The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires - Tim Wu (2010)

Part II. Beneath the All-Seeing Eye

Chapter 10. Now We Add Sight to Sound

Before them sat a crudely built machine made of wire and wood, incorporating an old tea chest and a bicycle lamp. At its center was giant spinning disk made of wire and cardboard. This was the scene in January 1926, in London’s Soho district, as a rumpled bespectacled man named John Logie Baird received a group of reporters and scientists in his cramped attic laboratory.1

That Baird had persuaded the press and, even more, scientists from the Royal Institution of Great Britain to come see his contraption was impressive. For Baird was an eccentric inventor with limited formal training—rather reminiscent of “Doc” in Back to the Future. Up to that point, his greatest invention had been a type of hosiery designed to absorb dampness, known as the “Baird undersock.” Less successful was his follow-up effort, pneumatic footwear (a crude precursor to Nike’s “Air” shoes) that had an unfortunate tendency to explode underfoot.2

Baird’s latest was indubitably a great leap beyond inflatable footwear: the world’s first working television. Much as Alexander Bell had coaxed voice out of a wire, Baird, fifty years later, had discovered how images, too, could be sent over a filament with the help of a giant spinning disk.* Lack of training in electronics—as with Bell—sometimes proved an advantage, for he would try things others would deem ridiculous. To improve television scanning, for instance, he once got hold of a human eyeball, hoping to discern some applicable secret of operation. (“Nothing was gained from the experiment,” he would concede in his journal. “It was gruesome and a waste of time.”)3

The world’s first television

Back in his attic laboratory, at Baird’s command, the ghostly image of a face appeared on a screen. As the London Times reported, “the image as transmitted was faint and often blurred, but substantiated a claim … it is possible to transmit and reproduce instantly the details of movement, and such things as the play of expression on the face.”4

As with so many technologies, television resulted from several simultaneous inventions. Almost immediately after Baird introduced his prototype, an American, Charles Francis Jenkins, invited the American press to see his television in Washington, D.C. Jenkins’s “radiovisor” was a handsome machine made of polished wood, and the American press came away favorably impressed, The New York Times promptly declaring Jenkins the “Father of Television.” Attentive readers may remember meeting Jenkins more than thirty years earlier, when, still in his twenties, he had coinvented the first American motion picture projector, only to see his partner sell out to Thomas Edison. (“The inventor gets the experience, and the capitalist gets the invention.”)5

Unfortunately for both men, neither Baird’s nor Jenkins’s prototype worked all that well. Hence the appearance of the third great independent inventor. In September 1928, just two years after Baird and Jenkins had demonstrated their devices, a twenty-two-year-old San Francisco resident named Philo Farnsworth was showing the press a remarkably high-resolution clip of Mary Pickford combing her hair on the screen of his own contraption.* The “young genius,” as the San Francisco Chronicle described him, had invented the world’s first electronic, as opposed to mechanical, television, having replaced Baird’s spinning disk with a cathode ray gun, for which he would secure a broad patent. “It is a queer looking little image,” said the Chronicle of the Farnsworth electronic television, but “perfection is now a matter of engineering.”6

Among these three men there was nearly every necessary ingredient for yet another saga of disruptive innovation in the great Anglo-American tradition. We have an existing technology, radio, already backed by a large, concentrated industry, vulnerable to being supplanted by fast-moving entrepreneurs and a giant technical leap. All that was wanting was capitalization, and perhaps the right individual to help these inventors hang on to what they had created.

Yet, as sometimes happens, this is exactly the point when the natural course of the narrative breaks, when the needle, as it were, is yanked from its groove disrupting the song of Schumpeterian disruption. Enter the force that perennially has bedeviled the smooth operation of Schumpeter’s basic theory: the reluctance of the obsolete to go gently. Despite its vulnerabilities, the radio industry was deeply unimpressed by predictions of its demise, indeed would ferociously resist usurpation.

If any man was equal to yanking the needle, to turning the tide of history toward his own purposes, it was radio’s emperor, David Sarnoff, president of RCA and the founder of NBC. Sarnoff could see plainly that television was coming—there was no burying this innovation—and so he determined that when it did appear, television would be under the firm control of his company and his industry. Television was not to evolve, in response to ambient forces, à la Darwin; rather, it would be created as though by the God of the Old Testament, in the image of the creator, in this case radio. For Sarnoff, the paramount objective was that television not pose a threat to radio’s hold on the attention of Americans in their homes, their attention to the advertising that was now the industry’s lifeblood. In this purpose, he was endowed with superhuman means: the technical and financial resources of an industrial leviathan. And as if that were not enough, he would, as in other circumstances, also enlist the aid of the federal government in his struggle to survive the onslaught of creative destruction.

To say that television shaped American popular culture and social norms in the twentieth century, to the point of virtually creating them, is to state the obvious. If for no other reason, then, it is worth understanding just how it began.

In the early 1930s, it was by no means obvious what television would be. It might have emerged as an independent new industry to challenge the NBC-CBS duopoly and its advertising models. It might for some time have languished as an industry while thriving as an open, amateur medium, a hotbed of diverse content and points of view, such as radio was in the 1920s or Internet video in the early years of the twenty-first century. Or it might arise as something more like today’s cable television or Hollywood, a producer of more elaborate programming not dependent on advertising. It was, in any case, never preordained that television would be the lackey of AM radio.

The story of television’s founding presents a stark contrast to that of the heroic inventor-founder of American mythology. It is a dispiriting case of what happens when Kronos finishes everyone on his plate. The direct cultural consequences would be profound: two (later three) networks defining the medium that would define America, offering programming aimed at the masses, homogeneous in sensibility, broadly drawn and unprovocative by design, according to the imperatives of “entertainment that sells.”

AN INDUSTRY IS BORN

Within a year of 1926, Jenkins’s and Baird’s primitive televisions had sparked a contest to found an industry. As The New York Times wrote, “One of the strangest and most exciting races that the world ever witnessed is now in progress. Eight inventors, working individually and in teams, are reaching out to clutch a prize as rich as any ever won by Edison, Bell or Marconi.” It very much seemed, then, as if another of those great American (or Anglo-American) sagas of invention and progress was under way. Who, indeed, would be the next Bell or Edison? In the United States, Jenkins was the clear front-runner. In the summer of 1928, Jenkins opened the world’s first television station, W3XK, in Washington, D.C. With programming five days a week, he soon bragged of over 25,000 viewers, though the claim is hard to evaluate. By 1929 he’d opened a second station, in New Jersey, and now with two had planted the seeds of the first television network.7

Jenkins’s success soon began to attract competition from larger firms. Among others, units of both General Electric and AT&T developed their own versions of the mechanical television. In 1928, General Electric (Thomas Edison’s old company) opened a station in upstate New York and began broadcasting three times a week (ironically forcing Jenkins once again to compete against an Edison version of something he had invented). While its technology was not as advanced as Jenkins’s, GE had a certain flair for flashy programming that grabbed headlines. In the summer of 1928, for instance, using a portable unit, GE managed to broadcast Alfred Smith accepting the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. A month later it would broadcast what it heralded as the first television drama, a one-act performance that left The New York Times spellbound. “For the first time in history,” declared the front-page report, “a dramatic performance was broadcast simultaneously by radio and television. Voice and action came together through space in perfect synchronization.…”8

Meanwhile, in Britain, John Baird formed Baird Television Limited in 1929 and secured the BBC’s permission to broadcast one half-hour of television, twice a week, at midnight. British television was far behind its American counterpart in becoming a mass medium: asked, after his very first BBC broadcast, to speculate on the size of the audience, he answered, “Twenty-nine.” Nevertheless, like Jenkins, he had proved something—it was, as the Daily Herald wrote, “a British triumph.”9

If their programming schedules and content were modest, Jenkins, GE, and Baird had big plans. Jenkins in particular, with his two stations and claims of substantial audiences, impressed would-be investors. In 1929 he made an initial public offering and raised $10 million in cash to fund his expansion. Baird, meanwhile, would be obliged to come to America to raise cash. Striking a deal with radio station WMCA for joint operation of an affiliated television station, he promised one million sets for the American market, at $25 apiece.10

Just what was the early technology like? Mechanical television was somewhat similar to photography. A disk is perforated with holes arranged in concentric rings, so that when an image from some lens is projected onto it, the disk as it spins successively “scans” the image, the light captured by each ring of holes representing a “slice” of the image that passes through to a photosensitive cell. At the other end of the wire, the process is repeated. There were inherent limitations: the image was always somewhat distorted, its resolution limited by the number of rings of holes. The first broadcasts managed between 30 and 60 lines of resolution, compared to 525 for standard television in the 1940s—as against the more than one thousand lines required now for “high definition.” Inevitably, therefore the televised images would seem like novelty add-ons to the sound, still the primary element of the broadcast.11

Many historians assume that mechanical television was inherently too primitive to succeed as a consumer product. But while it doubtless would have been replaced by electronic television, to insist that mechanical television was doomed seems an overstatement. By the mid-1930s, Baird Television had developed to the point of over 400 lines of resolution, reasonably comparable to the standard resolution of later televisions. And it is hard, if not impossible, to predict what will be a technology’s threshold of consumer acceptability. Looking at today’s PlayStation, who would guess that Pong had once been a transfixing game? Or, for that matter, that in the age of hi-def, YouTube, with poorer resolution than television of the 1940s, could have caught on as it has? In fact, the primitive prototype is typical in the founding stage of a new industry, as are the “early adopters” prepared to take a chance on it. Recall that Bell’s telephones, when they were first sold, hardly worked—it took Thomas Edison to create a truly functional device.

The reason such prototypes are sustainable, however briefly, and ultimately important is not their capacity to do what the technology is meant to do; rather, their value is in exposing a working model to more minds that might muse upon it and imagine a more evolved version. And so the clunky first telephones could inspire Theodore Vail and the Independents to envision a network reaching every citizen, just as the first personal computers, virtually useless, nevertheless set minds dreaming of future wonders. So it was with the television, too, the mechanical version stirring not frustration but imagination. “When perfection has been attained,” wrote a reporter for the Daily Newsin 1926, television will transmit to London “the jostling crowds of Broadway, the millions of electric colored lights at night.…” So what if not every vision would come to pass, such as those of the otherwise successful inventor Archibald M. Low, who in 1926 predicted that there “may come a time when we shall have ‘smellyvision’ and ‘tastyvision.’ When we are able to broadcast so that all the senses are catered for …”?12

Yet even with the most imaginative early adapters, an industry must meet some basic requirements to take flight. The TV had to be transformed into, if not a perfect consumer product, at least a workable device for hobbyists, and to attract adequate capital, whether from public or private sources. Jenkins, like his colleagues a veteran of the radio pioneer days, understood the importance of a device targeting ordinary consumers, and in the beginning, he sold a kit for $7.50, before going on to sell the first ready-to-operate television set, which he called the “Jenkins Radiovisor.”13 Not knowing which name would catch on, he fudged it in his ads:

It works! You can now enjoy radiovision programs.… Television is here! It is ready for the experimenter, service man, and dealer! Television programs are steadily improving. Now is the time to get into television. Experience the thrills of pioneer broadcast days all over again!

Forward-looking magazines like Popular Mechanics took the bait. A 1929 article pictures a smiling American family sitting in front of a Jenkins radiovisor. They are riveted by the device that is unrecognizable to us, with its small circular screen and its huge cabinet shaped like a table. The caption optimistically proclaims, “Already Television Has Reached the Stage Where the Whole Family Can Enjoy It.”14 It was just the toehold Jenkins needed in America, especially considering the backwardness of things in Great Britain. Unfortunately for him, others were already plotting against him.

SARNOFF ON MECHANICAL TELEVISION

“It would be easy to cry ‘television is here,’ ” wrote David Sarnoff in the Sunday New York Times in 1928. “It would be easy, and it might be profitable, but it would not advance the day when sight is added to sound in an adequate service to the home in radio communication.”15

The mechanical television, in Sarnoff’s view, was a shoddy product that should not be sold to the public just so a few could make a quick buck. No less calculated is his implicit insistence that television’s legitimate arrival could only be as an adequate addition to the service provided by nation’s greatest (and only) radio network, NBC. Having sole proprietorship of the nation’s ears, Sarnoff was laying his forbidding claim to their eyes as well, such as would follow adding “sight to sound.” “We have created a nation-wide service for listeners-in,” wrote Sarnoff, referring to the radio, “We must establish a similar service for lookers-on, once the road of transmission through space has been cleared.”

David Sarnoff was a true visionary, but not of the progressive kind. He could foresee even in the 1920s, as he founded NBC, that television had the potential to destroy both the broadcast network and its parent company, RCA, increasingly dependent on broadcast revenues. And so as early as 1928 he was establishing a clear, consistent message: television is not ready for prime time. He was, of course, entitled to his opinion, just as any private citizen would be in expressing himself vis-à-vis a technology with which he was not enamored. (Many I know, for instance, quite disliked Twitter when it appeared, and discouraged friends from using it.) But Sarnoff was no ordinary citizen, having the ear of the Federal Communications Commission.* And his campaign of technological carping was disingenuous, his real aim being to persuade the FCC to freeze the television industry until RCA and the rest of the radio industry were ready to make it theirs.

From the late 1920s, Sarnoff, RCA, NBC, and later CBS repeatedly lobbied the FCC to adopt their view that television was simply an outgrowth of radio, and one that only the established radio industry could be entrusted to bring to proper fruition. An RCA submission to the FCC from the 1930s, for instance, argues, “Only an experienced and responsible organization such as the Radio Corporation of America, should be granted licenses to broadcast material, for only such organizations can be depended upon to uphold high ideals of service.”16

Unfortunately for Jenkins and the rest of the infant television industry, the commission proved receptive to such cajoling. While never coming out against mechanical television as Sarnoff had, the commission would tend to agree that in such form the technology was inadequate for marketing to the public. And so, in the name of progress and a brighter future, the FCC halted television in its tracks, just as it had done to FM radio to avoid unsettling AM.

The commission’s motivations were perhaps not as conspiratorial as they might seem. True, it was staffed largely by men who had once worked for either Bell or the radio industry, in which contexts they would have absorbed the thinking that television was simply radio with pictures. But the FCC, at the time, was obsessed with the perceived benefits of “planning”—of setting out America’s technological future in an orderly manner. Just as the Soviet Union was launching its own Five Year Plan, the FCC was busily and, one might argue, less efficiently working out the future of broadcasting. It therefore had its own ideological reasons for accepting RCA’s self-serving claim that television, if it got off on the wrong foot too early, might “fix” on an inferior standard.

Consider for a moment the oddness of this phenomenon in a putatively free-market economy. The government was deciding, in effect, when a product that posed no hazard to public health would be “ready” for sale. Consider, too, how incongruous this was in a society under the First Amendment: a medium with great potential to further the exercise of free speech was being stalled until such time as the government could agree it had attained an acceptable technical standard. Rather than letting the market decide what a technology in its present state was worth, a federal agency—not even a democratically elected body—was to forbid its sale outright. One can see the logic of such oversight in the case of, say, an experimental cancer treatment—but a television set?

This is not to deny the utility of thinking ahead in general and in smaller contexts (as the Boy Scout motto advises), but central planning undertaken at a national level is quite another thing, its limitations evident in the experience of every controlled economy, even the universally dazzling example of China today. As Friedrich Hayek would later argue, how can the government possibly have enough information to know when something as unpredictable as technology is “ready”? What fate might have befallen the telephone, the radio, motion pictures—or, more recently, a strange new device like the iPod or a site like eBay, if going to market required one first to gain federal permission?

Acting in what it believed to be the public interest, the commission arrested the marketing of television from its invention in the late 1920s until the 1940s. It issued only a few licenses to men like Jenkins, and specified that they were for experimental purposes only—all forms of commercial television were banned. And this ban on commerce was strict enough that when Jenkins aired an announcement of his $7.50 television kits, the FCC sanctioned him.17

To be sure—unlike, say, the iPod—television technology depended on access to the radio frequency spectrum, which since the Communications Act of 1934 was subject to the management of the executive branch. In this sense, some measure of regulation by the government was, of course, to be expected. But even this fact cannot justify a total freeze on commercial television lasting nearly two decades. The contrast with early radio is instructive. When Hoover headed the agency, virtually anyone was welcome to run a primitive station, an environment that the Internet pioneeer Vint Cerf would later term “permissionless innovation.” To run a television station, however, one had to apply to the FCC for an experimental license, subject to strict standards for obtaining it and for keeping it. A licensed broadcaster had to file regular reports, and show, among other things:

That he intended to engage in bona fide experimental operations related to television; …

That he had adequate financial responsibility, engineering personnel and sufficient equipment and facilities to carry out a research program.18

It was based on these standards that the FCC rejected John Logie Baird’s plans for entering the U.S. market via a joint venture with WMCA in New York. The FCC’s theory was that American radio stations could fulfill the experimental mandate just as effectively as Baird, and hence there was no reason to extend a license to a foreigner. And so the Baird Television Corporation never got its start in the United States, a missed opportunity that both slowed television’s penetration in America and helped doom an independent variant of the medium.

Apart from keeping out foreigners, the most stultifying effect of the FCC’s television freeze was to inhibit potential investors, compounding the capital scarcity created by the Depression. As we have already seen, time and time again, it is investors as much as inventors who decide what our future will look like, and what we call genius might better be described as smarts coupled with capital. Unable to make money or attract funding, potential American manufacturers of mechanical television would all collapse or abandon their efforts within a few years. There was simply no business model or means of support after the initial novelty wore off. Bluster alone could not save even Jenkins, and so, by February of 1932, his reign as the master of television was over. With his bankrupt company in receivership, the radiovisor was no more. Jenkins himself died a quiet death two years later, having tried and failed twice to found his own information empire.

What was at stake here? What difference would it make that the FCC slowed down television to let RCA and Sarnoff get their ducks aligned, as opposed to giving the Independents their head? While not so obvious, the greater consequences may have been not for television per se but for the cause of innovation more broadly defined. Yes, Sarnoff would eventually bring television to market himself. Yet, as usually happens, the radio industry was led to television in the first place by the exertions of the independent strivers—it did not get there on its own. But if government makes clear that the game is rigged, that there is little room for the independent inventor to score, it removes the potent incentive for becoming a Jenkins, a Bell, or an Edison. As the Hush-A-Phone affair makes plain, the conditions facing entrepreneurs determine how much innovation happens.

There are yet more subtle social costs to a rigged game. Sarnoff’s RCA was, like Zukor’s Paramount studios, an integrated business. RCA both sold radios and owned the nation’s main broadcast network, NBC. Naturally, then, as part of its plan to take over the emergent industry, Sarnoff wanted to see television, both as technology and as content, tailored to NBC’s formula of “entertainment that sells.” It was his intention (one he ultimately achieved) that, when the time came, all radio programming would migrate to television. Conversely, television would be nothing more than visible radio. And so we see the now familiar effect of a vertically integrated industry subsuming a new information medium, wresting control of it from a disorganized industry that in all likelihood would have nurtured more experimentation and more diverse ideas of what television should be. There can be little doubt that on the Procrustean bed of NBC’s business model, television’s growth as an expressive medium would be stunted.

Even if we accept the genuineness of its benign intentions, the FCC was oblivious or indifferent to the consequences of its planned future for freedom and variety of expression. It did not consider, or perhaps didn’t recognize, that simply to hand over to the radio industry a medium with the potential power of television would be to determine who was to be heard (and seen) and who not. It did so, I would argue, out of a preoccupation with facilitating commerce, convinced that the NBC model represented the perfection of broadcasting. As with radio, the FCC, since its founding, had tended to accept NBC’s view that independent TV stations were irresponsible organs of propaganda (in the value-neutral sense), and that only commercial networks like NBC could provide what the public needed. It is to our sensibilities an unlikely alignment of corporate and public interests, all the more in that NBC had never acceded to responsibilities of public trust as AT&T had in exchange for the blessings of authorized monopoly. While the telephone had been regulated with a full awareness of the power of the medium, television came into industrial being with little more than an extension of the philosophy underlying mass production as inspired by the automobile: Henry Ford’s dictum, “the business of America is business.”

In the end, it is perhaps incalculable whether the Depression, the insufficiencies of the mechanical version, or the hand of the FCC was most responsible for killing off America’s first television industry. The Depression, although global, did not prevent other countries from launching their own television industries during this period, usually with government support. Since its inception, BBC television, for one, grew in quality and quantity, until by the mid-1930s it had begun to broadcast in what would become the standard resolution for electronic television. By 1935, Nazi Germany, too, would begin limited electronic broadcasts, and would be on the air all day with the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.19

We fancy having in the United States the most open of markets for innovation, in contrast to the more controlled economies of other nations. In truth, however, the record is decidedly uneven, even given to excesses that would shame a socialist, with the federal government, at the behest of an entrenched industry, putting itself in charge of the future. Fortunately for the Free World, while the Nazis may have beaten us to television, we nicked them out for the Bomb.

David Sarnoff was silent during the years that saw the rise and fall of mechanical television, but he was not inactive. Having seen the future, he was discreetly planning to get there first. As early as the late 1920s, Sarnoff had secretly ordered RCA’s laboratories to channel all efforts into developing a working electronic television. The FCC’s suppression of the mechanical television industry (at his urging) ensured that neither Jenkins nor Baird would be in any position to challenge RCA once the next iteration came into the American market. But between Sarnoff and his goals stood one more obstacle: the last of the loners, Philo Farnsworth, the most formidable of television’s inventors, and the holder of the seed patent.

THE THIRD INDEPENDENT

“S.F. Man’s Invention to Revolutionize Television” was a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 3, 1928, just a week before David Sarnoff’s editorial denouncing early television. The article went on, “Two major advances in television were announced yesterday by a young inventor who has been quietly working away in his laboratory in San Francisco and has evolved a system of television basically different from any system yet placed in operation.”20

Farnsworth’s invention was a radical improvement on mechanical television. The old technology, with its spinning disk full of holes to scan and transmit an image, offered poor resolution and a picture that was always slightly warped. It is true that Baird Television had gone a long way toward improving the product, but in the end there was no overcoming the fundamental limitations of the technology. Enter Farnsworth’s “image dissector,” later simply called a “TV camera,” which performed a line-by-line conversion of the photons making up an image into electrons, and line-by-line re-created the image on the receiving end. Compared to mechanical television, it offered a resolution that was, in principle, unlimited.21

Like most of the key inventors in this book, Farnsworth, who conceived electronic television at the age of twenty-two, was an outsider. Born in 1906, and raised a Mormon in Idaho, he made his first experiments as a teenager in a farm shed. He was also perhaps the first tech entrepreneur to base himself in the Bay Area. Farnsworth would patent his scanning technology in 1930 and have working models by the early 1930s. He was, then, in a perfect position to be the “first mover” in the electronic television market—if it were not for the subtle and not so subtle ways that Sarnoff, the radio industry, and the FCC set about neutralizing him.22

Sarnoff, to his credit (as an industrialist if not a moralist), realized that Farnsworth owned a technology that could be the foundation of a true television industry, and a dagger to the heart of radio and the RCA. He had a bit of help reaching this insight from his unwitting and naïve adversary. As Evan Schwartz, author of The Last Lone Inventor, documents, Sarnoff was tipped off by Farnsworth’s demonstrations that revealed far too much about how his product worked. Even more foolishly, in 1929 Farnsworth gave a three-day tour of his laboratories to Sarnoff’s top television scientist, Vladimir Zworykin, who gained admittance on the pretense of scientific curiosity and through playing on Farnsworth’s hope that RCA might be considering an investment. Of course, Farnsworth needed publicity as well as investors, but he did not anticipate that Sarnoff would seek to displace him, not fund him. The most Sarnoff would ever offer him was a measly $100,000 for everything Farnsworth owned.

With word of Farnsworth’s invention growing, Sarnoff started putting it about that in fact the young man had nothing of any interest to RCA or the market. He was bluffing: Schwartz and others have shown that from the late 1920s onward, RCA labs were feverishly trying to reverse-engineer Farnsworth’s machine based on the information gleaned from Zworykin’s visit. For while RCA had by now developed its own patented technology, Zworykin’s kinoscope, the demonstrations of Farnsworth’s image dissector showed his technology to be superior. Indeed, it would ultimately prove the starting point for modern television.

And so, as the 1930s began, Sarnoff and his allies were simultaneously trying to discredit the Farnsworth television and to reproduce it—such was the perverse genius of the Sarnoff plan. The talk campaign was similar to the one he’d lodged against FM and Edwin Armstrong: Farnsworth’s invention, while of some scientific interest, did not work, and so his patents were invalid. The key audience for this disinformation was, of course, the investment community, and in 1935 RCA intensified the effort to keep them away from Farnsworth by means of what we now call a “vaporware” strategy. In 1935, Sarnoff announced that the company was commiting millions to build its own television, with its mighty industrial laboratories and its own resident genius, Zworykin. In the face of the imminent release of a “real” version of the television, covered by its own patents, only a fool would invest in Farnsworth.

Combined with the credit scarcity of those years and the FCC’s ban on commercial television, the Sarnoff squeeze made survival quite a struggle for Farnsworth’s “Television Laboratories.” His machine, although it worked, still required powerful lighting, which problem he needed to address in development while he tried to build his own industry. He would find money to do neither, and one can well imagine the frustration of a man who in 1935 owns a working television camera and television sets of the highest quality anywhere, yet who is legally and financially constrained from bringing his surefire product to market. Little wonder that Farnsworth, despite his Mormon upbringing, turned to the bottle. As the years flew by, he would be stuck doing endless public demonstrations—one in 1934 a ten-day affair at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He could still attract media attention, but without capital, he had nothing to build a company on.

Meanwhile, by the mid-1930s, Sarnoff’s secret research and development effort had taken Farnsworth’s invention beyond anything Farnsworth himself had managed. The RCA laboratories had overcome the need for strong artificial lighting and now had a TV camera that could work in mere daylight. In short, thanks in part to industrial espionage, RCA now had everything it needed to transform itself into a television company.

BAIRD AND FARNSWORTH UNITE

Given the FCC ban, it became clear to Farnsworth that his best chance to exploit his technology lay overseas. Britain was the world’s leading television market in the 1930s, and in 1932 Farnsworth met with Baird to discuss a joint venture combining Farnsworth’s technologies with Baird’s organization and his contract with the BBC. Here was a partnership with much potential, for Baird Television Limited was at the time the most successful company of its kind anywhere, with more than two hundred employees and the world’s only regular broadcasts via the BBC.

In 1936, Farnsworth visited Baird’s operations in south London’s gigantic Crystal Palace. Inside the massive structure, originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, Baird’s company had constructed an astonishing complex combining a laboratory, television station, and production studio. Wedding some of Farnsworth’s technologies with some of Baird’s, the pair produced what were then some of the world’s most advanced electronic television sets.23

Unfortunately, soon thereafter, disaster intervened. Farnsworth had arrived in April, and in late November of that year the entire Crystal Palace was consumed in a massive conflagration of mysterious cause—“the most spectacular night fire in living memory,” as one newsreel put it.* In addition to the magnificent structure of cast iron and glass, also consumed by the flames was any hope for Farnsworth’s technologies getting their start in England. All Baird’s work, too, went up in smoke. Soon thereafter, the BBC would abandon his technologies for an electronic system from another company, EMI, whose technologies were based on RCA’s. His business ruined, Baird returned to the life of a solo inventor. He would spend his last years creating a prototype of color television in high definition (about a thousand lines), television of an order that would not reach the public until the twenty-first century.

NOW WE ADD SIGHT TO SOUND

It was at the 1939 World’s Fair, held in the borough of Queens in New York City, that David Sarnoff would uncloak his scheme to establish RCA as the champion of American television. At the fair, RCA erected a nine-thousand-square-foot pavilion shaped like a giant vacuum tube and dedicated to the “Radio Living Room of Tomorrow.” Its centerpiece, of course, was television. Ten days before the fair opened, Sarnoff held a press conference, among the most effective presentations of its kind in the history of technology and communications. Alone at the podium, surrounded by rows of television sets, a curtain draped over them, Sarnoff would, to borrow a word from the future, reboot the history of television, proclaiming himself and RCA the founders of a new age.24

Baird had demonstrated the first working mechanical television in 1926; Charles Francis Jenkins had begun TV broadcasting in 1928; Farnsworth had patented the electronic television in 1930, starting experimental broadcasts in 1936; and the BBC had been creating television broadcasts of high quality since the mid-1930s. Nonetheless, in 1939, Sarnoff determined to hijack the narrative, rewriting the official story as the public would understand it. He made no mention of television’s history or inventors. Instead, he said:

It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. Television is an art which shines like a torch of hope to a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of mankind.… Now, ladies and gentlemen, we add sight to sound!

At that moment, the veils lifted to reveal the rows of television sets, each of them tuned to the spectacle of Sarnoff standing at the podium. It was an image of such power as to overwhelm facts. The news media, having ostensibly forgotten every dazzling demonstration of the technology they had reported over the past thirteen years, fell lazily into line to inform an equally forgetful public that RCA and Sarnoff had invented television—and now were launching it in the United States. The “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker put it with laconic knowingness: “Last week, of course, witnessed the official birth of television.” Decades later, that impression would stand unchanged. In 1999, Time magazine, celebrating Sarnoff as the “Father of Broadcasting,” would harken to that “fateful day in 1939” when “Sarnoff gave the world a look into a new life.”25

In a sense, of course, Time was right: Sarnoff had made American broadcasting in his image, though it was less an act of creation than of re-creation. The Independents had had their chance, if not quite a fair one. All the same, ten days after the Sight to Sound speech, Franklin Roosevelt made his first television appearance, and the game was over. From then on, American television, in practice and by common consent, did indeed belong to David Sarnoff, the Radio Corporation of America, and the networks NBC and CBS.

When TV reached consumers after the war, it was, as prophesied, a replica of radio in all respects. The programming was sponsored by advertisers, most of the shows simply adaptations of existing radio programs. Sarnoff had planned it all out in The New York Times in 1928 and, one step at a time, had made it all happen.

THE SEED PATENT

What ever happened to Farnsworth’s patent? We might recall that in the 1870s, Bell had managed to force Western Union’s retreat from telephony by means of a patent lawsuit. By such means, too, Sarnoff himself had pushed AT&T out of the radio industry in the 1920s. Farnsworth might have done likewise to RCA in the 1930s. But in Sarnoff he was facing ruthless genius not to be cowed by any man or law.

Reprising his strategy against FM radio, Sarnoff was willing to simply break the law, gird his lawyers, and force Farnsworth to seek redress. In fact, he went further, ordering his lawyers to challenge Farnsworth’s patents and claiming audaciously that all the relevant ideas had been Zworykin’s. Like the founders of the film industry, Sarnoff understood full well that obtaining justice can be expensive and time-consuming, and, with enough adroitness, one could found an industry on law-breaking.

Forced into litigation, Farnsworth did eventually prove the validity of his patents in 1934, and late in 1939, after the World’s Fair, he did force Sarnoff to license his technologies, nonexclusively, for approximately $1 million plus royalties.26 In this sense Farnsworth’s patents did pay off. But he was never able to accomplish the greatest power move of a patent holder and force RCA out of television altogether. He needed the cash, and in a deeper sense, was not ambitious enough perhaps, or simply lacked such aggressive lawyers as Bell had summoned in the 1870s. It’s hard to know, exactly, what Farnsworth wanted; certainly he wished to be credited as an inventor, and to be paid his royalties, but did he, or anyone else in his company, have the dream of domination of the Schumpeterian “private kingdom”? Absent any evidence to that effect, one tends to see him as that variety of inventor ill equipped to be a founder, and one who furthermore failed to find a champion up to doing battle with the radio industry. There was no great warrior on Farnsworth’s side, no Hubbard or Vail, and no one with the foresight to realize that the inventor had everything necessary to defeat Sarnoff.

Not just Sarnoff but luck, too, went against Farnsworth. The combination of the FCC’s stultifying policies, the Depression, and World War II virtually ensured he would run out of time. Once his patent expired in 1947, and with it RCA’s exclusive license, Farnsworth did market his own television sets, but by then, even as the acknowledged inventor of the modern television, he had no comparative advantage over RCA, General Electric, or any other firm. With his technological breakthrough, he’d had the potential, for a time, to be a disruptive founder, but now he was just a minor manufacturer. Mired in debt and short of parts, his firm soon went bankrupt.

Personally, too, it had all been too much. Farnsworth’s drinking would grow more serious, and he would fall into a deep depression that nearly killed him before he abandoned the television industry altogether. In the end, he would be acknowledged on the medium he invented only once, in 1957, when a quiz show panel failed to come up with his name as the man who had invented electronic television.

By then, the medium was well on its way. The two networks, NBC and CBS, enjoyed a comfortable duopoly, aided in part by the FCC’s policy of issuing just two licenses per community. Television sets were manufactured primarily by the old radio industry, dominated by RCA. And there was no debate over advertising or what the content of television should be. Unlike the telephone, radio, the Internet, and other technologies, electronic television in America simply skipped any amateur or noncommercial phase.*

WHO LOST TELEVISION?

Industry structure, as I have suggested, is what determines the freedom of expression in the underlying medium. Sarnoff did not aim to be a censor in the classic sense. And though he did, in 1938, propose a voluntary radio code modeled on the Hollywood Production Code (“It is the democratic way in a democratic country,” he wrote), this was no doubt a typically calculated accommodation to the cultural climate—that is, a business decision—rather than any vision of the good.27 Actually it is not clear that he had any particular opinions about programming. But that ultimately was the problem. Even more than Hollywood, Sarnoff and his cohort cared little about anything but profit and retaining control of their industry. With no need to fix what wasn’t broken, there was only the slightest bit of experimentation in the early days of television, and very little reflection on what television could become. Rather, the unexamined vision of the commercial radio networks would continue to dominate, as it had from the start: light amusement produced by advertising firms, Huxley’s soma for the masses.

The 1940s and ’50s were mostly given over to awe at the new technology, and in the relatively untransgressive cultural climate in which television grew, and which it would help to sustain, it would be a long time before anyone began to question whether the medium had lived up to its potential for good. It was not until the late 1950s that industry figures such as Fred Friendly, head of CBS News, or media critics such as Walter Lippmann, began to meditate on what they saw as the great lost opportunity that was television. The tipping point of this accumulation of doubt came with the revelation, in 1957, that the networks’ popular quiz shows were fixed; in response, Lippmann published a now-famous column entitled “The TV Problem”:

“There is something radically wrong with the fundamental national policy under which television operates,” he wrote. “The principle of that policy is that for all practical purposes television shall be operated wholly for private profit.” By that logic, Lippmann reasoned, it was worth defrauding the public with the quiz shows if that was what it took to “capture the largest mass audience which can be made to look at and listen to the most profitable advertising.” He concluded—exposing the transaction to which the general public were oblivious—“while television is supposed to be free, it has in fact become the creature, the servant, and indeed the prostitute, of merchandising.”28

Such was the ignominious birth of the most influential medium of the postwar era. Under the suspiciously un-American banner of planning and progress, the indubitably American ideals of free exchange and merit rewarded were forgotten. Above all, the early history of the television shows us that the Cycle, at least respecting industrial destruction, is not, after all, inevitable. For the combined forces of a dominant industry and the federal government can arrest the Cycle’s otherwise inexorable progress, intimating for the prevailing order something like Kronos’s fantasy of perpetual rule.

* Known as a Niptow disk.

* As Farnsworth took the Pickford image from the film The Taming of the Shrew, the first public demonstration of electronic television was almost certainly an infringement of copyright. Later Farnsworth would use for his demonstrations Walt Disney’s talking cartoon Steamboat Willie, also presumably without a license.

* The Federal Radio Commission was renamed the Federal Communications Commission in 1934. In this chapter, for simplicity, I refer to both as the FCC.

* Dramatic film footage of the fire can be seen on the Internet.

* Right at the birth of television, there was one other chance for the industry to open up. As television gained popularity across the United States, a broad range of interests clamored to start their own stations. The film industry, notably Warner Bros., among others, applied to the FCC for television licenses. In some other version of history, Hollywood might have started a decidedly different brand of television in the 1940s, drawing on its vast stockpiles of content.