Apollo 11 +50: Please Remember This Man, Too.
Recalling the first lunar landing from the perspective of the man who made the communal, global experience possible: Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Excerpted from The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion by Paul Schatzkin (Amazon).
Chapter 20: Tranquility Base
“God takes away the minds of these men, and uses them as his ministers.” — Socrates
Like a half a billion of their fellow earthlings, Mr. and Mrs. Philo T. Farnsworth sat in their living room in Salt Lake City, transfixed in front of their television set as the Apollo 11 Lunar Module “Eagle” began its final descent toward the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.
Gene Kranz, the flight director, conveyed the decision of mission control to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin:
“Eagle, Houston. You are go to continue power descent.”
Although his own involvement with television ended once ITT sold off the Capehart-Farnsworth factories, Farnsworth always kept a watchful eye on his brainchild as it swept across the nation and around the world. He never cared for most of the programming he saw broadcast on his invention. His family retells the story of one time when he rose from his chair in disgust and emphatically switched off the set, beginning a period of years before a TV ever came on again in his household. He often felt that the medium’s more constructive applications had been neglected, and wondered aloud at times if all the energy he’d spent on television was worth it.
“Eagle, Houston. You’re go for landing.”
“Roger, Houston. Go for landing.”
It was a matter of little consequence to Philo T. Farnsworth that his own star faded just as the medium he pioneered was ascending to prominence in the world’s cultural firmament. He was not one to dwell on past accomplishments. When he did reflect on the past, he was invariably determined to share the credit. On those occasions when he did speak in public or write about his contributions to television, he often started out by saying, “Years ago, my wife and I started television…”
Beyond such infrequent reminiscences, Farnsworth’s mind was always focused on some new vision of the future. The primary reason he was interested in fusion energy was for space exploration. He always believed he was going to travel in space, and predicted as much to his wife as they stood on the deck of a ferry crossing the San Francisco Bay one starry night in 1926. He never did get to make a space flight himself, but it pleased him to see others beginning the journey during his lifetime.
“Houston, we’re go. Hang tight. 2,000 feet, 47 degrees.”
There are only a few noble spirits like Philo T. Farnsworth who appear on Earth during each generation, men and women who can alter the course of history without commanding great armies. Albert Einstein was one. Nikola Tesla, who invented alternating current and battled with Thomas Edison over it, was another. Edwin Armstrong, who invented the circuits that made broadcasting possible, also fought with David Sarnoff over his patents for FM radio until his death.
Such gifted individuals seem to arrive with a special insight embedded in their soul — some unique, inexplicable grasp of nature that not only creates fabulous gadgets but also stretches the frontier of human understanding. It seems that no matter how noble these spirits might be, their presence is often impeded by less-enlightened forces here on Earth, who unwittingly oppose them, sometimes in the very name of progress. At times we are fortunate to receive even a fraction of their gifts.
“750, coming down at 23 …700 feet, 21 down ….”
Phil tightened his grip on Pem’s hand as the Eagle descended ever closer to the lunar surface.
As Albert Einstein was to Isaac Newton, might Phil Farnsworth have been to Einstein? Was Farnsworth on the threshold of a new level of human understanding somewhere beyond Einstein’s universe? As Einstein had stood on the shoulders of Newton and reached for the next rung of knowledge, was Farnsworth standing on the shoulders of Einstein, hoping that his earthbound star would catapult mankind into the heavens? Had he discovered in the power of the stars an idea that would enable travel to the stars?
We can’t answer that question because Farnsworth never followed through on his promise to Einstein to publish the math. At the same time he was trying to formalize the math, he was struggling with the Fusor. When his colleagues questioned that math, he focused on the Fusor as a means of proving his theories. He knew he was traveling in uncharted territory, and struggled daily with the difficulty of conveying his ideas across the confounding distance from his grasp to the reach of others. He expected the Fusor would silence his detractors, merely by working as he predicted. When he realized he would be denied the chance to finish the work, he had only enough time and energy left to satisfy himself.
Farnsworth often said his life was a “guided tour.” The native instincts embedded in his soul’s code led him to the ideas that gave the world electronic television. Working on television, he encountered the phenomenon of secondary electron emissions. Working with secondary emissions led to the invention of the Multipactor tube. The Multipactor, in turn, revealed the secret that may have solved the riddle of fusion — a clean, safe, and limitless source of energy for our planet. We are left to wonder why this noble spirit could not ultimately deliver his most inspired creation.
“300 feet, down 3–1/2. Got the shadow out there.”
We are left to ponder the titanic struggle between the forces that inspire mankind to reach its destiny among the stars and those that keep it anchored to the Earth.
Farnsworth always believed we would travel in space. Whether or not he truly believed it would happen to him — that he would personally have an opportunity to leave Earth’s gravity and explore the heavens — he knew that to be our destiny. And he knew, perhaps from birth, that he had a role to play in achieving that destiny. His unfinished work remains just that: unfinished.
And so the riddle of fusion becomes the riddle of the Farnsworth Fusor: did it work, or was Farnsworth’s approach a dead end? Nothing in the record gives us a conclusive answer either way, so the mystery persists to this day. Asked to speculate why the Fusor project ended so inconclusively, Bob Hirsch said simply, “Not enough money.”
“75 feet …looking good …picking up some dust …30 feet, 2–1/2 down …Contact light. Okay, engine stop …Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
“Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Like the rest of the world at that moment in 1969, Phil and Pem Farnsworth started breathing again, too. They smiled knowingly at each other when the near-speechless Walter Cronkite managed to regain his composure long enough to comment that, amazing as the lunar landing itself was, even more amazing was the fact that the entire world was sharing the event through television.
Of course, the world didn’t watch the actual landing — they listened to the live audio transmissions between CapCom and the Lunar Module, and on some networks they watched animated simulations of the landing. Nobody got to witness the landing itself because no live television cameras were deployed until the astronauts were ready to step out of the lander.
Several hours later, Armstrong and Aldrin suited up to leave the Lunar Module and walk on the surface of the moon. As Armstrong waited on the edge of the ladder, Aldrin flipped a circuit breaker and radioed to Houston.
“Roger, TV circuit breaker’s in. Receive loud and clear.”
At home in Salt Lake City, the inventor of electronic television caught his breath again. He had learned through his sources in the industry that the camera that NASA had sent up with Apollo 11 used a tube that was based on Farnsworth’s original Image Dissector, the tube that “had everything that it needed and nothing that it didn’t.”
“Man, we’re getting a picture on the TV …Okay, Neil.”
A few moments later, Neil Armstrong took his historic “giant leap for mankind” as he stepped off the footpad of the Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon. A quarter of a million miles away, television turned one man’s lunar stroll into an expression of global awakening, a moment in which the entire planet became involved in the unfolding of its own evolution.
For Philo T. Farnsworth, this extraordinary occasion provided a long-delayed moment of personal triumph, which erased any doubts about the value of his contribution. Just seeing with his own eyes that his invention made it possible for the entire world to witness those historic steps was enough to make him turn to his wife and say:
“This has made it all worthwhile.”
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And if all of that is sufficient to pique your interest in this fascinating story, then please… BUY THE BOOK! (I’m sorry there is still no Kindle edition, Amazon took issue with the way the doc was formatted and pulled it. So you’ll just have to wait for the actual book to arrive. Trust me it’s worth it.)