Elma G. Farnsworth
A Part of Everything He Did, She Did:
Elma "Pem" GardnerFarnsworth and
The Pioneering of Television
Donald G. Godfrey, Ph. D.
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication
Arizona State University
Alf Pratt, Ph.D.
Professor of Communications
Brigham Young University
Accepted March, 1994 Pending Revisions
Broadcast historians have titled Philo T. Farnsworth the "forgotten father of television." However, in the quest to bestow recognition on Mr. Farnsworth, historians and popular authors have overlooked his unique partnership with Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth. Farnsworth's biographer, George Everson, noted almost in passing that "no small part of Farnsworth's success is due to his charming and beautiful wife." Philo himself put it more directly, "
you can't write about me without writing about us, we are one person.
Elma "Pem" GardnerFarnsworth:
The Pioneering of Television
Philo T. Farnsworth, the "father of television" gave to the world the most powerful communications form of [the] century "
unparalled in scientific development". However, in the quest to bestow recognition on Mr. Farnsworth historians have overlooked the unique partnership Farnsworth had with his wife, Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth. She, too, played an important role in the pioneering of television. George Everson, who worked to raise funds for the earliest television laboratory experiments, and authored the first publication on the life of Philo T. Farnsworth, noted in passing that, "No small part of [Philo] Farnsworth's success is due to his charming and beautiful wife, Elma Gardner Farnsworth". A contemporary journalist writing about the laboratory experiments in Fort Wayne, Indiana described Elma's role as mother and housekeeper and then noted, "as a matter of fact she even helped make the first tubes for the small company." Philo himself put it more directly, "
my wife and I started this TV".
Recent studies have indicated the important role that women have played in journalism history. A study in the life of Horace Greeley alluded to the role of his wife in forcing him out of the home and keeping him in the offices of the New York Tribune where he provided editorial leadership for the nation from 18451872. The wife of Joseph Pulitzer encouraged him to buy the New York World in 1883. The wife of Cyrus H.K. Curtis helped originate the popular Ladies' Home Journal. The wife and daughter of Adolph Ochs were influential in the development of the New York Times. Life Magazine was created as the result of the "enthusiastic urging of Clare Booth Luce on her husband". "The Feminine Touch in Telecommunications," briefly reviewed the role of women in wireless telegraphy; and concluded noting that "the advances in the state of communications art have round women working side by side with men to make history." Such history has been quietly criticized as being superficial, melodramatic and no more than personal anecdotes. However, the studies do provide insight into the often neglected role of women in history and particularly the history of electronic media. As Susan Henry suggested, "new information on women in journalism history has important implications
" for history as it provides an "added dimension for understanding
" Overlooking the woman's role, no matter how unintentional, limits the historical perspective of journalism history.
Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth is an example of one such unintentional oversight. She devoted her life "exclusively to her home and the furtherance of his [her husband's] career." The purpose of this paper is to describe the supportive role of Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth with her husband in the development of television. It is not within the scope of this paper to delineate the legal or technical problems in the Farnsworth's claim to television. Elma Farnsworth worked in her husband's laboratoriesboth those at home and at corporate headquarters. Even after his death she has crusaded to assure "his" credit in the annals of television history. According to Mr. Farnsworth, "you can't write about me, without writing about us
" This is the focus of this studythe added dimensions of one woman's role in the history of television.
Pem's Family Background: Growing Together
The woman who played the contributory role in the development of television was born in Utah, the fourth child of Bernard Edward and Alice Maria Mecham Gardner. Both of her parents had their roots in Mormon heritage and tradition. Pem, as she was known to family and friends, was raised on a farm at Jensen, near the oil rich foothills of Vernal, Utah. The Gardner family moved to Provo in 1923 in order to provide their nine children with greater educational opportunities. As a student in high school Pem had an aptitude for music and science. It was during Pem's sophomore year that she met the 18yearold Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo's background was similar to Pem's. Limited family funds had required both the Gardners and the Farnsworths to move to a number of communities in Utah and Idaho in order to improve their children's educational opportunities. Both Pem and Philo attended Provo High School and Philo had use of the Brigham Young University research laboratory. Their courtship, in the mid 20s, included dances, the usual entertainment and going to "radio parties" at BYU. They were engaged on Pem's birthday, February 25, 1926.
Fortunately for Pem and Philo, they met George Everson (who later provided the first financial support for the Farnsworth television experiments). Everson, who was a Community Chest fund raiser from California, met the couple while on a fund raising expedition in Salt Lake City. Philo was hired by Everson to address the envelopes for the fundraising campaign, and he convinced Everson to hire Pem. It was during this association that Everson recognized an investment opportunity in the idea of "television" and offered to fund the television project with $5,000, provided Philo move to Hollywood, California for the experimentation. Philo was eager to begin the work, but he wanted to get married, so there would be two Farnsworths moving to California. Everson's first loan was provided so Pem and Philo could get married on May 27, 1926.
Working Together: In the Laboratories
Elma Farnsworth began working by the side of her husband almost immediately as the first laboratory was in the dining room of their Hollywood home. They worked in Hollywood for only a short time and then moved to San Francisco to be closer to their investment bankers. The San Francisco laboratory is where the first Farnsworth television pictures were seen on September 7, 1927. "I just grew up with the [television] project," working with Philo, "doing everything," Pem recalled.
From the beginning, one of Pem's most important roles was the maintenance of the log booksshe made the entries describing each step of the experiments. If she was not working in the lab during the day, Philo would bring home the entries and drawings he wanted in his journal. Regular sessions between the two of them were conducted to assure an accurate record was kept. The graphic figures she drew, illustrated the general systems as well as electronic schematics for specific elements within the system. Pem even enrolled, temporarily in two correspondence courses from the University of California at Berkeley, equipping herself with a knowledge of geometry while she worked. It is important to note that the significance of the drawings were not limited to record maintenance and lab communication. Pem's drawings were eventually incorporated into the investment briefs illustrating the Farnsworth television for potential investors. These briefs or investment prospectus, were used to develop support and financing for continued experiments.
According to the personnel listing from the Farnsworth television laboratory in San Francisco, Pem was also one of the first laboratory technicians. As a member of the staff she worked in the laboratory during television's earliest years of development. In addition to maintaining the log books, her lab responsibilities included spotwelding the tube elements as they were assembled. She was taught how to use precision tools used in constructing the elements of the first tubes. Her salary was ten dollars per month.
A photograph of Pem was one of the images of a human being transmitted via the Farnsworth television system. In his first experiment, in 1927, Philo was transmitting with linedrawn pictures of a triangle and a dollar sign at the time, but was persuaded to use "real photographs." One of several early negative photographs turned out to be of Pem and her brother, Cliff Gardner. According to Everson, "They televised much better than the solid black triangle and dollar sign."
Pem was also the bookkeeper, secretary, defender and treasurer of early operations. During the depression finances were a major challenge in the development of the Farnsworth television system, as few investors were willing to extend much assistance. So, in order to hold down expenses, Pem and other members of the Farnsworth family worked in the lab. Writing later, in 1949, Everson criticized the practice of hiring family indicating that it had slowed the work. Pem responded to the criticism contending that Everson's comments about the family were unfair. She argued that:
Philo's ideas and experiments were enough to give an accredited engineer heart failure. When he went to Stanford looking for help, they told him his experiments were doomed to failure. He got the same negative advice from his professors at Brigham Young University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Whenever one of the college graduates would tell him that research showed that something would not be done, it would make him more determined to show that it could be done.
According to Pem there were engineering technicians in the lab and the primary reasons members of the family were on the payroll were the limited finances and the contributions they made directly to the television experiments. Cliff (Pem's brother) became an expert glass blower and worked with the manufacture of the tubes. Carl (Philo's brother) operated the coilwinding machine to develop component parts for the system. "True, Phil enjoyed having his family around him, [but if having the family work] freed the engineer for more important work, why not?"
Character and Closeness of the Family: Beyond Television
The character and closeness of Pem and her family undoubtedly affected their choices in hiring as it affected their lives together. Pem and Philo's views of science and the family, for example, were traditionalwhich is to say, the goal of science was to reveal the hand of God. They also shared a conservative Mormon heritage which, along with Philo's inventions, according to Pem, was "the overriding motivation of life." When Philo declared, "my wife and I started this TV
" and described their relationship by saying, "we are one," it was a reflection of this tradition and strong family ties, as well as the close working relationship which had developed between the two of them.
As the work on television progressed the family grew and moved across the countryfrom Hollywood to San Francisco; Philadelphia and Fryeburg, Maine; Fort Wayne and to Salt Lake City. With four children in the home Pem divided her time between working with her husband and caring for their children. Life was not easy for the family. A series of events brought tragedy and misfortune to the family. Their son caught streptococcus and died; Philo's brother Carl (who worked in the laboratory) died in a plane accident; Lincoln (Philo's younger brother) lost an eye in a laboratory accident; fire completely destroyed their home, papers and belongings in Maine; and Philo's own personal health began to deteriorate. Nevertheless, the laboratory and her husband's work were never far from the center of Pem's activities, "he went to great lengths to make me a part of everything he did."
Beyond television and Philo's other experiments one of Pem's greatest challenges was that of nursing Philo's health. Philo was a workaholic, who seldom stopped to think about much beyond this work and his family. At times he was so involved in the lab that he would not stop to eat. It as difficult for him to relax and this resulted in health problems. He had been taking prescription drugs " in order to calm his mind and allow him to sleep." One physician had prescribed chloral hydrate and another suggested tobacco, but Philo turned to alcohol in order to relax. Long hours, a number of operations, Philo's lack of trust in medical doctors, and his own failure to care for his health resulted in psychological and physiological problems. As a result Pem worked continually at his side. "My one ambition," she said, "was to get Phil really on his feet. My whole time has been spent to that end and I intend it shall be until the job is done."
Pem Farnsworth's Work Continues After Husband's Death
In all the oral histories and coverage within the popular press Pem speaks very little of herself. She is reserved when asked questions about herself. She is a gentle lady who likes to talk about her husband and their experiences. In all her interviews and oral histories whenever questions are posed as to her character and participation answers are quickly diverted, by Pem, to Philo's genius. And when she talks about Philo and television, the shyness disappears as she speaks with the authority of an eyewitnessshe speaks with the energy of a woman with a cause. Her cause has been promoting her husband, who concentrated on inventing letting others work on promotion and history. Her work with her husband dominated her life. In one history does Pem give us a glimpse of herself and her personal views about the women's movement. Here she reveals a bit of her own philosophy, but again its only to illustrate her work with Philo. Pem agrees with the basic platforms of the women's movement today, but "up to a point." "We [women] should have a right to be ourselves and to demand equal payprovided we are in all ways equally qualified." Regarding working women and her own relationship she continued that, "when it is necessary or desired by both parties for the wife to workthen duties in the home and daytoday care of the children should be divided. The first rule for a successful marriage," she said, "is to give and give lovingly a little more than you receive."
Philo T. Farnsworth died in 1971, and Pem began to promote the credit for her husband's work. She felt RCA had stolen recognition from Philo in the development of television. Writing George Everson in 1977 to acquire documents from the RCA patent case, she commented:
I talked to Zworykin's [Valdimir K. Zworykin] Attorney during the interferences and he had the nerve to say that RCA won all the interferences. You and I know this isn't true, but I need evidence. Do you have any of the Farnsworth documents or letter that might help me in this?
Although Farnsworth had won the patent interference case with RCA, RCA won the public recognition battle
a victory Pem still feels a need to reverse. The confrontation with RCA she says was truly a "David and Goliath" situation. Even "today RCA claims this tube" [the image orthicona television camera tube], but according to Pem, "all it really invented was the name." The newsletter, Et Al, published by the family reflects the emotions of this confrontation: "It is shameful and RCA and Sarnoff's relatives should exorcise this dishonesty from their philosophical bloodline."
Pem's struggle for her husband's recognition did not end with RCAshe believed that placing her husband's contributions to society in proper perspective remained her most important responsibility. Pem's interviews with the popular press have produced numerous articles discussing the Farnsworth television system. Each lauds Farnsworth's genius and reinforces the charges that RCA was heavy handed in its dealings with others in trying to capture the public relations battle for television entrepreneurship. The result of her campaign has been that the scholarly and textbook portrayal of both Farnsworth and Zworykin's [RCA's] contribution to the pioneering of television has been balanced and several portrayals of Farnsworth are rather flattering where earlier texts had ignored Farnsworth, the narrative today credits both inventors. It was Mrs. Farnsworth's work, along with other supporters, which lead to the Farnsworth commemorative U.S. postal stampthe twenty cent stamp was issued in 1983. An historical marker was also affixed, in 1981, to the San Francisco building where the first Farnsworth television image was projected. A statue was dedicated in Washington's Statuary Hall [May, 1990].
Arch Madsen, President of the Bonneville International Corporation, penned the most complimentary tribute to Pem's contribution to American television. The resolution presented before a meeting of the Bonneville Corporation, December 12, 1979:
Whereas, the people of the world in every country and clime have been influenced by the pioneering electronic discoveries and inventions of Philo T. Farnsworth
Whereas, some temporarily stood by his side and offered encouragement and support, there was only one, whose unfailing faith sustained [him]
So, it is appropriate to hereby recognize Elma Pem' Gardner Farnsworth [as] the Mother of Television.
Mr. Madsen was lavish in his praise, as he knew both Philo and Pem. He was a personal friend and an investor in Philo T. Farnsworth and Associates. Nevertheless, it was important to note the role Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth played in the development and pioneering of television. As the family papers described it, "the lab was Phil [Philo] and Pem's world." She was a technical assistant, a draftsperson, a mathematician, a bookkeeper, wife and mother. She was an integral part of the team, which contributed to the development of American television. Elma's story reflects the supportive role of unknown contributors in media history. It provides a balanced insight of life, invention and progress often ignored by traditional historians.
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