The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television


In a story that is both of its time and timeless, Evan I. Schwartz tells a tale of genius versus greed, innocence versus deceit, and independent brilliance versus corporate arrogance. Many men have laid claim to the title "father of television," but Philo T. Farnsworth is the true genius behind what may be the most influential invention of our time. Driven by his obsession to demonstrate his idea, by the age of twenty Farnsworth was operating his own laboratory above a garage in San Francisco and filing for ...
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In a story that is both of its time and timeless, Evan I. Schwartz tells a tale of genius versus greed, innocence versus deceit, and independent brilliance versus corporate arrogance. Many men have laid claim to the title "father of television," but Philo T. Farnsworth is the true genius behind what may be the most influential invention of our time. Driven by his obsession to demonstrate his idea, by the age of twenty Farnsworth was operating his own laboratory above a garage in San Francisco and filing for patents. The resulting publicity caught the attention of RCA tycoon David Sarnoff, who became determined to control television in the same way he monopolized radio. Based on original research, including interviews with Farnsworth family members, The Last Lone Inventor is the story of the epic struggle between two equally passionate adversaries whose clash symbolized a turning point in the culture of creativity.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For pop history chroniclers, the story of Philo T. Farnsworth is almost too good to be true. He conceived the idea of the television tube at age 14 in 1921, was quashed by David Sarnoff's RCA and died embittered, forgotten and with only a microscopic fraction of the wealth that the device generated for others. Schwartz (Digital Darwinism) sticks closely to this version of events, but the slant is justified. While there are other contenders to the title "Father of Television," Schwartz’s cogent and elegant book persuasively argues Farnsworth’s case and describes the heartbreak that defined his life. As Schwartz notes, Farnsworth “wholly underestimated what he was up against,” i.e. corporate-controlled innovation. Patent law is at the heart of the book, as it both affords Farnsworth his crack at immortality and provided RCA with myriad legalistic stratagems to expand its monopoly. A number of patent rulings went in Farnsworth’s favor, but that made remarkably little difference to RCA’s eventual control of the medium. Given his adversary, Farnsworth's naïveté and some horrendous luck made his defeat virtually inevitable. Apparently intent on distorting the historical record to craft his own image for posterity, Sarnoff may one day be remembered -- thank in part to books like this -- primarily as the executive who crushed Farnsworth.
Library Journal
This is a lively and engaging account of the conception and invention of both television and the system of network broadcasting in the United States. Schwartz (Digital Darwinism, Webonomics) tells the stories of Philo T. Farnsworth, who essentially invented television before he was 30, and David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC, who essentially invented the business of broadcasting before he was 30. These two men were at tremendous odds with each other for decades, and the nature of their conflict helped determine the shape of the U.S. broadcasting industry. While many other works document the beginnings of broadcast media, they tend to be overviews, offering less of a personal story. This book complements D. Godfrey and C. Sterling's Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television, which takes a drier, more academic approach to the inventor's life and work and should be of interest to academic libraries, particularly those with a technology or engineering department. Schwartz's well-researched biography is sure to appeal to anyone who has ever dreamed of coming up with "the next big thing." Recommended for public libraries and academic or special libraries with a media or technology focus. Andrea Slonosky, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 alsovividly 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)
James Bradley
“…Fascinating… A riveting American classic of independent brilliance versus corporate arrogance. I found it more fun than fiction.”
Walter Isaacson
“… The fascinating inside story of how this eccentric loner invented television and fought corporate America.”
Darwin Magazine
"[A] gripping and eminently readable saga of the birth of television and the death of the Edisonian myth."
Darwin magazine
“[A] gripping and eminently readable saga of the birth of television and the death of the Edisonian myth.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780066210698
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/1/2002
  • Edition description: PRINTABLE, File Size: 2.2MB
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

To write THE LAST LONE INVENTOR, Evan I. Schwartz spent two years researching the life stories of Philo T. Farnsworth and David Sarnoff. He interviewed surviving Farnsworth family members, including Farnsworth's 93-year-old widow, and he visited document archives in six states.

As a journalist, Evan has been covering information technology for 15 years. He is a former editor at BusinessWeek, where he covered software and digital media and was part of teams that produced 12 cover stories and won a National Magazine Award and a Computer Press Award. In recent years, he has written for The New York Times, WIRED, and MIT's Technology Review.

Evan's first book, titled WEBONOMICS, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, has ranked as's #1 bestselling business book and was chosen as a finalist for two major awards: The Global Business Book Award as well as the Computer Press Award. International editions have been published in eight countries.

Evan's second book, DIGITAL DARWINISM, from the same publisher, also hit #1 on Amazon's business list shortly after its release, in June 1999. Now in its twelfth hardcover and first paperback printing in the U.S., it is available in the U.K., from Penguin, and has been translated into eight other languages. It too was named a finalist for the Computer Press Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

Evan holds a B.S. in computer science from Union College in Schenectady, New York, and lives with his family in Brookline, Mass.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Fields of Vision

From clear across the potato field, Lewis Farnsworth could see that his son was in danger. It was an early spring morning in 1921, and fourteen-year-old Philo was in his usual trance during one of his many repetitive chores. The kid was sitting on top of a three-disk plow that engraved three parallel furrows in the soil at once. The apparatus was being pulled up and down the field by a team of three horses. Philo was supposed to be holding three sets of reins, but his mind was somewhere else. He grasped only two, inadvertently dropping the third. The sight of the stray leather strap dragging on the ground alarmed the elder Farnsworth.

The plow's rotating metal blades could shred a man to pieces in a few moments. Lewis Farnsworth had heard that it happened to a farmer back in their home state of Utah. A startled horse dragged the sharp edges of the disks into his back, and the man died of his wounds before any medical help could arrive. Without control of the harness, Philo might meet the same fate. He wouldn't be able to halt a rampaging horse, and Lewis Farnsworth knew this particular horse to be especially skittish.

He also knew that he couldn't shout across the field or surprise the horses in any way. With steady strides, he walked toward the end of the row that Philo was finishing. As he stooped to lift the rein, Philo leaped from his seat, shouting, "Papa! Papa! I've got it!"

The horse, irritated by the boy's sudden exclamation, let out a loud neigh. But Lewis Farnsworth was now clutching the thirdstrap, and he reined in the beast just in time.

What on Earth could this boy be yelling about?

"I got the idea that will win the prize money!" Philo exclaimed.

"Philo," he growled back, "You could have been killed!"

His father's anger snapped Philo out of his daze. When he became aware of what had just occurred, he apologized and promised never to let it happen again. Then he started to explain what was preoccupying his mind. He'd been working on an idea.

The Farnsworths lived on a ranch in Idaho's Snake River Valley, where granite-faced mountains peered over pine-green forests. True to its name, the river snaked through the valley, irrigating the fields of potatoes and sugar beets through a network of diversion dams and canals. Hundreds of rural acres separated the homesteads, but the nearby town of Rigby had its own schools and churches, plus a bustling Main Street with a savings and loan, a telegraph office, a newspaper publisher, a general store, a furniture shop, and a bar.

Philo was a good-looking but skinny boy with a serious gaze and a square jaw. He detested the drudgery of farmwork, and he was constantly searching for ideas that could enable the family to escape their dependence on the land. He desperately sought his father's approval of these ideas. He knew his father was upset over what had happened that morning, but he needed to explain himself. After dinner that night, he brought his dad a recent copy of Science and Invention magazine. There was something special inside, and he needed to show him.

The cover of the magazine featured a painting of a bright red monorail bullet train suspended above the bustling streets of Chicago. No train like it actually existed. This particular edition was important because the magazine was now renaming itself. It had previously been known as the Electrical Experimenter. Inside, the editor, Hugo Gernsback, explained that the original title had too narrow an appeal given the sudden rush of new technology into the mainstream of society. But he assured readers that the periodical would remain true to its roots as the monthly for experimenters and inventors, "that vast horde of intellectual Americans, in whom the physical progress of the country is centered." He said the goal was to build the circulation from the current 200,000 households up to 500,000.

The magazine was chock-full of ads for electrical training institutes: Earn Up to $175 a Week! Be a Certified Electrician! Be an Expert in 31/2 Months! Electricity Is the Biggest Force in the World Today! The Very Existence of the World Depends on the Electrician! Get into It as Quick as You Can! Choose Your Future Now!

What had caught Philo's eye was a monthly contest that the magazine was sponsoring, offering a twenty-five-dollar first prize, a fifteen-dollar second prize, and a ten-dollar third prize for the best invention to improve the automobile in any way. The Farnsworths did not own a car, but they knew people in town who did. From watching them sputter up hills and careen down roads, Philo could see that the popular Model-T Fords were rather crude affairs. They could certainly use all the help they could get. Any improvements, so far, seemed as primitive as the cars themselves. The second prize in the previous installment of the contest went to an idea for starting a car in damp weather: simply stuff a handkerchief into the air intake pipe. That idea fetched fifteen dollars.

First prize, meanwhile, went to the idea of attaching a horn beneath the rear fender. If the horn was not first switched off by the owner, a stranger stepping onto the running board would complete an electric circuit, setting off an obnoxious wail that would alert neighbors. It was said to be the first electric "thief alarm" for automobiles. And for that, the magazine revealed, a woman named Edna Purdy would collect twenty-five dollars.

Philo had an idea that would even top Edna Purdy's. Instead of an alarm, why not have a lock on the steering column? All the keys that started the Model-Ts were the same -- a piece of flat...

The Last Lone Inventor. Copyright © by Evan Schwartz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note
Prologue: a Miscalculation 1
1 Fields of Vision 9
2 Making a Great Man 29
3 Community Chest 51
4 Patently Brilliant 65
5 Going Hollywood 79
6 Networking 93
7 Life on Green Street 111
8 Confrontation 143
9 End Run 179
10 Who Owns What? 199
11 Narrow Escape 223
12 All's Fair, World's Fair 259
13 Breakdown, Breakout 271
14 Post War 281
Epilogue: Perceptions and Reality 295
Acknowledgments 301
Notes 305
Index 314
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Reading Group Guide

Plot SummaryIn a story that is both of its time and timeless, Evan I. Schwartz tells a tale of genius and greed, innocence and deceit, and corporate arrogance versus independent brilliance. In other words, the very qualities that have made this country--for better or for worse--what it is.

Many men have laid claim to the title "The Father of Television," but Philo T. Farnsworth is the true genius behind what may be the most influential invention of our time. Farnsworth ended up a footnote in history yet he was the first to demonstrate an electronic process for scanning, transmitting and receiving moving images, a discovery that changed the way we live.

Growing up on a small farm in Idaho, Farnsworth was fascinated by anything scientific, especially the newest thing on the market -- radio. Wouldn't it be even more miraculous to project images along with the sound? Driven by his obsession, Farnsworth found a local philanthropist willing to fund his dream. By the age of twenty, in 1926, Farnsworth was operating his own laboratory above a garage in San Francisco and filing his first patent applications. The resulting publicity brought him to the attention of David Sarnoff, the celebrated founder of the NBC radio network, whose own RCA laboratories soon began investigating -- without much initial success -- a way to transmit a moving image. Determined to control television the way he monopolized radio -- by owning all the royalty producing patents -- Sarnoff, from the lofty heights of his office in a New York skyscraper, devised a plan to steal credit for Farnsworth's designs and the two sides ended up in patent court.

Vividly written, and based onoriginal research, including interviews with surviving Farnsworth family members, The Last Lone Inventor tells the story of the epic struggle between two equally passionate adversaries and how their clash symbolized a turning point in the culture of creativity.

Topics for Discussion

  • How do you think Philo Farnsworth felt as a teenage farm boy in Idaho when he brainstormed the principle for electronic television? How do you think he felt when he confided to his father and his father said to keep the idea quiet because "everyone already thinks you're a little odd." What drove this kid to pursue his idea so passionately? Have you ever had a new idea that no one around you would understand? What did you do about it?
  • Why did David Sarnoff feel so compelled to fabricate some of the early events of his life and make them more dramatic? Was he truly a visionary who foresaw the future possibilities of broadcasting before anyone else? What do you think of his tactics for rising through the ranks at RCA and for advancing the interests of RCA in the communications industry? Were his actions simply typical of what goes on in many corporations today?
  • Was Farnsworth lucky or unlucky? Was he fortunate to meet the people and raise the money he did? Or should he have been able to raise more money to fund such a revolutionary invention? Could he have achieved all he did without the efforts and loyalty of his wife Pem?
  • Was Farnsworth foolish? Was it unrealistic of him to try and go it alone and try to become the Thomas Edison of television? Should he have allowed television scientist Vladimir Zworykin to visit his laboratory for three days, knowing Zworykin could be a potential rival? Should Farnsworth have accepted the buyout offer from RCA's David Sarnoff and simply have gone to work at RCA Laboratories as a staff engineer like Zworykin?
  • Was Sarnoff foolish? Should he have offered more money to buy out Farnsworth and his patents? Would Sarnoff have been better off licensing Farnsworth's patents at the outset instead of fighting the inventor in patent court for years? Why did Sarnoff choose this more difficult route?
  • Why do you think Farnsworth disassociated himself from television just as television was sweeping the country? Why did he put all his efforts into his fusion research? Was it a mistake for him to switch to a new field of invention?
  • What are the parallels in the story that you see in our current time? Does RCA's antitrust troubles remind you of the plight of a certain modern day company? Are today's dominant corporations more or less arrogant than they were back then? What are the parallels between the early days of radio in the 1920s, the early days of television in the post-War era, and the early days of the Internet in the 1990s?
  • What is the significance of the Albert Einstein quote at the beginning of the book: "Anything that is truly great or inspiring is created in the mind of one individual laboring in freedom?" How does Farnsworth view Einstein, and what role does Einstein play in the story?
  • Do you think we will see a resurgence of lone inventors, in the mold of Bell, Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Farnsworth, or are famous independent inventors a thing of the past? How do new ideas come about in your company or in your industry? What kind of individuals come up with the best new ideas? How do you or others react to new ideas when you first learn of them?
  • What do you think was the most influential invention of the 20th century: the automobile, the airplane, the television, the computer, or something else? How do you justify your choice?
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  • Posted November 21, 2010

    I highly recommend this intellectually stimulating book

    In the last lone inventor a tenacious young inventor named Philo T. Farnsworth starts to tinker with all of his family's possessions starting with the generator, and gradually develops the key that will only work on the one ignition switch it is magnetized to. As Philo becomes older he thinks up a device to replace the radio called, Television, and this device would project images on a screen and people could watch live T.V. on their sofas instead of hearing them over a speaker. AS the plot thickens, every story has to have a villain and this one wants Philo's designs and his name is David Sarnoff CEO of RCA. this story is a great back and forth of ideas and prototypes. As you will see Sarnoff will have the advantage of money and employment of scientists, while Farnsworth is working in a little apartment in San Francisco.
    I liked how in this book Philo refuses to give up and let down people who have looked up to him. I do not like how it sounds so cliche because a boy has a dream and pursued his dream and in the end it has no twist it just says he succeeded. Although all these attributing factors I would read the book again and again and keep finding great hidden meanings and morals of this heartfelt book.
    I highly recommend the book Finding OZ it is about the conspiracies of what OZ is in The Wizard Of OZ. This book is highly attributed and very intriguing book. even if you aren't a fan of The Wizard Of OZ this book will still get you to formulate your own opinion, but subtly throwing in messages about the suspiciousness of OZ.
    The major theme in this book would be don't give up and try your hardest even if someone or something more powerful is your competitor, if you have the will to succeed you will. This is such a great meaning it really made me feel like i needed to finish everything i had started and give 150% to whatever I am doing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2002

    A Fantastic read

    A great story extremely well told. Without embellishment, the tension mounts as the brilliant lone inventor is slowly pulled into the brilliant businessman's trap. Like watching a train wreck in slow motion, the inevitability of the outcome matters not one whit; the drama is so engrossing that the denouement doesn't matter.

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    Posted October 18, 2009

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    Posted September 14, 2010

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