Philo T. Farnsworth: The burden of genius
Did Philo T. Farnsworth bottle a star in his Fort Wayne basement laboratory on Pontiac Street? It is possible that in the 1960s the inventor of television achieved what still eludes scientists: self-sustaining fusion. If harnessed, a tiny amount of fusion, which generates the sun and stars, could power an entire city without the pollution of fossil fuels. Farnsworth, who conceived of the idea for television while plowing fields as a teenager, was certainly capable of cracking the fusion code.
It was television, however, that first brought the Utah native to Indiana. Farnsworth changed the world forever in 1927 when he transmitted the first “electronic television image” at his San Francisco laboratory. But transforming his historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of financial and legal struggle. In 1938, his investors scoured the nation for a manufacturing plant that would allow them to profit from Farnsworth’s invention.
They chose the former Capehart Phonograph Company building in Fort Wayne and formally organized the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation (FTRC) plant on March 1, 1939. The company, sometimes referred to as Capehart-Farnsworth, opened for business on March 14 and soon boosted the city’s economy with the production of radios, phonographs, and television equipment. Farnsworth oversaw production and continued his scientific endeavors with a research department. His wife Pem said that Farnsworth’s “input breathed energy into the men, and in turn, their reciprocation kept him on his toes.” During the war years, the FTRC expanded throughout Indiana and adapted the Ft. Wayne facilities to produce materials for military equipment, radar systems, and missile guidance.
After the war, Farnsworth’s company struggled to repay war loans and reluctantly convinced investors to sell FTRC to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). The company stayed in Fort Wayne, but Farnsworth’s main post-war research interests centered around developing a low-cost form of fusion. Hoping to usher in the “high-energy era,” Pem said that a mutual friend set up a phone call between Philo and Albert Einstein in 1947. After discussing scientific theories for about an hour, Pem recalled: “Phil reappeared, his face aglow from the excitement of finding someone who understood what he was talking about.”
Reportedly, Einstein had developed similar theories, but was dismayed by the use of his work in developing the atomic bomb and decided not to share them. However, he encouraged Farnsworth to pursue fusion for peaceful purposes and requested Farnsworth contact him once he worked out the mathematics. Energized, Farnsworth established a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne and devised and patented a “fusion reaction tube” called the “fusor.” Engineer Steve Blaising, who worked with Farnsworth on his fusion project, noted in an interview in The Waynedale News, that Farnworth moved his lab to a larger facility in a part of town described as “Fort Wayne’s ‘Area 51.'” Blaising recalled that in his quest, Farnsworth converted his home on State and St. Joe Blvd to a tube lab, gutting holes from the ceiling to the basement.
Blaising remembered the danger and excitement of the experiments in the underground lab, saying “most of us secretly feared things might happen faster than humans could react and if they did; it might cause a real liability problem for the company and our widows. Who could forget that ominous hum that filled the air? We vibrated from our feet to our teeth and more times than not, components exploded before we achieved the upper ranges of power.”
Farnsworth reportedly achieved fusion in Fort Wayne, but it’s unclear whether or not he generated self-sustaining fusion. Unfortunately, Einstein died before Farnsworth could share his mathematics with him and, upon his passing, Farnsworth felt more alone than ever. Lacking a Ph.D., the Atomic Energy Commission doubted Farnsworth’s capabilities and often dismissed his concepts, unaware of the genius that sat before them. Indignant, Farnsworth supposedly claimed that “Our Fort Wayne Team is eons ahead of the MIT people doing fusion research.”
In 1966, Farnsworth moved to Provo, Utah with Fort Wayne employees to pursue fusion away from ITT’s influence. His health eventually failed and he canceled the project. Evidently, family members suspected he carried the secret of fusion to his grave out of concern that humanity was not spiritually prepared for it. Despite the allocation of billions of dollars to complex machines, self-sustaining fusion has not yet been achieved. Farnsworth would be proud to know that innovative hobbyists in basements around the country have been replicating and tinkering with his fusor to achieve that which those with Ph.D.’s have not. Farnsworth kept a plaque on his desk that read “MEN AND TREES DIE–IDEAS LIVE ON FOR THE AGES.” How apt.
Nicole Poletika is a historian with the Indiana Historical Bureau, which oversees the State Historical Marker Program. She manages the Bureau’s Blogging Hoosier History, where you can learn more about Farnsworth’s historic achievements. She wrote this column for News-Sentinel.com.