American Genius (2015) s01e03 Episode Script

Farnsworth vs Sarnoff: The Television

How do I look? Every age is defined by its innovations.
The greatest advances are born out of fierce struggles between rivals.
It is with a very deep sense of humility that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications, that it is bound to affect all society.
And now ladies and gentlemen, we add sight to sound.
Move, move, move! Hey! watch it kid! Television is an art that shines like a torch of hope to a troubled world.
Television is one of the most revolutionary inventions of our time.
Get away! Take it easy! But the story of its creation is the ultimate David and Goliath tale.
A decades-long battle between one of the biggest media moguls in the world and a one-time farm boy from Idaho driven to turn a childhood vision of the future into reality.
Their rivalry would bring an already rich man even more wealth and power.
And push the other to the brink of insanity.
But together they brought the world into the home.
And connected humanity like never before.
In the early 20th century, a new invention has captured the imagination of the world: a device known as, the radio.
Radio changed America.
All of a sudden, the nation can participate in a single event at the same time.
Before this if a big event occurred in Washington, people on the West Coast would hear about it hours later, days later.
Radio brings the nation together in real time in a way that had simply not been possible before.
NEW YORK CITY One man sees the potential of the budding radio industry and wants to dominate it.
Thank you.
Good morning, how are we today? Oh, Mr.
Sarnoff the lawyers are here.
Yes, they are, good for them, yes.
I don't like that title.
Change that right away, please.
Thank you.
Good morning, gentlemen.
His name is David Sarnoff.
And he's the general manager of RCA, the leading radio broadcast company in America.
Sarnoff was an ambitious and very driven man.
He wanted to climb as far in this business that he loved, as he could.
And he never let any obstacles stop him from pursuing his goals.
RCA manufactures radios, and owns over two thousand radio patents.
Sarnoff believes the patents are where the big money is to be made.
What do you see, gentlemen? I see the parts to a radio.
What I see is the technology that goes into the radio.
75 percent of all radios were sold by other companies.
That's how we make our money.
License the patents.
We turn our competitors into customers.
Every time they sell a radio, we make money.
Sarnoff was able to create power for himself and RCA by taking all the inventions in the radio world and putting them together into one asset so anyone who made a radio had to license the patents from him.
He was a genius because he saw the whole ecosystem of radio; it wasn't just a technological invention, it was an entire industry.
It's my honor to introduce tonight's main speaker.
Today, radio is a household word.
For those of us in the industry, he is not just a leader, he is radio.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you David Sarnoff of RCA.
As radio's popularity surges; RCA's profits soar.
David Sarnoff has built a media empire.
But nearly two thousand miles away, a teenage farm boy is formulating an idea that could make radio obsolete.
Schemes to create tele-vision are not new.
Though every previous attempt has failed as the greatest minds in history have tried to perfect this technology.
Fourteen-year-old Philo Farnsworth has a knack for electronics, but he is also a dreamer.
Philo Farnsworth was the son of a potato farmer.
He was shy and withdrawn, but he had some kind of inner drive.
He was always tinkering with Crystal radio sets.
And he was looking up to the heroes of the age like Edison, Tesla, Ford, The Wright brothers.
Farnsworth dreams of adding moving images to the radio, by capturing a picture electronically, as a microphone does with sound.
But he can't figure out how to make his dream a reality.
Until inspiration comes from an unlikely place, the plow lines of his father's field.
Farnsworth had a natural talent for science and it suddenly occurs to him that it would be possible to build a device that would scan an image line by line the same way your eye scans the pages of a book.
RIGBY HIGH SCHOOL RIGBY, IDAHO Farnsworth's inspiration soon turns to an obsession.
Between school work and farm work, the teenager refines his idea: a device that could electronically scan an image dozens of times per second, then transmit that picture across the airwaves, at the speed of light.
Time doesn't exist when you're creating.
Twenty-four hours feels like an hour, and the next thing you know a whole day has passed.
That's creativity.
Nothing else matters.
You're the only person I know who might understand this idea.
Farnsworth shares his idea with his high school science teacher, Justin Tolman.
You came up with this yourself? Yes.
It was unbelievable to a man of science like Justin Tolman that a kid would have this miraculous breakthrough that scientists around the world hadn't conceived of.
Be careful who you trust with this.
For the next four years, Farnsworth fine tunes his design.
FOUR YEARS LATER Leaving Idaho, and relocating to California with his new wife, Pem, Farnsworth sets up a small laboratory, determined to make his dream a reality.
It sends images through the air without wires and it's called television.
In a stroke of good fortune, the Crocker family, one of the original investors in the transcontinental railroad, gets wind of Farnsworth's idea, and wants to invest.
$25,000 and 60 percent share.
But I only asked for a 49 percent share.
$25,000 for 60.
It was a difficult decision that he had to face, which was: I need to raise money to build my television to get it out into the world.
And the only thing he could do was give up partial ownership of his baby.
The investment is enough for Farnsworth to jump start a small lab, and build a prototype of his television.
It takes an entrepreneur and perhaps a team of people that get behind an idea and push it and push it.
They pushed to get the capital to fund it.
They push against competition that wants to crush it.
Ok, this should do it.
All right, Cliff.
Let's get that curtain shut.
Farnsworth is ready to put his prototype to the test and glimpse the future.
All right, hit it! Gotta get something here.
Hold on.
Ok, try now.
Still not seeing anything.
Shut it down.
Farnsworth's first attempt is a failure, and his dream of creating a working television hangs in the balance.
In less than 10 years, David Sarnoff has built RCA into a radio empire.
But in San Francisco, a young inventor named Philo Farnsworth has built a prototype of a television, a machine that could crush radio's supremacy.
There's just one problem.
It doesn't work.
Farnsworth needed a way for the negatively charged electrons that got shot across the cathode ray tube to stick to the surface of the screen.
Positive and negative, opposites they attract, so the coating needs to be the most positive element.
Farnsworth focused finally on Cesium, which was the most photopositive element he could find.
And that was really a big part of the breakthrough that made television work.
With his design reconfigured, Farnsworth is ready to show his investors, exactly what they've been waiting for.
Gentlemen, now you asked me when you would see dollar signs in this gadget.
Cliff? Look right here.
It says something about Farnsworth's conviction and the force of his personality that he was able to get this up and running.
One of his investors said: The ideas in this boy's head will astonish the world.
This is going to make us a fortune.
We just have to pick the right time to sell.
Sell? Let's just see what kind of offers we can get.
Farnsworth said, No, no, no.
I'm an inventor.
I'm gonna use the money from licensing the patents to create more inventions and refine the invention.
He wanted to be in control of it.
He wanted to be the Edison of television.
Farnsworth needs to convince his investors that they'll make more money if they hold onto his invention.
Why don't we invite the newspapers, hmm? A demonstration.
Farnsworth called a press conference and the San Francisco Chronicle came and snapped a photo of this young genius and his amazing light machine.
While Farnsworth applies for a patent, the news of his television quickly spreads throughout the country Thank you Diana.
and lands on the desk of David Sarnoff.
Sarnoff's reaction was a little bit of panic because he was the radio monopoly.
And in one sense television could disrupt the market for radios.
People might stop buying radios if they read that in the near future I could see pictures on this thing.
If Sarnoff can patent television first, then RCA could own this new technology, just like they do radio.
He had a very keen awareness of how important it was and how much power having a patent could give you in shaping the course of future technological development.
But to compete with a mind like Philo Farnsworth, Sarnoff will need someone equally as brilliant.
And he finds his man in Vladimir Zworykin.
Zworykin was a Russian engineer who was working at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh who had early designs on electronic television as well.
Zworykin has filed for patents on his own electronic television system.
But he hasn't been able to produce a design that works.
Here it will capture the image and send it wirelessly.
Sarnoff offers Zworykin four times the budget of Farnsworth to bring television to life.
David Sarnoff knew that television had to be invented at RCA and he needed to take credit for the invention, whatever the cost.
The race to invent television has begun.
This is gonna make us a fortune.
In the late 1920's, television is on the cusp of becoming a reality.
And radio giant David Sarnoff wants this new technology under the control of RCA.
But by August 1930, Philo Farnsworth is already way ahead of him.
Three years earlier, the young inventor submitted a patent for his design.
And finally it's been approved.
According to the United States government, Philo Farnsworth is the inventor of electronic television.
His patents will last for seventeen years, and now, he's in reach of his ultimate goal, a television in every American home, with the Farnsworth name on it.
Is that it? David Sarnoff has spent one hundred thousand dollars to recruit Vladimir Zworykin, to develop a television for RCA.
Well, we just need a way to figure out a way to keep the negative charge from building up on the screen.
In other words, his works and ours doesn't.
Sarnoff refuses to be beaten to the most important invention of the 20th century, so he makes a bold move to put television at the forefront of RCA.
It's impossible to boil David Sarnoff down to one thing.
He's either a corporate visionary or the most ruthless robber baron you can possibly imagine.
Despite the fact that Farnsworth owns the patent, Sarnoff announces that RCA will invest one million dollars in developing a television.
David Sarnoff thought that if he couldn't buy up a patent outright, he would steal it.
And if he couldn't steal it, he would find a way to delay progress to give his own team time to do the same thing in a different way.
To his way of thinking that was how the game was played.
Farnsworth can see the race is heating up, and if he wants to compete, he has to move fast.
Farnsworth faced a choice.
Either he could raise massive amounts of capital and begin manufacturing television sets himself.
Or he could license his patents and begin working with a radio company that knew how to manufacture this kind of equipment.
In an effort to get his television to market before RCA, Farnsworth turns to a Philadelphia based radio manufacturer called Philco.
But just when Farnsworth is starting to make progress, he is blindsided by the power of David Sarnoff.
Philco, like almost every other radio manufacturer, has to license radio patents from RCA.
Would you look at the numbers? And when David Sarnoff learns of their television partnership with Farnsworth, he decides to flex all of his muscle.
What Sarnoff ends up doing essentially is pressure Philco to get out of television by saying if you keep working with Farnsworth, we will stop allowing you to use RCA's radio patents.
Philo? Philco's backing out.
What? Sarnoff's aggressive tactics have backed Farnsworth into a corner.
If Farnsworth is going to win, he'll have to find a way to strike back.
We're going to sue him.
Philo.
David Sarnoff has blocked Philo Farnsworth from manufacturing his television.
But Farnsworth isn't backing down.
Now, in a bold move, the young inventor will meet Vladimir Zworykin, and the best lawyers RCA's money can buy in court to determine who the invention of television really belongs to.
WASHINGTON, DC JANUARY 18, 1933 Was television invented by Mr.
Zworykin, working with brilliant minds in the world's finest research facility? Or was it invented by a 15-year-old farm boy? RCA mobilized the strength of its full legal department.
And they had some of the best lawyers in the country.
Farnsworth had what he felt was the right on his side.
The case rests on who had a design for a working television first.
Vladimir Zworykin filed his patent in 1923 while Farnsworth submitted in 1927, four years later.
If RCA can prove Zworykin's original design was functional, Farnsworth could lose everything.
The question at stake was who described in their patent applications a working television system first? And this was pretty hard to figure out.
So they had to hash all this out in patent court.
Technical experts had to go through all the evidence.
It is our belief that if this court is able to answer this question successfully by laying out an accurate chronology they will have no choice but to find for my client.
The hearing drags on for fifteen bruising months.
Farnsworth's legal fees reach $30,000, over half a million dollars in today's money.
And the ordeal is taking a brutal toll.
The fighting back and forth between his operation and RCA, it's proven a real physical and emotional strain.
He turns to alcohol.
David Sarnoff knows he has time on his side.
The longer deliberations last, the longer he can keep Farnsworth away from his lab, and his invention.
Cannot be allowed to distract us from the essence of this case.
It's very much a David and Goliath scenario.
Farnsworth doesn't have deep pockets.
And Sarnoff knows he can spin this out as long as he has to.
With no hard evidence to prove that he came up with television first, the case is turning against Farnsworth.
But he has one last hope.
The Plaintiff calls its next witness.
How do you know Mr.
Farnsworth? I was his teacher in high school.
And how did you come to learn of his idea? One day after science class he explained it to me.
And you evaluated the idea and judged it to have merit, is that correct? As best I could.
Where was your training, in physics? I studied chemistry.
And taught it.
But no training.
No background.
But you come here and testify that what Mr.
Farnsworth told you in 1922, when he was 15 years old, matches his patent from 1930.
I have proof.
He not only told me about television, he drew me a picture.
Tolman's testimony proves that Farnsworth conceived of a working television, one year before Zworykin.
This was an amazingly dramatic moment for Farnsworth because Mr.
Tolman remembered this kid as the smartest student he's ever had.
So this was a very powerful, emotional statement of his teacher coming to his defense, to hopefully win this landmark patent war.
In fact, Farnsworth's childhood sketch is remarkably similar to his actual plans.
On July 22, 1935, Farnsworth is awarded priority of invention.
He's free and clear to pursue his dream, to make and sell televisions.
But his victory is short-lived.
Okay, next Mr.
Sarnoff, we have a rigorous appeals strategy planned.
Keep him busy.
File injunctions, delay him.
For how long? For years.
Until his patents expire.
Despite the ruling, Sarnoff refuses to admit defeat.
By applying legal pressure, and leaning on political connections, he's determined to keep Farnsworth from manufacturing, buying time for Zworykin to build a working television for RCA, one that isn't dependent on Farnsworth's patents.
Sarnoff brings his power to bear to suppress any business advantage that Farnsworth might have had.
Basically he's trying to cut off any flow of money and essentially tighten the noose around Farnsworth.
Farnsworth has developed a ten-inch television with 343 lines of resolution.
He's won the right in court to manufacture it and make a fortune.
But at every turn, he's blocked by David Sarnoff.
Farnsworth had a lot going for him.
He had a working television system.
He had the patent rights to produce this television system and earn money from it.
But he couldn't do it.
Farnsworth was powerless.
While David Sarnoff keeps Philo Farnsworth from manufacturing his invention, the media mogul begins laying the groundwork for his television empire.
He builds a new lab in the center of Manhattan and begins conducting tests from a transmitter atop the Empire State Building.
Sarnoff has a grand plan to launch America's first television network, called the National Broadcasting Company or NBC.
But he can't do any of it unless Vladimir Zworykin can build him a television that works.
Mr.
Sarnoff.
Where's your team? It's Sunday.
I need you to get me a television that I can sell.
The tycoons of the nineteenth century the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Carnegies Sarnoff definitely saw himself as one of those people.
When he saw technology that he felt had potential he was willing to put in as much money, time, manpower, resources as necessary to bring it to fruition.
Zworykin rises to Sarnoff's challenge, steadily improving their prototype's resolution, line by line.
Zworykin was a very, very talented, very accomplished scientist, and Sarnoff had the good sense to supply him with the tools he needed and let him get on with it.
And Zworykin did.
Zworykin gets his television up to 441 lines of resolution, and thirty frames per second, the same as Farnsworth's.
Sarnoff has spent the modern equivalent of $165 million dollars, to finally match his rival.
Farnsworth has spent less than a tenth what Sarnoff has.
But the physical and mental toll has been high.
By 1939 Farnsworth had been working eighteen-hour days for fifteen years and he was driving so hard at it and he was compensating by drinking heavily.
He wasn't getting sleep.
He had ulcers.
He had all kinds of personal problems.
There was an enormous cost to Farnsworth of the ongoing struggles.
But he always rallied.
He always came back.
And as bad as things got, he never gave up.
As Farnsworth continues to labor on his dream, Sarnoff is ready to go public with Zworykin's creation, at the greatest show on earth, the 1939 New York World's Fair.
With its theme, The World of Tomorrow, it would draw 44 million people.
The world is about to be introduced to television.
How do I look? Good, sir.
It's important.
It is with a very deep sense of humility that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society.
Television is an art that shines like a torch of hope to a troubled world.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we add sight to sound.
Move, move! - Get away! - Hey, watch it, kid! It is a very deep sense of humility that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art, so important in its implications, that it is bound to affect all society.
Television is an art that shines like a torch of hope to a troubled world.
David Sarnoff has beaten Philo Farnsworth in the battle to introduce America to the technological marvel of television.
- Get away! - Hey, watch it, kid! Even though the courts named Farnsworth the creator of television, it's Sarnoff who's getting all the credit.
Farnsworth was powerless to overcome that kind of publicity.
Farnsworth was essentially done in by the power of his own invention.
The hidden power of television was you could create an image that was perceived as reality.
And you could not overcome that.
Despite his public victory, Sarnoff isn't satisfied with his current model.
Vladimir Zworykin keeps working, and develops a second television that's far superior to the first.
The only catch is that it uses elements of Farnsworth's design.
To put the best television on the market, Sarnoff will need to do the one thing he swore RCA never would.
Sarnoff tells his lawyers that they need to go purchase the rights to use Farnsworth's patents, something that RCA had never done.
They're used to other people pay them patent royalties.
This was a complete reversal of their normal business practice.
But they had to do that.
It's the pay-out that the inventor has always wanted.
But before Farnsworth is able to meaningfully advance his design, fate intervenes.
"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy".
The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
Suddenly, television is the last thing on Americans minds.
When the US got involved in the war all manufacturing in the United States had to be dedicated to wartime equipment.
So television was literally put on hold for six years.
Farnsworth's patents expired in 1946.
So he was not able to earn royalties from his invention in time for this incredible explosion of television taking over America.
By the time the war ends, Farnsworth's patents are no longer valid.
Now, anyone can use the technology he devised.
Thank you.
Make an appointment, please.
Make an appointment.
David Sarnoff seizes the moment.
RCA develops its first consumer TV since the end of the war, and sells nearly ten thousand in its first year.
Television did what radio had already been doing, but did it better.
So now not only could you hear what was happening, you could see what was happening, you could be there.
Sarnoff's TV network, NBC, has been broadcasting experimentally since 1937.
Now it's ready for prime time, and television enters its Golden Age.
Television unified the world in a way that it never had before.
For the first time instead of just hearing of what was going on someplace else, you could now see live what was going on.
Half a world away.
This was an amazing almost magical ability granted to us by this technology.
In a matter of three years, the number of televisions in American living rooms climbs from forty thousand to over nine million.
And RCA's profits increase from nine million in 1940 to nearly fifty million dollars just ten years later.
It isn't long before television takes over as the most popular form of entertainment in America.
Zero zero zero eight five.
In 1969, television cements its place in human history, when the world watches an unprecedented broadcast, from outer space.
That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
One of the six hundred million people watching the historic event is Philo Farnsworth.
They're setting up the flag now.
I guess you're about the only person around that doesn't have TV coverage of the scene.
That's all right, I don't mind a bit.
Farnsworth created television really to bring people together around powerful images.
And watching the Lunar Landing on his sofa, which was broadcast to the biggest audience ever assembled in the history of the world, it was really a final moment of redemption for him.
This is why he did it.
This makes it all worthwhile.
Sarnoff may have been the one to introduce the world to electronic television, but history would go on to recognize Philo Farnsworth as the true creator of one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century.
How's the quality of the TV? Beautiful, just beautiful.