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A Tale of Genius, Deceit and the Birth of Television

by Evan I. Schwartz

Pub Date: May 7th, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-621069-0
Publisher: HarperCollins

Hot on the heels of Daniel Stashower’s The Boy Genius and the Mogul (p. 241), another account of the competition between inventor Philo Farnsworth and RCA head David Sarnoff to develop television and introduce it to the American consumer.

Unlike mystery-writer Stashower, Schwartz comes at this story with a journalism background, as a former Business Week editor and author of Digital Darwinism (not reviewed), an analysis of the impact of technology on business. He casts the history as a struggle between Farnsworth, a romantic and independent young genius, and Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant determined to make his mark in America. Schwartz depicts Farnsworth as an Edison-like genius who, plowing his father’s field at age 14, dreamed up a device that would magnetically manipulate electrons in a cathode ray tube. Sarnoff, on the other hand, imagined the impact that broadcasting moving pictures could have on the US as he climbed up the RCA corporate ladder and began hiring and funding teams of prominent scientists and engineers to pursue his vision. The narrative recounts the two men’s courtroom and media struggle as Farnsworth futilely fended off Sarnoff’s attempts to wrest control of television away from him. While he lost the legal battle over Farnsworth’s patent, Sarnoff’s ability to manipulate the media eventually enabled him to claim the title of “father of television” in the eyes of the American public. Farnsworth, the real inventor of TV, according to Schwartz, lapsed into relative obscurity until researchers revisited this dramatic story after his 1971 death. The author’s decision to focus on the battles between Farnsworth and Sarnoff not only makes for compelling biography, but also vividly captures America’s 20th-century transformation from an independent, frontier culture to a modern, media-driven society.

A natural for those interested specifically in inventors and business history—and Schwartz’s strong, dramatic prose ensures that a more general audience will also appreciate it. (16 b&w photos)