I read Karen D'Souza's terrific piece on the Palo Alto Players' production of "The Farnsworth Invention."
I wasn't aware of this production and so wasn't aware of any controversy but now that I am I'd like to jump into it with my two cents. (And first let me say that I also wasn't aware that anyone was trying to contact me for a comment, which I would have been happy to give. If a message never made it to me I apologize.)
Dr. Helvey and Dr. McCleve believe the play asserts that RCA invented television -- I'm very surprised that anyone could come away from the play with that impression. The entire first act of the play shows Philo going from having the idea when he was 14 to diagraming it for his science teacher to getting the funding from a banker to working in his lab in San Francisco to getting the first picture, and much is made about the fact that it's the first picture. These things are dramatized before our eyes while Sarnoff and RCA are left playing catch-up (and on an invention the play says RCA wasn't even interested in at the outset.) The second act dramatizes exactly how RCA stole television from Philo -- again, it's not nuanced, it's played out in front of us. In a speech to the audience toward the end of the play, Sarnoff himself says, "Did I steal television? I don't think so but if I did I stole it fair and square."
As for the legal battle, Drs. Helvey and McCleve are quite right that Philo won a patent suit with RCA, but it was only after years of appeals and many counter suits -- at the end of which the life of the patent had expired. This not being a courtroom drama I condensed those many years of litigation into one scene, at the end of which Sarnoff says to the audience, "I don't know, I may be remembering it wrong. He may have won that first one and then lost on appeal or lost and then won and then lost again. It didn't matter because all I had to do was run down the clock on his 17 years" -- the life of the patent.
I understand that for friends, relatives and fans of Philo Farnsworth, that million-dollar judgment was an important symbolic victory in a heated struggle that played out over the course of Philo's entire adult life, but in the end the inventor of television died broke and in obscurity and that was the larger truth I was getting at.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
-- Aaron Sorkin