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Farnsworth Film To Show Dark Chapter Of RCA

I recently read in Variety, one of TWICE’s sister publications, that New Line Cinema plans to make a movie based on the life of Philo T. Farnsworth, with emphasis on his patent fight with RCA and its founding head David Sarnoff.

In 1927, while still a country boy, Farnsworth pieced together a complete experimental TV system, including a camera tube, and while it was very primitive, it worked and earned him patent rights. Meanwhile, at RCA Labs, scientist Vladimir Zworkin perfected in 1933 a camera tube using technology for which Farnsworth was granted a patent 10 years earlier.

When Farnsworth approached RCA with his patents, Sarnoff refused to sign on. He put his battery of lawyers on the case, and while Farnsworth won both the first and final rounds, RCA dragged the suit through appeals for years before finally giving up. But almost right after RCA acquired a Farnsworth license, World War II broke out. TV production was halted, and volume production wouldn’t begin until 1949, by which time Farnsworth’s patents had expired.

That left RCA free to become the TV manufacturing and broadcasting leader, and while Sarnoff and Zworkin were being hailed as the fathers of a great new industry, Farnsworth, depressed and alcohol dependent, withdrew to a home in Maine where he lived in obscurity until his death in 1971.

While the driving force behind the development of both the Radio and Television Ages, Sarnoff was equally obsessive about ensuring RCA’s role as the home entertainment technology leader and protecting its dominating patent position. Quoted as having said “We don’t pay royalties, we collect them,” Sarnoff was without mercy when it came to beating down those he deemed challengers.

Perhaps the strongest example of this was his treatment of Edwin Armstrong, an inventor who already had licensed patents to RCA. The two were friends, and through Sarnoff, Armstrong was introduced to Sarnoff’s secretary Marion, and he later married her. Armstrong’s big mistake was to invent FM radio and strongly promote it at a time when Sarnoff wanted the industry to focus on the development of television.

TV and FM arrived as commercial products at about the same time in the late 1930’s, and while both were on the market in 1941, the outbreak of war brought production to a halt. Perhaps in a bid to avoid conflict with a friend of more than 25 years, Sarnoff had offered to buy Armstrong’s patents outright, but was refused.

In 1945, as the war was ending, Sarnoff led a group of radio makers in petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to move the FM band from its 44MHz to 50 MHz location to its present 88MHz to 108 MHz bandwidth, citing the possibility of “ionospheric interference.” When the FCC went along, all the FM radios and transmitters then in use became obsolete. That setback essentially kept FM radio out of the market for more than three years, the critical launch years for TV. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973, almost 30 years later, that FM-inclusive radios made up more than half of industry unit sales.

RCA however did build AM-FM radios and of course used FM as the audio for TV, but without paying royalties to Armstrong. Armstrong sued RCA in 1949 and found himself in a legal quagmire. As it did with Farnsworth, RCA had Armstrong submerged in technicalities, and when he appeared as a witness, RCA’s lawyers grilled him on the stand for a full year. RCA contended Armstrong’s patents were invalid, and Sarnoff himself claimed that FM actually was invented by RCA Labs with no outside help.

By 1953 Armstrong’s patents had all expired and his action against RCA for past infringement was still unresolved. Despondent and nearly bankrupt, Armstrong faced yet another blow in November when, after a bitter argument, Marion left him. Just two months later Armstrong, believing that FM was a market failure, donned his hat and coat and stepped out of a window of his 13th floor apartment.