in short conversations and in more detail.

During the performance, we see Philo grow up, fall in love, get married become a father and continue working on his invention. A gadget capable of sendomg images by the airwaves to a camera that could captured those images and transmit them to a receiving station which could distribute them, via the airwaves, to the  television sets.   

The play shows the audience  those people who encourage his idea: his wife Pem (JENNIFER GREGOIRE) Cliff Gardner (JONATHAN FERRO)  his brother in law, financiers Leslie Gorrell (CHARLES EVANS) George Everson (GARY MOSHER) and Banker William Crocker (FRANK SWARINGEN). And “Corporate America”  those big institutions like RCA who were trying to develop the same system, but did not know how to project the image. Two of them were David Sarnoff (SALLY) and a Russian electronic Engineer, Vladimir Zworykin (CHARLES EVANS).


L-R Vick Prosak,  David Sarnoff, Tom Caldecott and Vladimir Zworykin
      L-R Vick Prosak,  David Sarnoff, Tom Caldecott and Vladimir Zworykin  

With happy and sad scenes and plenty of intrigue: Court appearances and copyrights’disclaimers. The the life of FARNSWORTH keeps the audience twisting their fingers on their seats wondering what would happen next.

By now, Philo is getting tired. His TV  image needs too much light to be transmitted. On his part, Zworkin who was working for RCA, was getting discouraged with his experiment. The Financiers were putting pressure on Philo to show them his invention and Philo was beginning to drink too much. The play implies that the reason why he invited Zworkin to his laboratory was that he was drunk. People who claim to know the “real” story denied that. The play has created a controversial because of details like this, and specially for its ending, that was not the ending of Philo’s life’s story. If the play is not biographical, all one can say is that people ought to remember  that plays are work of  art, not documentaries,

At the end, the plays  gives  Farnsworth the credit for inventing the first fully functional all-electronic image pickup device, known as the camera tube or image dissector (a gadget that separate images) and the first fully functional and complete all electronic TV system, as it happened in real life.

Left Standing, FALLETTI as Philo with members of the cast
            Left Standing, FALLETTI as Philo with members of the cast

But it does something else, it makes the audience aware that the electronic genius was a man who laughed and suffered like any other individual. He held 165 patents in radio and television, but experience depression. He worked very hard all his life. As an inventor, he had failures and triumphs. He experienced backstabbing from those he trusted and his ideas were stolen. During his life, he fought many court battles. He gave up, at times, but he continued inventing, this time: Nuclear Fusion, until the day he died.

FARNSWORTH never became wealthy for his inventions, but the video Camera Tube that evolved from the combined work of Farnsworth and Zworykin and many others was used in all television cameras until the late 20th century.

How did the real FARNSWORTH see his life in retrospective?  According to his bio, in l996, in a video-taped interview by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science, Elma Farnsworth, his sister, give us the answer when she tells the interviewer that on July 20, l969,  when Philo saw  NEIL ARMSTRONG walking on the moon, on television, in real time, being (probably)watched by millions of viewers around the world, he said to her: “This has make it all worthwhile”