"The most effective lies
are the ones built around
a fragile germ of truth."
Please step aside as I dust of my lance and go looking for windmills one more time…
For… ohm'god has it really been seven years now! – Aaron Sorkin's play The Farnsworth Invention has presented a loosely twisted interpretation of the events surrounding the advent of television in the 3rd and 4th decades of the 20th Century.
Since the play first previewed in San Diego in the spring of 2007 and premiered on Broadway later that year, several (countless?) regional theater companies have mounted productions of this ambitious – but deeply flawed (both from dramatic and historic perspectives) endeavor.
The latest production will open later this month at at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, CA – right there in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The Valley is a region that has arguably done more to utilize Farnsworth's invention than any other place on earth. For years, computers used cathode ray tubes to monitor their operations. And, while the technology may be vastly different now, the fact remains that every video screen on the planet can trace its origins back to Farnsworth's first patents.
You might think a region with that kind of history of association would have a special interest in a recounting of the actual events as recorded by history – or, at least, a reasonable facsimile of the personalities involved.
Alas, it's the same old story. In a recent email exchange with the Palo Alto Players, they insist that The Farnsworth Invention is "a work of fiction" at the same time they promote it as a "real life battle…"
What follows is an open letter to the Palo Alto Players, offered here in the hope that it can find some traction among readers and theater goers who will be attending performances later this month:
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from the keyboard of
An open letter to the Palo Alto Players:
The 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is often quoted for having said: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
It is probably fortunate for Schopenhauer that he did not live long enough to see the fourth phase that the Truth must now endure:
The Hollywood version.
That is precisely what audiences experience every time another production is mounted of Aaron Sorkin’s play, The Farnsworth Invention – as the Palo Alto Players will do next month: a fabrication in which the common practice of ‘dramatic license’ is utilized to such an extent that it delivers its audience to a demonstrably inaccurate historical conclusion.
In other words, The Farnsworth Invention achieves that fourth phase of evolution where the truth actually becomes a falsehood. It’s a neat trick, and one that perhaps only as skilled a wordsmith as Aaron Sorkin could pull off.
In the process of telling two sides of an admittedly complex tale, audiences are effectively deprived of the essential, still neglected truth at the heart of the story: that the advent of television in its purely electronic form – the only form of television that truly matters – was a breakthrough of epic proportions.
The invention of television deserves a place in the pantheon of human achievement alongside Morse’s “What hath God wrought,” Edison’s tungsten filament, Bell’s “Watson, come here,” Tesla's dreams, Marconi’s “S” and the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Sadly, The Farnsworth Invention does nothing to elevate its namesake to the stature he deserves.
One need only look at the mechanical contraptions that preceded Farnsworth’s contribution to appreciate the (literally) quantum leap that removed all the moving parts except the electron itself from the equation. Farnsworth’s ability to focus and steer electrons to a previously unprecedented degree represents a breakthrough in what mankind could do with the fundamental forces of the universe.
Despite its elaborate attempts at exposition, you will learn none of this in The Farnsworth Invention.
Instead, audiences are treated to a portrayal of the of the inventor as a stumbling fool, no match for the conniving brilliance of his corporate rivals. Audiences will leave the theater thinking that David Sarnoff and his minions at RCA managed to pull a fast one on the patent office, that in the end “priority of invention” was awarded to Vladimir Zworykin – Farnsworth’s rival and David Sarnoff’s accomplice/stooge.
One consequence of this fable that has dogged The Farnsworth Invention since its opening on Broadway in the fall of 2007 is that every production has been compelled to issue printed disclaimers – sidebar attempts to inform the audience of the degree to which artistic license has distorted the historical facts apart from what appears on the stage.
Consequently, audiences will leave the theater having been thoroughly entertained by a production that actually contradicts its own reason for existing: If ‘priority of invention’ had in fact been awarded to Zworykin and RCA as it is portrayed in the play, then there would simply be no reason to be talking about Farnsworth today.
The fact is that Farnsworth won his litigation on every meaningful count. And, given RCAs dominance of the field at the time, this accomplishment is every bit as monumental in the context of its day as was the original invention.
In the context of our day, it is perhaps even more tragic to see these achievements given such short shrift on a stage in Silicon Valley – a region that has certainly done more with Farnsworth’s invention than any other place on Earth. While the technology may be vastly different from what first emerged in Farnsworth’s laboratory in the 1920s, every video screen that we carry in our pockets today traces its origins back to that moment in September 1927 when 20 year old Philo T. Farnsworth delivered electronic video to this planet.
Farnsworth’s Green Street laboratory was the quintessential 20th century startup, and should indeed serve as a model for today’s inventive and entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin’s portrayal leaves us to believe that Philo Farnsworth was weak, ineffectual and alcoholic. There is no inference of Farnsworth’s relentless decade of inventive brilliance, a seed that might have grown into the Google of its day had it not been crushed in the garden by the likes of David Sarnoff.
Instead we are left with the impression of an incompetent who had only created what the play calls “a light problem,” and who is so lost in his haze that he turns to a Hollywood starlet at one point and asks if she can solve the problem. Theatrically amusing, perhaps, but historically bogus.
The production is then left to correct these impressions in a playbill, rather than on the actual stage.
I write now simply to implore you to add this to your playbill:
The invention of television was a breakthrough of epic proportions. The magnitude of the achievement is obscured in this telling of the tale. Nevertheless we hope audiences will leave the theater with new appreciation for what Philo Farnsworth actually accomplished. His achievement represents the very best of our species: an unbridled but unheralded genius that is reawakened every time we turn on a television or an iPhone.
The Farnsworth Invention recounts the inventing of television precisely as RCA and its corporate heirs have been telling the story for some eight decades.
In final scene of The Farnsworth Invention, our protagonist is seen drowning his sorrow at a bar while lamenting that he has “just lost television.” I do recognize what the playwright is attempting to do here, for given the ensuing course of history it is arguable that Farnsworth did, indeed, “lose” television.
The value of a dramatic expererience like The Farnsworth Invention should be to restore the rightful recognition of a great achievement.
To myself and others who know the story intimately, it seems that Farnsworth continues to “lose television” every time another production of this play is mounted.
June 2, 2014
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Additional Links re: The Farnsworth Invention: