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November 12, 2002

Review: The Boy Genius and the Mogul

Daniel Stashower's The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television recounts the invention and the commercialization of television.

It's an amazing story, pitting a remarkable young man named Philo T. Farnsworth, who came up with the essential ideas of television while still in high school in Utah, against David Sarnoff, the autocratic head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

In the early 1920s, with the success of radio assured, inventors turned to the idea of "audiovision," "telephonography," or "television." Most of them focused on mechanical means, most notably the "Nipkow disk" invented by Paul Nipkow, which shone light through perforations in a spinning disk to project areas of light and dark.

Farnsworth, almost alone, believed that the mechanical approach would never work with the sheer amont of information to be broadcast. The key, he thought, was developing a system using no moving parts -- an entirely electronic system relying on a cathode-ray tube.

Sarnoff, our mogul, was hailed as the "godfather of television" in the medium's early days, but actually took some actions that delayed the commercialization of TV while embroiled in a patent controversy with Farnsworth. Eventually, Farnsworth would become the only person paid royalties by RCA, of which Sarnoff bragged, "We don't pay royalties; we collect them." By that time, though, Farnsworth's personal life had cratered, as the constant financial stress led to depression and alcoholism.

The author is a distant relative of Hugo Gernsback, the "father of science fiction" and inspiration of the Hugo award, and he livens up the narrative with quotes from Gernsback's speculative fiction magazines, and as the fictional became real, some of his enthusiast magazines, like Radio News, Electrical Experimenter, and finally All About Television.

November 12, 2002 in Books, Reviews | Permalink


Philo Farnsworth is so much more overrated than he should be. Everyone seems to think he invented the television and he had such a huge impact on the technology world but many of my colleagues and I beg to differ. Nipkow began the whole idea, from rotating disks he made images on a screen. Yes, Philo did come up with very good reasoning and ideas to improve Nipkow's ideas - but somehow it seems he stole the television project from Nipkow like candy from a baby!! HE DOES NOT DESERVE THIS CREDIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!...NIPKOW WAS MY GRANDFATHER!!!!!! MY NAME IS BARB NIPKOW (maiden name..married name now, Barb Thornton) All i ask is that you believe in my Grandfather and give credit to him also!!!!! THANKYOU - GOOD-DAy!!!!

Posted by: Nipkow Loverrr! at Feb 23, 2004 6:56:48 PM

i am doing research on paul nipkow and cannot find the info that i need any suggestions
on where i should look

Posted by: lalita at Mar 24, 2004 8:41:20 PM