Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Untold Story of Television

by Daniel Stashower

Pub Date: April 9th, 2002
ISBN: 0-7679-0759-0
Publisher: Broadway

The history of the early 20th-century race between independent young inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and industrialist David Sarnoff to develop and market a functional television system.

A mystery author and Edgar Award–winning biographer of Arthur Conan Doyle (Teller of Tales, 1999), Stashower unearths unexpected human drama from the frantic early days of radio and TV experimentation. He introduces 14-year-old Farnsworth as a scientific prodigy, fascinated by radio and trapped on his family’s Utah farm, who eagerly devoured popular technical journals in an attempt to make up for his lack of formal education. Farnsworth, Stashower argues, saw himself as a 20th-century heir of Thomas Edison’s independence, doggedly refusing to sell the patent rights to the image-replicating system that would eventually take TV to the masses. His main competition was David Sarnoff, the tempestuous head of RCA who built a technological and entertainment empire by buying control of radio-component patents. Stashower traces Sarnoff’s visionary ability to imagine TV’s future potential and in the midst of the Great Depression commit vast resources to its laboratory development. Sarnoff, the author maintains, used his resources to keep Farnsworth tied up in patent court while his research teams scrambled to develop a TV design that could be patented separately. Stashower poignantly reveals Farnsworth’s mental and physical deterioration as he desperately fought off Sarnoff’s corporate and legal attacks. These valiant struggles landed Farnsworth in relative obscurity, where he found solace in fantastic speculations about fusion energy and the knowledge that, despite his business failings, his singular genius revolutionized modern communication.

Intensive research renders this technological history fascinating even to readers with Luddite tendencies. (14 b&w photos and illustrations)