On a Crazy Idea

Mr. Tolman’s chemistry class was one of the school’s more popular ones. Besides the fact that he was one of the older teachers at the high school in Rigby, Idaho, his teaching methods and personality attracted students’ attention and respect. It’s why they came to him with their problems, questions, and even their brainstorms. It’s why one of his younger but also more creative students came to him with a crazy idea.

The young man was named Phil. He was barely 14, tall for his age, and skinny. Phil was quite the wizard at the electro-magnetic sciences despite his youth and the fact that he and his family had not had electricity on their farmstead for very long. Mr. Tolman recognized the boy’s savant-like abilities, and he agreed to tutor the young man outside of school hours when the farm schedule permitted it.

One day, while he was plowing a field for his father, Phil had a wild thought. What if he could send pictures through electrical wires–or even the air? This was the early 1920s, and radio was only then becoming the primary means of electronic media for the United States. Phil wondered if voices could be transmitted by both wire (telephone) and the air (radio), then why couldn’t pictures also be sent those ways? He finished the plowing, unhitched the horses and fed them and put them away, then made his way to the attic of the family house where his bedroom was and where he had set up a crude lab to work on his electricity ideas. There, he quickly sketched an idea of how such a contraption might work.

The next morning at the breakfast table before school, Phil told his father about his idea. The dad, while realizing that his son knew so much more about electricity than he did, still worried how other people–famers, like him, who were largely ignorant on how such things worked–would react to such talk of sending pictures through the air. The boy was using words like “electrons” and “tubes” and other jargon that the man simply didn’t comprehend. He told Phil to stop talking gibberish and get to school. This frustrated the boy, and he angrily grabbed his book-strapped texts and headed out the door.

When Mr. Tolman entered his classroom that morning, he found Phil standing before his wall of chalkboards. Drawings and diagrams covered the surfaces. “What’s all this?” Mr. Tolman asked. Phil spun around. “I have an idea.”

“What does this have to do with chemistry?” Tolman asked, looking at the maze of lines and squiggles. “Mr. Tolman,” Phil began, swallowing his frustration at his father’s response, “you might be the only one who’ll understand what I’m thinking about. Let me explain it to you.” And, over the next several minutes, Phil explained his concept to his teacher.

And, Tolman told the entire story as he testified in court many years later, when powerful companies tried to sue Phil over his claim that he, not they, was the inventor of the greatest mass-media innovation ever created

“Television?” Mr. Tolman had asked 14 year old Philo T. Farnsworth many years before in his Idaho classroom. “What’s that?”


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