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The Saga of "The Farnsworth Invention"

The study of television history is complicated and highly technical. It is confused by international rivalries, even today when we have globalization and the world wide web. Television history is a difficult subject for a movie, even in the hands of an able writer, as in the case of the ongoing efforts to dramatize the life of Philo T. Farnsworth.

The idea of a movie on Farnsworth was first mentioned publicly in a report in Variety on May 18, 1994. At the Cannes Film Festival, Castle Rock Entertainment released its new slate of movies and took a look into the future which was said to include "an Aaron Sorkin script based on the life of Philo Farnsworth, the self-proclaimed inventor of TV". In the July 15, 1994 issue of Variety, producer Frederick M. Zollo confirmed that Aaron Sorkin was working on a screenplay about Farnsworth, "the supposed inventor of TV".

Fast forward now to February 21, 1999, and an interview in the Boston Globe with Nicholas Paleologos, a producer working with Zollo on a movie about Philo Farnsworth "the guy who invented television". Aaron Sorkin's name is nowhere to be found in this report, but Paleologos said "we've been struggling to find writers for this film."

On November 26 2001 there is another report in Variety. Now HBO Pictures has signed Christian Darren "to write an original teleplay about Philo Farnsworth, the little-known electrical engineer who invented television". The producers are still Frederick Zollo and Nicholas Paleologos. On May 5, 2003, a similar story appears in Variety, but the description of Farnsworth has been changed again to an engineerwho "claimed to be the real inventor of television and filed unsuccessful (sic) lawsuits against RCA to get recognition from the courts."

Only a year later, the Farnsworth project resurfaces in new trappings, with a change in the production company, scriptwriter, and producer. Variety (April 30, 2004) reported that New Line had concluded negotiations with Aaron Sorkin, agreeing "to pay $2.5 million against 2% of the gross for Sorkin to write and produce, with (Thomas) Schlamme receiving just north of $1 million to direct the film and produce".

This looked like a firm announcement since actual amounts of money were being mentioned. The news provoked considerable reaction from supporters of John Logie Baird. Several articles appeared in Scottish newspapers and this website started to take notice, while DavidK of the Antique Radio Forum launched a long and somewhat technical discussion thread which ran to 4 pages with about 140 contributions. Debate raged among the technical historians, with the majority view being that Farnsworth did not "invent television". The discussion thread has moved addresses recently, and is now available here.

After April 2004, no further publicity emanated from New Line. By mid-2005 it was apparent that they had cancelled their Farnsworth movie; no reasons were ever given.

The "Farnsworth Invention" script was then rewritten by Aaron Sorkin as a stage play, with a performance planned at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. However, this fell through due to financial difficulties at the Abbey Theatre (Variety Feb. 6, 2006) and the play was instead performed as a "workshop production" at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in FebruaryMarch 2007. Variety (March 13, 2007) reported that the play was on its way to Broadway and Frederick Zollo was back again, as producer. The stage production company was to be Dodgers Theatricals.

After a delay due to a strike by stagehands, the play opened on Dec. 3, 2007, at the Music Box Theatre in New York. Reviews have been mixed. Nothing has been said in the USA to challenge the play's implicit assumption that Farnsworth was "the inventor of television", but it has been criticised for other inaccuracies and for its high-pressure lecturing of the audience and the overdone conflict between the two main characters, Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff (president of RCA). Ben Brantley of the New York Times (Dec. 4, 2007) likened the play to a classroom presentation on a seven-figure budget, while Howard Shapiro's review in the Philadelphia Enquirer (Dec. 4, 2007) ran under the headline "Something is wrong with the picture".

The Farnsworth Invention played to about 60% filled seats and closed on March 2, 2008. Despite its shortcomings, it will at least help to stimulate interest in the history of television which is now over 80 years old in terms of working systems.

Malcolm Baird, February 2008

Further reading:

Flying False Flags
By Peter Barr

Revisionist History
By Andrew Emmerson