Saturday, March 21, 2009

Our Kind of Guy (Philo T. Farnsworth)

An article appeared in Time Magazine ten years ago, written by Neil Postman (one of my heroes--he's the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death), telling the story of one of my (and also my children's and my grandchildren's) relatives. The article began:

" For those inclined to think of our fading century as an era of the common man, let it be noted that the inventor of one of the century’s greatest machines was a man called Phil. Even more, he was actually born in a log cabin, rode to high school on horseback and, without benefit of a university degree (indeed, at age 14), conceived the idea of electronic television — the moment of inspiration coming, according to legend, while he was tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way, line by line, just as you read a book. To cap it off, he spent much of his adult life in a struggle with one of America’s largest and most powerful corporations [RCA]. Our kind of guy. "

Postman goes on, telling the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the television. Please let me know if you'd like to read the rest of the story--which is engagingly told, and not too long.

Now I am going to tell you how I am related to Philo T.--and how you are related to him if you are one of my children or grandchildren.

One of Philo T's grandfathers (also named Philo Taylor Farnsworth) was one of the original settlers of Beaver, Utah, in 1856. As it happens, my 3rd Great Grandfather, Andrew Patterson, was also one of those original settlers of Beaver. Andrew Patterson would become inventor Philo T's Great Grandfather. Andrew Patterson was baptised in Scotland in 1847. A year later, he and his wife and his four children, Margaret, Robert, and twins, Agnes Ann and Mary, crossed the ocean to gather to Zion. The children's mother died of cholera in Missouri in 1848. Twins, Agnes Ann and Mary were only 4 years old.

Mary would grow up to become my 2nd Great Grandmother. Her twin sister would grow up to become a polygamous wife of the original Philo Taylor Farnsworth, pioneer in Beaver, and would become the grandmother of Philo T--inventor of the television. My grandmother (Agnes Ann Bradshaw Edwards) was Philo T's 2nd cousin. My mother is a "2nd cousin once removed" (he was only 16 years older than her).

Therefore, TV inventor Philo T and I are "2nd cousins twice removed." My children are "2nd cousins 3 times removed;" my grandchildren are "2nd cousins 4 times removed." [The "removed" term refers to generations.] If Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the television, ever comes up in a conversation, you can say, "Philo and I are 2nd cousins."

Incidentally, Postman's book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, discusses the impact of TV on viewers. Understandably, he concludes the article about Philo T, with the following:

" . . . His attitude toward the uses that had been made of his invention was ... ferocious. His son Kent was once asked what that attitude was. He said, “I suppose you could say that he felt he had created kind of a monster, a way for people to waste a lot of their lives.”

He added, “Throughout my childhood his reaction to television was ‘There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet.’”

So we may end Farnsworth’s story by saying that he was not only the inventor of television but also one of its earliest and most perceptive critics. "


shydandelion said...

Wow. That is sad that his invention was used ill and he found no joy in it. That would be really frustrating!

Katscratchme said...

I think it is fairly common for an invention to be used contrary to the original intent... If there is a way to corrupt a good idea, someone out there will figure it out and monopolize it.