There Was No “Light Problem”

Much of the second act of Aaron Sorkin's play The Farnsworth Invention revolves around  Philo Farnsworth's supposed inability to find solutions for the low-light sensitivity of his Image Dissector tube.  This interpretation is very much the "RCA version" of the early pre-history of television — that Farnsworth's Image Dissector was a fatally flawed device, and that television could only be commercialized after the principal of "light storage" was introduced in Vladimir Zworykin's Iconoscope. 

Imageorthicon When I met Aaron in San Diego in the spring of 2007, I showed him an Image Orthicon tube — the tube that really made television practical in the 1940s and 50s — and tried to explain to him how much of the art in that device — art that effectively solved the "light problem" — was traceable to Farnsworth patents. 

Now comes a letter from another reserarcher / historian with an engineering background, one Eduardo Zeron, who validates what I've been saying about the origins of the Image Orthicon.  He also takes issue with some of the points in my old "Who Invented What and When" essay, which points I am happy to see corrected.

But those corrections don't undermine the important assertion, that Farnsworth had his own solutions to the "light problem," that those solutions found their way into the technologies that made television popular, and that the historical interpretation in The Farnsworth Invention is what is fatally flawed here, not the invention itself (nor the inventor).

Mr. Zeron's letter:

Dear Paul Schatzkin.

I really enjoyed your Farnovision chronicles web page, especially the Part 10 where you point out the historical importance of Farnsworth's U.S. patent 2,087,683, and how Sarnoff needed to buy it (for $1 million) in order to sell his Image Orthicon.

Farnsworth invented both the Orthicon and the "scanning with low speed electrons" in his U.S. patent 2,087,683 (filed on April 26, 1933, and granted on July 20, 1937). The only difference between the Farnsworth Orthicon and the RCA one is the fact Farnsworth projected the optical image and did the scanning in the same side of the target plate, while RCA projected the optical image and did the scanning at the opposite sides of the target.

I must also point out Farnsworth's honesty in mentioning Schoultz' French patent FR 539,613 for a totally electronic video camera (filed on August 23, 1921, and granted on June 28, 1922). I am sending
attached a PDF file  with the first page of Schoultz' patent.

I think that the U.S. patent 2,087,683 put Farnsworth and Sarnoff in a tête-à-tête confrontation, because Sarnoff could not sell Image Orthicons without buying Farnsworth patents, and Farnswoth could not sell his Orthicons without buying Tihanyi's patent for a "charge storage target plate" (an isolating plate with an extremely large number of small discrete photo-emissive areas isolated one from each other). Notice that Sarnoff had already bought Tihanyi's U.S. patent 2,158,259 (filed in Germany on June 11, 1928, filed in the U.S. on June10, 1929, and granted in the U.S. on May 16, 1939).

Nevertheless I think there are some mistakes in your web page. You include the following text in the section "Who Invented What – And When?" :

— There is simply no getting around it-you can't create an electronic television signal without first creating an "electrical image."

I am sorry to say that this is not true, for neither the Vidicon nor the modern CCD Digital Camera needs of Farnsworth "electrical image" to work.

Finally you seem to dismiss in Part 8 the fact that the same scientific development could occur simultaneously in different places. But you should remember that the "Image Dissector" was also invented in Germany by Dieckmann and Hell. They filed the patent DE 450,187 for an "Image Dissector" on April 5, 1925, and this patent was granted on October 3, 1927.

Sincerely yours: ESZeron.

The French and German patents I am not familiar with.  I have provided links to the .pdf files that Mr. Zeron sent me. 

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