Philo T. Farnsworth first glimpsed the idea behind television as a 14-year-old farm boy plowing a potato field in Idaho. Surveying the parallel rows of crop and earth, he realized that a larger image could be composed from similar irregular lines. Only the whole would be visible when viewed from far away.
It was no fleeting notion. Farnsworth chipped away at the concept until, at the age of 21, he generated the first electronic television broadcast from his San Francisco laboratory in 1927. That faint blue line glowing from within a tiny tube changed the course of the 20th century.
Despite all that, Farnsworth, who died in 1971, is now largely a forgotten figure. The reason why is at the heart of a play by Aaron Sorkin titled "The Farnsworth Invention." A fast-paced tale of genius, treachery, money and science, the play debuted on Broadway in 2007.
Now the Palo Alto Players are presenting Sorkin's drama for a two-week run beginning Saturday. And perhaps because the Bay Area is a science-savvy community, as well as the place where Farnsworth's family still lives, this local theater production is sparking surprising controversy because the play is inaccurate.
Never mind that there is a long and rich literary tradition of bending facts for entertainment value, with Sorkin's own "The Social Network" about the founding of Facebook only one prominent example. A passionate bunch of critics will be on hand at the play's opening night Saturday to distribute information about their beefs with the show to passers-by.
"One of the most important inventions in the history of mankind shouldn't be casually and willfully misrepresented," says William Helvey, a retired Los Altos physician.
"Sorkin desecrates a gripping true story," agrees Don McCleve, a retired physician from Monte Sereno. "The play goes far beyond poetic license. It distorts the facts so that the audience walks away with the impression that RCA invented television, which is the opposite of the truth."
McCleve and Helvey object to the play's depiction of a legally outmanned Farnsworth losing a key patent battle to the RCA corporation. In fact, Farnsworth won his long and contentious legal fight with the media giant in 1939 and received a $1 million payment, but he still did not have enough muscle to dominate the industry. Competitors soon stole his thunder. Corporate skulduggery also played a key role.
As Farnsworth's nephew Steve Player wryly puts it: "Philo won that patent battle, but in the end he lost the war."
The controversy over Sorkin's use of dramatic license took the leaders of the Palo Alto Players by surprise, but they are pleased that the piece has ignited public debate.
"There's definitely a contingent of people who are up in arms about the inaccuracies in the play," says Managing Director Diana Wiley, "but we think this is a great opportunity to teach people about the history. Most people have never heard of him, even in Silicon Valley, which is the cradle of innovation."
Farnsworth's family supports the production. While Player bristles at the play's take on the patent fight, he believes overall it captures the thrust of his uncle's saga well. The drama chronicles many of the scientist's struggles with corporate greed and espionage.
"I hope people come to see the play and learn a little about the history," says Player, a retired attorney who lives in Palo Alto. "My uncle was a remarkable individual with a tremendous intellectual curiosity. This is an amazing story of scientific discovery."
Wiley was initially attracted to the play because of its deep local roots and its connection to the region's high tech culture.
"The story of who first thinks of an idea and who later comes to control that idea is incredibly relevant to life in the valley," he said.
The theater is going out of its way to put the drama into historical context with program notes and post-show discussions.
Sorkin ("The West Wing" and "The Social Network") could not be reached for comment for this story but has made no bones about altering the facts because his "objective is to entertain."
Player says he regrets that Farnsworth remains an obscure figure. His ingenuity is remembered with statues in San Francisco and the nation's capital, but he never got the level of recognition he deserved. After all, when he died of pneumonia in 1971, the average TV set still contained 100 items he had patented.
His invention, Player adds, paved the way for how we interact with every gadget of the Internet age from the personal computer to the iPhone. "He earned the title of father of television, but he never got to reap its benefit," says Player. "That's the real tragedy."
Certainly, Farnsworth was prophetic about the power of television to make the world a smaller place, to transform the way we view humanity. A quiet and unassuming man, over time he became disappointed in the ways his discovery was being used. He forbade his own children from watching it and turned his quest for experimentation to other fields, including nuclear fusion. He was frequently strapped for cash, and the stress of trying to secure funding for his work plagued him until the end.
Still, there were moments of awe with his prize invention. When Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon in 1969 and the nation watched transfixed, Farnsworth turned to his wife Pem and said: "This has made it all worthwhile."
'The FARNSWORTH INVENTION'
By Aaron Sorkin, presented by Palo Alto Players
When: Saturday through June 29
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $23-$45, 650-329-0891, www.paplayers.org.