BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Daniel Stashower, author of "The Boy and the" -- "The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television" -- where'd you get the idea for this book?
DANIEL STASHOWER, AUTHOR, "THE BOY GENIUS AND THE MOGUL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF TELEVISION": Well, to be honest, I got it from my grandmother. She had an eccentric cousin by the name of Hugo Gernsback, and he was a big figure in the world of science fiction. In fact, he's the man for whom the Hugo Award is named. And he had a large stable of science and science fiction magazines, and in these magazines, he would often speculate as to the coming wonders of science. And some of these forecasts, such as radar and microfilm, were pretty good. And others, like the Martian friendship bee (ph) were pretty bad. But one of the things that he wrote about and wrote about often was television. And one of his enthusiastic readers was the young Philo T. Farnsworth.
LAMB: And who is Philo T. Farnsworth?
STASHOWER: Philo T. Farnsworth, at the age of 14, is the man who came up with the idea that became electronic television technology. From the moment he got the idea, it became his life's work.
LAMB: And on the other side of this page, where we showed the picture of him, is another gentleman. Who is this?
STASHOWER: That's David Sarnoff, who began in the mailroom and worked his way up to become the chairman of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, a man who was also deeply interested in the future of television.
LAMB: Why do you call Philo T. Farnsworth "the boy genius"?
STASHOWER: Well, the story goes that he was 14 years old. He was the son of a Mormon farmer. And he was working in a field in Idaho. Sometimes it's a hay field, and he's mowing the hay. Sometimes it's potatoes, and he's tilling. Sometimes it's beets. But he was working in a field, pushing a horse-drawn cutter back and forth. And his mind was drifting, as it often did, this time on the problem of television, which was an idea he had read about in a magazine.
When he got to the end, he looked back over this field and over the neat lines that he himself had made in the field. And it suddenly occurred to him that it might be possible to invent a device, an extraordinary and unique type of glass tube that would take an image, break it down into easily transmittable lines, just like the rows in the field, send them by means of electricity, and then put them back together at the other end.
LAMB: What year did he think this?
STASHOWER: This was 1921.
LAMB: How old was he?
STASHOWER: He was 14.
LAMB: In 1921?
LAMB: Where was radio?
STASHOWER: Radio was still in its infancy. That's why this idea -- the whole concept of television, was very, very new, although a lot of people were thinking about it. A lot of people were working on it. Radio itself was still in a fairly early state. In fact, it had only recently, mostly during World War I, progressed beyond basic communication -- ship-to-shore kinds of traffic. And even the idea of the human voice over radio was still fairly new. The Farnsworth family -- Philo T. Farnsworth and his family -- did not, in fact, own a radio at the time. And yet he had this idea, as it was commonly known at the time, to send pictures by means of radio.
LAMB: First radio station in the United States?
STASHOWER: KDKA, yes.
LAMB: What year?
STASHOWER: Oh, gosh. They were on the air very early, but as -- as Farnsworth was having his idea, virtually in the same time, within a matter of months, was the first time presidential election returns had been broadcast over the radio.
LAMB: Now, the other side of your book, the mogul, David Sarnoff, in, say, 1921, was how old? And what was he doing?
STASHOWER: Well, Sarnoff is a fascinating figure, and because he and Sarnoff crossed swords over the issue of television and had a long and protracted legal battle, it's very tempting to cast him as the villain of the piece. It's really not that simple. Sarnoff, in many ways, is the archetype of the American immigrant success story. He came to America from Russia at the age of 9 in 1900. He did not speak English. He sold Yiddish-language newspapers while teaching himself English. And he got a job in the mailroom of the company that became RCA, literally worked his way up to the top from there.
He was deeply interested in the development of radio, and in 1915, wrote something now legendary called "The radio music box" memo, in which he speculated that it might be a good idea if we used this radio to bring music into American homes. This obviously turned out to be a pretty good idea. RCA did very well with it. But even as RCA began to make millions on radio, Sarnoff already had his eye on television, which was an extension that he considered to be inevitable.
LAMB: What was the Radio Corporation of America back in those years? What'd it do?
STASHOWER: Well, it was -- it had been called into being, actually, by the United States government after World War I. They were very concerned about keeping control of some valuable radio patent technology that had been developed in wartime, particularly an alternator that was allowing the human voice to be sent further and more clearly than ever before.
Just after the war, a British firm placed a large order for these alternators, and the government was a little concerned. They had spent a lot of money protecting and developing this technology, and they were concerned about sending it overseas. The Radio Corporation of America was called into being to take charge of the government's electronic patents, and also at one time, those controlled by Westinghouse, AT&T and General Electric. They all had a patent pool, a cross-licensing agreement, which allowed them to use the technology and protected it from foreign competition for a limited time.
So at one time, Philo T. Farnsworth, the kid in the field in Idaho, was literally squaring off against the combined might of AT&T, General Electric and Westinghouse. The miracle of the situation is that he succeeded to the extent that he did.
LAMB: What was the connection between AT&T, General Electric, Radio Corporation of America -- RCA -- and Westinghouse back in those early days?
STASHOWER: Well, they were competitors. They were all electronic firms. They were all doing research. But by means of this patent pool, which was administered by RCA, which at that time was held separate from these companies -- at the beginning, RCA didn't do anything but administer these -- these patents. That was Sarnoff's job. That was how Sarnoff became so deeply interested in patent technology or the control and use of these electronic breakthroughs.
But they were all competitors who, by means of this cross-licensing agreement, for a brief time had the right to use each other's scientific advancements without paying royalties on it. This was meant to foster greater development. In fact, it very rapidly became unworkable. And in short order, the government, which had called it into being in the first place, moved to break it up.
LAMB: So how was it that you had the Red and Blue networks? And who owned them?
LAMB: And what were they?
STASHOWER: The Red and Blue networks were -- as RCA, at the behest of Sarnoff, was establishing its own radio networks, they bought up a radio network chain. This was as RCA and the royalty cross-licensing pool was essentially breaking up. There was this huge and very complicated drawing apart. RCA was -- suddenly found itself in possession of two distinct radio networks. Sarnoff was starting up NBC. And to begin with, they had two different radio networks. And the story goes that as they were tracing out how these networks worked -- one that the stations were connected with a blue pen, and the other with a red pen. So you had NBC Radio Blue, NBC Radio Red.
LAMB: All these years later, correct me if I'm wrong, but RCA's owned by the French?
LAMB: Electronics company?
LAMB: AT&T is in a whole different business today than it was then.
STASHOWER: A lot of these seeds of what these companies became today can be seen in this story. They were all interested in radio. And for a time, they were all interested in television, including Westinghouse. But by means of the competition -- first the partnership agreement, then the competition and then some quite brutal and cutthroat competition between them -- they all set down on the roads that led them more or less to where they are today.
LAMB: What would David Sarnoff think if he came back today and saw that his network, NBC, is now owned by GE?
STASHOWER: I think he would appreciate the situation because he did, at one -- he was, at one time, very close partners with GE, and there were several people in the GE hierarchy whom he considered business role models. So I don't think he'd have a problem with it.
LAMB: How much did the government have to do with building of Westinghouse, RCA, AT&T and GE?
STASHOWER: Well, the government was very interested in -- during wartime, but in peacetime less so, in peacetime left them to do their business. But during World War II and then again very much so in World War I -- in World War I and then again in World War II, the government was deeply interested. As war was declared, Sarnoff sent -- sent a message to the White House, sent a telegram to the White House saying, "RCA stands ready. We are at your disposal, Mr. President."
LAMB: Who's Edward Armstrong?
STASHOWER: Colonel Edwin Howard Armstrong...
LAMB: It's Edwin?
STASHOWER: Edwin Howard Armstrong was a very, very important figure in Sarnoff's early career. He was a young radio pioneer, and when Sarnoff and Armstrong were both very young men, Armstrong invented something called the -- called the feedback circuit, the heterodyne circuit, which allowed radio signals to be broadcast and received over greater distances than ever before.
And one night, Sarnoff and Armstrong, who were both in their early 20s, went together to a transmitter shack -- literally a shack, a drafty, freezing-cold thing out on the Jersey shore because Armstrong wanted to demonstrate to Sarnoff, who was then a general manager at RCA -- at the American Marconi Company, how this thing was going to work. And years later, Sarnoff wrote, "Whatever chill was in the air that evening was dispelled by the thrill, by the excitement of hearing messages pulled in from such places as Honolulu and overseas."
Well, what Armstrong had done was to build a better radio tube. Sarnoff signed it up right away, brought him on board, got this tube for himself and the company. Sarnoff was nothing if not a company man. Armstrong did very, very well with this. He was soon a millionaire. And it pleased him to climb up to the top of radio towers and other equipment that RCA owned and wave and show his -- show himself to a camera, to a cameraman that he'd brought along, just to show, "Here, I'm on top of the world, literally. I'm at the top of this radio tower." He took a grand tour of Europe. He said, "Arrived in Europe yesterday," he sent a message back, "with the contents of the Radio Corporation's safe."
He was having a great time, and Sarnoff was the man who had made it happen. Sarnoff's family came to refer to Armstrong as "the coffee man" because he was always dropping over and having coffee to discuss the latest technology with Sarnoff. Then one day, Sarnoff said words to the effect of, "You know, this is great, but we still are having a lot of trouble with static on our radio broadcasts. Is there anything that can be done about it?" Armstrong said, "Yes, I think there is."
He withdrew into his lab. He thought the problem would take him only a few months. In fact, 10 years passed. And when he emerged, he had frequency modulation or FM radio. Sarnoff had envisioned some attachment, some new tube that we would put in the radio and the radio would be better. What Armstrong had done was create an entirely new type of radio. Armstrong wasn't -- Sarnoff wasn't ready for it. It would have meant scrapping all of these existing radios that RCA had in production at the time, starting from the ground up, at a time when he was pumping millions and millions of dollars into television research. Just couldn't do it.
He and Armstrong, who had been the closest of friends, now became bitter enemies. The lawyers got involved. Sarnoff testified that, well, yes, this FM is a wonderful thing, but our scientists have done something very similar." Armstrong was disgusted. Getting recognition for his advancement, and particularly scoring off of RCA, became an obsession for him. He kept at it for years and years and years, when people were urging him to settle, just to get out, just cut his losses. And it finally drove him -- unfortunately, it drove him to suicide.
In many ways, the story anticipates the Farnsworth story and the coming of television. The difference is this man, Armstrong, had been Sarnoff's friend.
LAMB: How did Armstrong commit suicide?
STASHOWER: Jumped out of a window. Jumped out of…
LAMB: In what year?
STASHOWER: Jeez, it was the -- it was the 1940s.
LAMB: Now, when you talk about Philo T. Farnsworth, how long did he live? What were the years that he was on this earth?
STASHOWER: Born in 1906, died in 1971.
LAMB: And how about Sarnoff?
STASHOWER: Born in 1890, also died in 1971.
STASHOWER: Same -- same year.
LAMB: Same year?
STASHOWER: Later that same year, yes.
LAMB: You go back to the very beginning. You tell a story about a teacher by the name of Justin Tolman (ph).
STASHOWER: Justin Tolman (ph)
LAMB: Where was he from?
STASHOWER: ... was a teacher at Rigby High School in Rigby, Idaho. And among the courses that he taught was senior chemistry. Young Philo T. Farnsworth, who had just moved to the area, was a freshman in high school, but he desperately wanted to take this senior chemistry course. Every day for a week, Farnsworth camped out, badgered Justin Tolman (ph) said, "Please let me take the class. Please let me take the class."
Well, the school year was already halfway done. Tolman (ph) thought there was no way this kid, who was only a freshman, could possibly make up the work and keep up with the seniors. Farnsworth said, "Please, please, please." And finally, Tolman (ph) said, "Well, I'll let you sit in, but just keep quiet. Just listen to what's going on."
Well, Farnsworth didn't keep quiet. He was in the class. It was soon evident not only that Farnsworth knew more than any of the kids in the class, but Farnsworth was easily on an equal footing with Justin Tolman (ph) himself. Tolman (ph) started coming in after school and before class to make sure that Farnsworth was getting the extra education that he needed. And very soon, they moved well beyond the scope of any high school chemistry class.
One day, Tolman (ph) was walking down the hall, and he hears Farnsworth's voice coming from a study hall. And he expects to hear Farnsworth helping his fellow students with their chemistry assignment. Instead, he was expounding on Einstein's theory of relativity, which was fairly new and certainly would not have been on the curriculum of the Rigby High School system at that time.
What was miraculous about it, what Tolman (ph) so responded to, was that Farnsworth's fellow students were hanging on every word. There was something about this kid, when he started talking about his ideas, people listened. He just caught fire. And he managed to convey the ideas in a thrilling, dynamic and compelling way.
LAMB: What year would that have been?
STASHOWER: Also 1921, 1922.
LAMB: Who today is known as the father of television?
STASHOWER: Well, it's a very contentious issue. Every country in the world has someone that they throw up as the father of television, and all of them have some claim or had a hand in the development of television. In my own house, there has been a debate about who is the father of television. My 2-year-old son and I were squarely behind Philo T. Farnsworth.
My wife, who was born and raised in Scotland, will swear up and down that it was a man named John Logie Baird, who was a very important figure in the development of television. But what John Logie Baird and many others around the world were working on was a mechanical television technology. In other words, your television was going to have moving parts inside. It was going to have a spinning metal disk called the Nipkow disk. Light would shine through that disk and perform a scanning function.
And it was Farnsworth's particular genius to realize at the age of 14 that wasn't going to work. You had to do it electronically. He would sum it up in a single phrase later on. He said, "For television to work, it must have no moving parts."
For that reason, and also because he managed to nail down the early, crucial patents on what became the electronic television technology that developed into television as we know it today, for my money, the father of television is Philo T. Farnsworth.
LAMB: But who gets credit in this country for it?
STASHOWER: Often in this country, the credit goes to a brilliant Russian scientist who worked for RCA named Dr. Vladimir Zworykin. For much of their careers, Zworykin and Farnsworth were in lockstep. They were working along the same lines. Zworykin, who was the son of a -- of a wealthy family in Russia, had been exposed to electronic television technology before World War I working in the lab of a legendary Russian physicist named Boris Rosing. Rosing had the idea of transmitting a picture electronically.
The technology of the day couldn't keep up with him. He had a lab that must have looked like Frankenstein's workroom -- leather straps holding up crude glass balls, wooden tables, sparking coils sending up electrical pulses all over the place. But Rosing had this idea that a picture could be sent from one place to another, and he imparted that idea to his brilliant young pupil, Vladimir Zworykin.
The October revolution came along. Zworykin could no longer continue with the work in Russia, as he intended to. He came to the United States, and after bouncing around for several years, started to work at Westinghouse, which was one of the RCA royalty partners. In 1923, which was one year after Farnsworth, who'd had his idea of electronic television pictures, had told his high school teacher about it, Justin Tolman (ph), Zworykin, working in the Westinghouse lab, actually managed to give his supervisors a demonstration of a very primitive electronic television transmission.
Zworykin was thrilled. He thought that this was the greatest thing that he'd managed to accomplish, and he was sure that his supervisors would be carried away with enthusiasm to get television up and running. He had managed to broadcast the faint image of a cross at the end of a glowing glass tube. And his supervisor took a look at it and said, "We have to put this guy to work on something more useful."
LAMB: Now, when did radio, back in those '20s -- when did it really -- I know you say there were 32 licenses issue in '21, or something like that, by the Commerce Department. Then there were another 600 when?
STASHOWER: By the following year, it had -- it had multiplied many times over. And Sarnoff's vision, as spelled out in the "radio music box" memo almost a decade earlier, came to pass. This was -- radio had made its way into the American home and was generating huge profits for companies like RCA, General Electric.
LAMB: You've got Farnsworth out in Idaho back in those years. You had Zworykin coming to the United States from Russia in what year?
STASHOWER: Well, he came -- he actually came a couple of times, but he arrived for good in the early 1920s.
LAMB: And you say he was from a much more sophisticated family than Sarnoff.
STASHOWER: Much more, yes.
STASHOWER: He was...
LAMB: What kind of a background did he have?
STASHOWER: Well, his -- he grew up -- his family -- they were Russian aristocrats. Zworykin in a large stone mansion. He rode horses as a boy. He was exposed to opera, literature, dance. He was a member of the privileged class. And of course, when the October revolution came along, that way of life ended completely. His family lost everything.
LAMB: When he got to Westinghouse, what was his physical base here in the United States? Where was it?
LAMB: And what about Sarnoff? What was his physical base?
STASHOWER: Well, Sarnoff at that time would have been in New York.
LAMB: And I grew up watching a Capehart television set. You're smiling because there's a reason for that. What -- how did that -- how did -- he was a senator in this town for 18 years.
STASHOWER: Well, yes. Capehart was a -- was a company in -- in Fort Wayne, very, very big in the manufacture of radios. And much later in the story, Farnsworth and his backers managed to get the money together to buy the facility. They were going to follow the RCA model and manufacture radios, sell radios to generate income that they would use to pour into television research and production. So the Farnsworth company bought Capehart. They moved their base of operations to Fort Wayne, and things appeared to be going very well. It looked as if this was going to work.
LAMB: What year would that have been?
STASHOWER: All this was happening in the late '30s. And unfortunately, when World War II came along, the Farnsworth television and radio company did a very distinguished job of wartime production, winning several government commendations for their -- for their work in aiding with the war effort. But then, when the war effort was finally over, they had a very hard time switching gears, getting back into peacetime production and following their original vision of radio and television production.
LAMB: I'll go back to Green (ph) Street in San Francisco and Los Angeles and all that in a moment. But first, how did you personally -- what were you doing that got you interested in writing a book about this?
STASHOWER: Well, as I told you, I -- my grandmother had this connection. And one day, I was looking through an issue of "Science and Invention" magazine, which was another Hugo Gernsback magazine. And there was a contest being run to help combat the problem of auto theft. And it was inviting readers to mail in their ideas for an invention, some attachment that could be added to a television -- an automobile at that time to help prevent theft.
Well, young Philo T. Farnsworth, age 14, entered the contest, which was pretty ambitious because he -- his family certainly didn't have a car. He wouldn't have seen many cars. But he entered the contest and won it with something called the "magnetized anti-theft ignition lock." And he used part of the money to buy his first pair of long pants because he was only 14 years old.
It was thrilling for me to be looking through these old magazines and see the name P.T. Farnsworth in this magazine, edited by this relation of mine, as the inventor of this little car, automobile lock.
Years earlier, I had been writing an article for "Smithsonian" magazine about Hugo Gernsback, who was in the 1920s running a television station in -- in New York based on this mechanical television technology, the technology that went nowhere. Gernsback, as with many things in his life, sank a lot of money into it, lost it all.
And as I was writing about that and describing it, I was looking around for the word to say, "Well, Gernsback wanted to be a would-be" -- and I wanted to use the name of the inventor of television. I wanted to say, "He wanted to be a would-be Edison" or a would-be Alexander Graham Bell. I realized I didn't know the name of the inventor of television. That's how I started down the road and got interested in who the inventor actually was.
LAMB: Where do you live?
STASHOWER: I live in Washington, D.C.
LAMB: And what -- would you -- are you a writer by profession?
STASHOWER: Yes, I am.
LAMB: Where did you start? Or where'd you go to college?
STASHOWER: I went to a graduate writing workshop. I went undergraduate Northwestern and then graduate school at Columbia. I started out writing mystery novels, and then a few years ago, I wrote a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, discovered I liked writing biographies very much.
LAMB: Who was Arthur Conan Doyle?
STASHOWER: Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, although he would want me to tell you that he was the writer of many, many other books besides.
LAMB: Where's home originally?
STASHOWER: Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio.
LAMB: Go back to the Gernsback connection. Philo T. Farnsworth read the Gernsback magazines?
STASHOWER: He did. He moved to a farmhouse, where he discovered a stack of science and science fiction magazines in the attic, and he devoured these. I don't want to claim that Hugo Gernsback, my illustrious relation, was a big player in the drama of television, but he certainly helped to put the idea into Farnsworth's head, and to a great extent, probably showed Farnsworth what not to do because Gernsback was a big proponent of this mechanical, gears-and-belt-drives kind of technology.
LAMB: What's Gernsback's relationship to you?
STASHOWER: He was my grandmother's first cousin.
LAMB: So you two -- you and Philo T. Farnsworth have read the same magazines.
STASHOWER: Yes. Absolutely.
LAMB: Many, many years apart.
STASHOWER: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: The Naval Academy -- how'd that -- what did that play in Farnsworth's life?
STASHOWER: From the moment that Farnsworth had the idea of electronic television transmission, he was desperate not only to put himself in a position where he would be able to work on the idea -- in other words, get together lab equipment, lab facilities -- but he was also conscious of the fact that he was just a 14-year-old kid. He needed an education.
So in addition to working with this Justin Tolman (ph), the high school chemistry teacher, Farnsworth read everything he could get his hands on. Tolman (ph) recalled bringing in a book on cathode rays. Farnsworth just about wore it out before he gave it back to him. Then Farnsworth tried to get himself a college education, and unfortunately his father passed away during these years and Farnsworth was obliged to drop out of college and help to support his family.
He joined the Navy and went to school in the Navy at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, hoping to further his education and, at the same time, remove - lessen some of the financial burden on his family.
It didn't work out. It was never a good fit and among the reasons that Farnsworth just did not feel comfortable in the Navy was he came to believe that whatever ideas he had and developed at the time were going to belong to the government. There were other reasons besides, but he very soon got a discharge and was on his way back to Utah.
LAMB: How did he get to - well first of all, when did he get married, what year?
STASHOWER: That was 1926.
LAMB: And who did he marry?
STASHOWER: He married "Pem" Gardner, who at one time was literally the girl next door.
LAMB: How did he get to San Francisco to Green Street?
STASHOWER: Well, Farnsworth had been working whatever odd jobs he could find. At one point, he was sweeping streets in Salt Lake City. A pair of professional fundraisers came through. They were raising money for a Community Chest fundraising campaign in Salt Lake, and they were hiring local kids to help them map out a business survey so they would know how to best coordinate their efforts. One of the people who signed on was Philo and his friend Cliff Gardner. They started to work for these two men.
LAMB: And Cliff Gardner was the brother of his wife?
STASHOWER: They were not yet married at the time, but yes Cliff Gardner was Pem Gardner's brother, and for a time the two families shared a duplex house. They were neighbors.
Well, one night after work at the Community Chest campaign, a man, George Everson, who was one of the two Farnsworth - one of the two fundraisers, said to Farnsworth, "you're a very bright young man. Why aren't you in college?" And, Farnsworth explained that he'd had to drop out but he said he had this great idea.
It was a very interesting invention, and almost immediately he regretted that he'd said as much as that, because Farnsworth was very, very protective of this idea of television and lived in horror of the day when he was going to pick up a magazine and see that somebody else had the same idea, somebody else had been able to patent it before him.
Well, Everson got interested in this. A couple nights later, he took Farnsworth out and asked to hear more about the idea, and as was always the case, when Farnsworth started talking about the idea, he suddenly became this brilliant orator and managed to persuade Everson and his partner, Leslie Gorrell, that he had the idea that was going to take the world by storm.
LAMB: Here's the picture and he was 24 years old?
STASHOWER: Yes. Everson said to him: "Well, I have $6,000 in a special savings account and I've been saving it for something like this. I've been meaning to take a wild flyer on something and this is as wild an idea as I can possibly imagine. I'm going to stake you to the $6,000. If we lose the money, I won't squawk."
Well, Everson lost the money. They spent that much money and much, much more before any money started coming in but he never squawked, and that's how Farnsworth got his start. But almost from the moment that Everson said, "here let's go, let's start working on this idea of yours,"
Farnsworth realized well we're not going to get it done in Salt Lake City, Utah. Let's go to California, which happened to be where Everson and Gorrell, the fundraisers, were going next on their fundraising campaign, because that was where he was going to have access to research facilities and equipment that he just couldn't get otherwise.
So they moved first to Hollywood, and then when the money ran out in Hollywood, Everson managed to get them backing by a group of San Francisco bankers and they set up shop in a tiny little lab on Green Street in San Francisco.
LAMB: So what year are we now and how old is Mr. Farnsworth?
STASHOWER: He is barely in his 20s. When he first signed an agreement for one of his early agreements with Everson and some of the backers, he wasn't even legally entitled to sign his own contract. He had, Everson had to be appointed Farnsworth's guardian and sign the contract on his behalf. By the time they got to Green Street in San Francisco, where the really important early work on television was done, Farnsworth was barely 21.
LAMB: There's a picture here of the other side of the story. Mr. Sarnoff where is this?
STASHOWER: That is probably a staged photograph but it is meant to be Sarnoff at a telegram receiving station in John Wannamaker's department store in New York City, and supposedly that is where Sarnoff was in April of 1912, when a dramatic message came across the wires saying "Titanic has struck iceberg, sinking fast."
And the story that was told and told for years and burnished many times over was that young David Sarnoff, sitting at this wireless operating station, became the sole point of contact between the distressed ship and a waiting world, and for 72 hours he stayed at his telegraph cage with his earphones on, taking down the lists of survivors, getting information, relaying it to the press, and basically serving as the lone voice on behalf of the sinking ship.
It turned out subsequently that although yes, Sarnoff certainly would have had a hand in relaying the message traffic during the Titanic disaster, he was by no means the only voice heard that night or in the days to follow. But what was unique about Sarnoff was that he had the presence of mind and the skill and the wit to turn it to his own advantage and use it to further his own career.
LAMB: By the way, they used to call him general all the time, General Sarnoff years later. How did he become a general?
STASHOWER: In World War II, Sarnoff took on the job. He actually went overseas without knowing what his job was going to be, and Eisenhower personally charged him with coordinating radio communications for the allied invading forces on D-Day.
It was a job that Sarnoff did with - this was a pointing Sarnoff's life when he knew perfectly well how to give orders, how to get things done, and he knew just about all there was to know about electric communication. He did the job. He did it very, very well and he was made a brigadier general on behalf of the services.
LAMB: You make a point several times in the book, or maybe not several but a couple times in the book, that Sarnoff often embellished his accomplishments.
STASHOWER: Well, yes. If Sarnoff himself was not the man doing it, certainly the RCA Publicity Department knew they were on to a good thing certainly with the Titanic story, but it has been suggested by some people that Sarnoff's calling himself a general was a bit of puffery. It was not.
He had served very - he had made himself available in peacetime to consult and serve with the military. He was - he had the honorary rank of colonel when he went into service in World War II. He earned what he got. He wore the title general very proudly, but he did earn it.
LAMB: So what about during, right after during World War I where he was involved in the 14 points in the transmission that he took credit for, I mean again you say that he exaggerated some of these events he was in. What about that one?
STASHOWER: He had - yes he did, but there again, people around him in retrospect helped to burnish his achievements, but Sarnoff at one time had the grace at least to be embarrassed by some of this. When he was finally appointed the president of RCA, he granted an interview and...
LAMB: What year would that be?
STASHOWER: I believe that was - yes, it was 1930, and then a reporter from the New York Times came and asked him and wanted to trot out the Titanic story again, and Sarnoff said, "let's put that one to bed. The Horatio Alger stuff is out of date. Let's talk about the future."
And so in later years, he was confident enough in what he actually had achieved that he no longer felt he had to exaggerate what he'd done in his early years.
LAMB: You said, though, that he had trouble inside the RCA Corporation because he was Jewish?
STASHOWER: Huge trouble.
STASHOWER: Well, it was - this was a problem. This was a lifelong problem. When Sarnoff wanted to become a telegraph operator, which was you know a fairly modest ambition, but he presented himself at a Marconi Wireless Office in Lower Manhattan, wanted to sign on, took any job he could get, which was sweeping the floors, just to be around it.
The other operators basically dismissed him as Jew Boy. They said, you know, "no place for you here Jew Boy," and although it wasn't stated as explicitly when he was trying to work his way up the ranks at American Marconi, and subsequently RCA, it was a culture that did not have a lot of space for - did not have a lot of Jewish executives.
At one point, Sarnoff was literally the only Jewish person in the executive ranks of the Radio Corporation of America, and he found himself excluded from a lot of meetings and also social events. Whether that was solely because of his religion or because, by his own admission, he was a pushy and aggressive young man, it's hard to say but he certainly found obstacles in his way.
LAMB: This is a 1933 picture of Sarnoff and Marconi. What's the purpose of the picture?
STASHOWER: Marconi was Sarnoff's early mentor, and the story there goes that young Sarnoff was working, sweeping the floors and trying to train as a wireless operator at an American Marconi Station. Marconi himself was visiting America, making sort of a tour of his facilities in the United States, and this was actually the year, I believe this was actually the year Sarnoff - the year that Philo Farnsworth was born, 1906.
And, Marconi came, visited, met everyone, stepped outside to go to his next appointment and 15-year-old David Sarnoff stepped out behind him, confronted him on the sidewalk, said "hello, you're my hero. My name is David Sarnoff," told him his whole life story, which included immigrating to the United States and buying a newsstand and really struggling to help put food on his family's table.
And, Marconi really responded to this and Sarnoff became Marconi's errand boy, essentially, during his visits to New York, and did whatever Marconi wanted, which in the early days included taking flowers to Marconi's various girlfriends around the city, which was the job that Sarnoff apparently handled with great dispatch.
But, over time, with Marconi's personal recommendations, Sarnoff was able to get his foot in the door and start climbing the ladder, and it was a relationship that the two of them fostered for years and years and years.
LAMB: American Marconi became GE?
STASHOWER: After World War I, when it was no longer deemed expedient to have foreign control of American companies, particularly American companies dealing with this kind of sensitive technology, American Marconi was sold off and no longer owned by the parent corporation, British Marconi.
LAMB: But you say that was brought about by the government?
STASHOWER: Yes, it was.
LAMB: Then, jump to 1939. You say that Philo T. Farnsworth invented television but, what's this?
STASHOWER: That is the 1939 World's Fair where RCA in general and David Sarnoff in particular, intended to raise the curtain on television. Now at that point, they were at the end of a long and protracted legal battle with Philo T. Farnsworth. And also that same year, 1939, an agreement was hammered out whereby RCA was going to have the right to use Farnsworth's patent technology.
And what you have to understand about that is that in Sarnoff's 50-year career at RCA, the company had never, ever paid to use a patent owned by an outside inventor. Sarnoff liked to say, "we don't pay royalties. We collect royalties." He had his own inventors. He had his own patents. Whatever patents he couldn't buy, he would find a way to get around.
The only exception in 50 years was Farnsworth, and the legend goes that this was so devastating to the RCA lawyer that, as he put his name to the agreement with Farnsworth's lawyer, there were tears in his eyes. But nevertheless, in 1939 it looked as if an agreement was coming with Farnsworth and Sarnoff ahead of the rest of the industry, wanted to announce television was here. RCA was going to bring it to you, and he seized on the 1939 World's Fair as the stage on which to do it.
RCA had a great big exhibition hall. Sarnoff himself took the stage. There were RCA microphones and a big banner, and he said: "Now we add radio sight to sound," and television supposedly was on the way. The following week you could buy a television in a New York store at prices ranging from nearly $400 to $1,000. The price turned out to be way, way too steep for most people.
LAMB: What would that be in today's money do you know?
STASHOWER: I figured it out once and it was something on the order of $7,000.
LAMB: So it's for the high definition television sets?
LAMB: Some of them.
STASHOWER: But you know that's a lot of money. High definition television, at least you know it's going to work. This, nobody had seen it before, nobody knew whether it was going to work or not, and for a time television came to be known as Sarnoff's folly because as he liked to say, he'd spent $50 million on television before he ever saw a dime. Well, in 1939, he hadn't even seen the dime yet. The televisions were coming off the assembly line in Camden, New Jersey. Nobody was buying them.
LAMB: Made by RCA?
STASHOWER: Made by RCA. Sarnoff cut the prices. Nobody was buying them. Then, the year was 1939. America entered World War II and television went into moth balls for the duration of the war.
LAMB: By the way, did they actually pay money to Farnsworth for the patent?
STASHOWER: Yes, they did. Yes, they did.
LAMB: Do you know how much money?
STASHOWER: Well, yes. It's hard to put an exact figure on it, but there was a payment of about $1 million and an agreement to pay royalties to use Farnsworth technology in RCA television sets.
It is difficult to say how much that would have amounted to, but since America entered World War II almost immediately thereafter, it didn't amount to anything, because Farnsworth's early patents had been nailed down in the early 1930s, and a patent of this type only had a useful life of 17 years.
When television finally got off the ground in 1946, 1947, these important early patents of Farnsworth's were coming up for expiration. He never benefited to the extent that he should have.
LAMB: Well, Green Street in San Francisco for how long?
STASHOWER: Green Street in San Francisco from about 1926 to the early 1930s, 1930, 1931. Then he signed an agreement with Philco, a company that a lot of people assume was named for him, but actually was the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company. He was there for a few years in Philadelphia. That didn't work out. Farnsworth went out on his own for a few years and ended up in Fort Wayne.
LAMB: How long did he live in Fort Wayne?
STASHOWER: Well, the Farnsworth family had a retreat in Maine, and Farnsworth...
LAMB: Where in Maine, by the way?
STASHOWER: Oh gosh, it was - I'm sorry, I'm blanking. It was a very isolated spot and Farnsworth loved it and he had worked himself so hard in this relentless pursuit of television that his health was beginning to suffer, and in Maine, he could regroup. He could get his balance back. He built himself a nice laboratory.
LAMB: He was still young though.
STASHOWER: Still a very young man.
LAMB: Born in 1906.
STASHOWER: Born in 1906. In this 1930s, this is a man still in his early 30s, but he liked to say of one of his early companies that his small size enabled him to operate like a speedboat among their juggernauts. But, he added, a speedboat eventually runs out of gas, and unfortunately that is what happened, not only to Farnsworth's company, but to Farnsworth himself.
He used himself too hard. He never took a break. He just couldn't shut it off. He prided himself as a young man he could go to bed thinking about a problem and he would wake up in the middle of the night, "Eureka! I have the answer," and he would go back to work. But that took a toll. That took a terrible toll very early on.
LAMB: Along the way, by the way, were there other systems being used and were there programs being transmitted and experiments underway?
STASHOWER: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. There were, here in Washington, D.C., there was a man named Charles Francis Jenkins. He had a line of televisions, again using the mechanical television technology, this spinning disk inside the television.
LAMB: Was he programming it?
STASHOWER: He was because in the very early days, basically if you bought a television from say Charles Francis Jenkins, you were only going to get a Charles Francis Jenkins transmission, and it was pretty crude stuff, and there were others across the United States and in Britain, John Logie Baird, the Scottish television pioneer, was also doing the same thing. He was manufacturing these mechanical television sets and providing the programming. You'd be lucky if you got two hours a day.
But very early on in the 1920s, a man named Ernst Alexanderson, who actually worked at RCA but was still a big proponent of the mechanical way of doing things, managed to broadcast a melodrama called "The Queen's Messenger," and it employed three cameras, one for the face of each of the two actors involved and one for hands. Hands were shown holding a gun, holding a flower, taking gloves on and off and things like that. I mean it was very crude stuff, but if you had a television set, you'd be able to get it.
In the late 1920s, this relation of mine, Hugo Gernsback was printing in one of his magazines instructions so that you could build your own at home. You could build a television following his directions with lenses, mirrors, and a spinning disk, and he, Gernsback, was going to send you television pictures.
Chances are the picture was going to be no bigger than a postage stamp. It would flicker and in the case of the Gernsback televisions, you couldn't get sound and television at the same time, so you'd get like a snatch of violin music and then a picture of the violinist later.
LAMB: So in the end, though, when television finally began being used, and what year would you put, you say '46, '47?
STASHOWER: '46, '47 when television as we know it today.
LAMB: Transmitting where? From what city?
STASHOWER: Well from New York, but there were broadcast networks, so it very quickly spread across the United States.
LAMB: Was Sarnoff the first one to actually be in business?
STASHOWER: There are many who would disagree but yes, on a large scale, yes. Sarnoff and RCA were the first.
LAMB: Would you have had television, the way we know it, without Farnsworth? I mean has he still got a piece of this action in this?
STASHOWER: Yes. Yes, he does.
LAMB: Does his family still get money?
STASHOWER: No, they are not. As I said earlier, the patents were expiring very early on, but from the earliest days, the technology that went into the television camera tube, particularly, was a blending of Farnsworth's best work with the best world of Vladimir Zworykin who was the man who was making it work at RCA.
LAMB: There's a picture you have here at the front of the 13th chapter. In 1957, he would have been 51?
STASHOWER: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: That is Philo T. Farnsworth where?
STASHOWER: His only television appearance on the game show "I've Got a Secret." He traveled to New York. He signed in as Dr. X, so just in case someone recognized his name, and he had been written about a fair amount. And, he was very relaxed and comfortable on television, but this is the only time he ever appeared.
The panelists formed the idea that he was some kind of medical doctor and that he had done some sort of medical breakthrough, and at one point he was asked, "Dr. X, this device of yours, is it painful when used?" Farnsworth didn't skip a beat. He said "yes, sometimes it's most painful." The audience got, you know, gave him a big laugh, but the panelists were unable to guess, which meant that Farnsworth won the top prize, which was $80 and a carton of cigarettes.
LAMB: The first commercial on NBC?
STASHOWER: A watch, just a watch face ticking around 60 seconds.
LAMB: Bulova watch?
STASHOWER: Bulova watch.
LAMB: Four dollars?
STASHOWER: Uh huh, four dollars.
LAMB: In the end, both Sarnoff and Farnsworth died in '71, were they friends? Were they acquaintances?
STASHOWER: Well no, they were not, but unlike many of the other business adversaries that Sarnoff had come across in the course of his long career, he always had a grudging respect for Farnsworth.
Some of that was legally motivated because it was clear at one stage that Sarnoff was going to have to come to an accommodation with Farnsworth. And, in public addresses and things, Sarnoff began to say outside of the Radio Corporation of America no one has done more than this splendid young man, Philo T. Farnsworth. But no, they could not be said to be friends.
LAMB: So, how did Farnsworth die and in what circumstances? How much money did he have and where was he?
STASHOWER: He was unfortunately not in good health and his doctors, recognizing that he was having a hard time relaxing, prescribed things that made him dramatically worse. He began to have a problem with alcohol, and he was prescribed some Chlorohydrate, which just made things very much worse.
Another doctor told him gee maybe a finger habit will help to soothe your nerves. Why don't you take up smoking? So suddenly Farnsworth not only drinks but he also smokes addictively. Another prescribed some pain killers because he was beginning to have stomach problems, which eventually led to very serious ulcers.
For a time, he had a problem with pain killers, but he never stopped working and he never lost the conviction that he was going to be able to help humanity with one of his ideas, and if it wasn't going to be television, in later life he fastened on to the idea of finding a peaceful application for atomic energy.
He envisioned a grapefruit-sized power pack that would help to power a house for its entire lifetime. He imagined that entire cities could be cheaply, cleanly, and economically fueled by atomic energy, and it is the measure of the high regard with which he was held in the scientific community that these ideas were taken very seriously.
Unfortunately, as with television, nobody ever put up quite enough money and Farnsworth himself, once again, had to find the money to try and make it work. He wound up cashing in his own life insurance policy, mortgaging his own house, but he wanted to make this thing happen.
LAMB: Did you talk to any family?
STASHOWER: Yes, but as with my Conan Doyle book, it's sometimes better to go in without taking sides and since I did want to tell the two sides of the story, I tried to keep a professional distance.
LAMB: Where is Farnsworth buried?
STASHOWER: Oh, Farnsworth is buried in Fort Wayne.
LAMB: And what about Sarnoff and how did he die?
STASHOWER: Sarnoff was older than Farnsworth, obviously.
LAMB: How did he….
STASHOWER: Yes. He's buried in New York and he had only very recently given up the controls of RCA. He was too ill to carry on. He was largely confined to his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and passed away at home, having learned only a short time before that he had, in fact, been asked to give up his board position.
LAMB: Our guest has been Daniel Stashower. Here is what the cover of the book looks like, "The Boy Genius," which was Philo T. Farnsworth, and "The Mogul" was David Sarnoff. Thank you very much for coming.
STASHOWER: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2002. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.