The man who invented television

April 14, 2002|By David Folkenflik | By David Folkenflik,Sun Staff

The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television. By Daniel Stashower. Broadway Books. 277 pages. $24.95.

It could have been the overwrought prose intended to drum up drama that so vexed the earnest reader of The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television. Or perhaps it was the book's reliance on florid anecdotes rehashed from newspapers of the day that dismayed him. Indeed, a reviewer for The Sun would later write witheringly of "the book's reliance on florid anecdotes rehashed from newspapers of the day."

If you enjoyed the style of the previous paragraph, then, boy, is The Boy Genius and the Mogul just the thing for you. Otherwise, I have my doubts. Daniel Stashower pairs Philo T. Farnsworth, whom the author considers the true inventor of television in the early 1920s, with David Sarnoff, the corporate executive at RCA who made millions from the device. Stashower sees Farnsworth's fade to obscurity as an injustice to be remedied. But his book has many flaws, not least of them his failure to create a vivid portrait of Farnsworth, its intended hero. Sarnoff, by contrast, comes off as ruthless and a rascal, but also inspiring, and capable of charm.

As a schoolboy in Idaho, Farnsworth came up with some fundamental conceptual advances in the picture tube that would make possible television -- the transmission of images along with sound. Some early efforts to devise programming to show that the contraptions work provide some lighter moments in the book. While Farnsworth became something of an international figure, he was not able to capitalize on his advances. Meanwhile, Sarnoff's chief scientist earned RCA a fortune by relying on Farnsworth's basic innovations without giving him credit. The company fought Farnsworth over his patents for years, weakening his position and finances until he was no longer a threat.

The book sets out a decent narrative explaining how that played out, but it does not plumb very deeply. Major events that would presumably affect Farnsworth's ability to issue stock or cut deals abroad -- such as the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, or the Nazi Party's control of Germany after 1933 -- are given inexplicably short shrift.

Perhaps because there is a richer literature already devoted to Sarnoff, the passages on Farnsworth are particularly frustrating. Farnsworth descends into depression and drink and makes one bad business decision after another, but we largely see him through the admiring recollections of his adoring wife, Pem. Readers can't tell whether Stashower, the author of several mysteries and a well-received biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, did any original research, as the book has no footnotes. How in the name of Doris Kearns Goodwin is this possible?

One does come away from The Boy Genius and the Mogul with a grounding in the evolution of television, from earliest glimmers to ubiquity. It's not satisfying, however, and the patness of the writing undermines the effort. At one point, Stashower quotes Sarnoff telling a newspaper reporter to "Forget the sob stuff. The [Horatio] Alger stories are out of date." Stashower should have paid heed.

David Folkenflik, television writer and media critic for The Sun, has been a Sun reporter for seven years. He covered politics and wrote about higher education. Previously, he was a reporter for the Herald-Sun of Durham, N.C.

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