Sarnoff -v- Hearst: The Clash of the Titans That Never Was

I got a really interesting e-mail message last week from a reader of The Boy Who Invented Television telling the unlikely tale of the day William Randolph Hearst almost took an interest in Philo T. Farnsworth's little invention.  

Craig Faulkner ([email protected]) writes: 

My maternal grandfather, R.L. Litchfield, was a longtime employee and close personal friend of William Randolph Hearst. Among his ancillary duties as an executive in the Hearst newspaper empire, my ‘Pops’ would also assist with fielding and giving Mr. Hearst his opinion on the many requests which would regularly be submitted for financial backing of various and sundry enterprises. Pops traveled widely and saw much. In his later years he would sometimes invite my young son and me to sit at the end of his bed and he would tell us stories about the many interesting people and places he had known. Almost invariably my son would chime in with a request for his favorite: “Pops, tell us again about the man who invented the television.”

William_Randolph_Hearst One day in the late 1920’s Mr. Hearst [or Randy, as Pops called him] rang him on the phone at the office with a request that he go check out an inventor who had a laboratory over on Green Street, there in San Francisco. The inventor, one Philo T. Farnsworth had an electrical device which, “he says can broadcast pictures through the air. He wants me to finance the further development and eventual commercial production of the thing. Litch,” [as Randy called my Pops] “go over there and take a look at this fellow and his gadget and tell me what you think, will you.” 

So my grandfather rounded up one of his associates who knew a little something about electricity and off they went. After the brief formal greetings, Philo asked the one man to stand next to a black box with a hole in the side in front of some extremely bright lights while he took my Pops into an adjacent area. There, on a little tiny glass screen, was an image of the other man standing nearby. Pops said the two of them looked the apparatus over very carefully and determined that there were no wires connecting the two devices.

At this point in the narrative Pops would lean back on the pillows with a wistful smile on his face.

Returning to the office he called Mr. Hearst on the phone.

“Well, what do you think, Litch? Is it anything I should look more closely at and think about investing in?”

“Well, Randy, the first thing I noticed was the laboratory itself. It’s a mess – wires and glass tubes and electrical gear scattered all over the place. Philo Farnsworth himself is a curious fellow – a little odd, but pleasant enough and he does seem to be a bright young man. It’s a clever little gadget he’s invented but I just don’t think it will ever amount to anything. I’d advise you to put your money into enterprises that have a better prospect of return on investment.”

And so it was that William Randolph Hearst passed on the opportunity to become the first multi-media mogul and amass an even greater personal fortune. Pops said it was unquestionably the worst piece of advice he ever gave anyone. The story of course begs an obvious question. The answer, according to Pops, is that Randy never held it against him and that it was one of many stories occasionally reprised over drinks by two old buddies. Hearst died in 1951 at the age of 88. Had he lived to see what television would become I wonder what he would have thought. My Pops died in 1985 at the age of 93. I loved him dearly.

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Reading this account, one can't help but wonder what might have transpired had "Pops" offered Mr. Hearst a different opinion of the fledgling invention he'd seen.  Suppose a newspaper baron like Hearst had placed himself in Farnsworth's corner.  How then might the battles with RCA and David Sarnoff unfolded?  I dare say Hearst would have enjoyed the confrontation, and with the resources of the Hearst empire behind him, who knows, Sarnoff might have been forced to capitulate…. oh, wait, that's how it turned out anyway… 

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