The Top Ten Patent Wars – Television (#10)

Philo T. Farnsworth is now generally considered to be the inventor of the television. But he was prevented from realizing the windfall that should have resulted due to patent litigation brought by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) against Farnsworth that tied up his patent rights until shortly before they expired.

Farnsworth was a Mormon farmboy who began work on what became television in the early 20th century. He famously had a vision of how light would scan images in lines while driving in similar lines on a tractor on the family farm.  But that was not the conception nor the reduction to practice that would come under scrutiny later. By the late 1920s, Farnworth was working in San Francisco, backed by a group of bankers, a nod to later venture capitalists in the Bay Area. Having already filed multiple patents in the late 1920s, in 1928, he had demonstrated an early prototype for reporters that delivered 20 pictures per second, sufficient to make it look like the images were moving on screen. Farnsworth used a cathode tube to create an “electron image”, which was then scanned to produce an electrical signal. By transmitting that image from the tube to a screen, “all electronic television” was created.

The initial Farnsworth patents were

  • Patent 1,773,980: Television system (filed 7 January 1927, issued 26 August 1930)
  • Patent 1,773,981: Television receiving system (filed 7 January 1927, issued 26 August 1930)
  • Patent 1,758,359: Electric oscillator system (filed 7 January 1927, issued May 13, 1930)
  • Patent 1,806,935: Light valve (filed 7 January 1927, issued 26 May 1931)

Here is one of the drawings from the ‘980 patent:

RCA, at that time the leading radio company in the United States, had heard about Farnsworth’s work, and offered him $100,000 for the invention. RCA had already cornered the radio market, having been created by a merger between General Electric and Italian inventor Marconi’s U.S. subsidiary, which held many of the early radio patents.  Farnsworth rejected RCA’s offer in favor of developing his own invention.

RCA brought interference proceedings against Farnsworth at the Patent Office, claiming that inventor Vladimir Zworykin (now an RCA employee) had predated Farnsworth patents with his own filed in 1923. The main issue was whether Claim 15 of the ‘980 patent for an “electrical image” was disclosed previously in Zyworykin’s application, which later became U.S Patent No. 2,141,059, entitled “Television System.” The PTO found, in Interference #64,027, that “priority of invention awarded to Farnsworth.”

The PTO held that the Zworykin patent did not disclose a device capable of making an electrical image, even though it also focused on a cathode ray tube, as it failed to sufficiently demonstrate a method by which the image could be created. Significantly, there was no evidence that a device was reduced to practice from Zworykin’s patent and there was conflicting testimony before the PTO about the meaning of certain terms in the patent.

With help from an old teacher of his, who had saved a drawing from a 16-year old Farnsworth, he was able to prevail that he had invented the “image dissector”, which was later perfected into the cathode ray tube that became the basis for modern television.

While Zworykin’s inventions were notable, and later were involved in many improvements to Farnsworth’s original cathode ray tube invention made by RCA and others, Farnsworth was clearly the inventor of electronic television.

Unfortunately, his patent victory did not lead to great riches during his lifetime.  By the early 1930s, Farnsworth had given some public demonstrations of a working prototype, and filed a number of new patents. However, RCA had the last laugh because it used its marketing might, after taking a million-dollar license from Farnsworth after losing the interference proceedings, and claimed to the world that it had invented television through a much-hyped launch at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Shortly thereafter, WWII ensued and prevented anyone from producing consumer electronics such as televisions because of the war effort. By the time the war was over, Farnsworth only had a few years remaining on his patent rights which he had originally filed in 1927. Farnsworth only realized a fraction of the value of the patents because its popularity did not take off until the late 1940s. Nonetheless, Farnsworth’s name has been recorded in the history books as the rightful inventor of television.

Stay tuned for Top Ten Patent Wars – Radio (#9).

Jeremy T. Elman

Jeremy T. Elman

Jeremy is a trial lawyer who focuses on high-stakes patent litigation in courts across the country, as well as trademark, copyright and trade secret cases.

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