Philo T. Farnsworth. T. Townsend Brown.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how/where/when these two stories dovetail together.
I’ve only asked myself that question a jazillion times over the past twenty years (or my entire adult life if you want to go back to when all this started in the summer of 1973).
In the course of one of my recent podcast interviews, I found myself – finally! – beginning to articulate the point where these two stories are in perfect consonance.
First, there’s a passage from the Townsend Brown biography, and then a synchronous story from the Philo Farnsworth bio.
In The Man Who Mastered Gravity there is a marvelous scene from the spring of 1927, when Townsend Brown is courting Josephine, the young woman would become his wife. By the time he took her sailing on Ohio’s Buckeye Lake, he had found a receptive enough audience for his unorthodox ideas to be comfortable expressing one of his most cherished visions:
As their little sailboat skimmed across the surface of the lake, Josephine tried to lighten the mood.
“OK, Mr. Smarty, if you could travel through time, what do you think you will find in the future? Will there be more wars? What will become of Mankind in the future?”
The young dreamer with the tiller in one hand and the mainsheet in the other knew it was time to share the vision he had seen in his dreams.
“We will just sail away,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Someday, men will travel in space, just as easily as we are sailing now. Great ships will silently push away from the Earth just as easily as this sailboat pushed away from the dock.”
Josephine closed her eyes and tried to imagine their little boat sailing across the void of space. In her heart she knew she was hearing something not only strange and fantastic, but also true.
Remember, this is a story from the mid-1920s, roughly the time when Robert Goddard was conducting his very first experiments with the sort of rocket-propulsion that would eventually blast men into orbit and off to the moon. Rocketry was barely out of its cradle, and already Townsend Brown was dismissing it – as he would describe it in years hence – as “brute and awkward force.”
The idea that Townsend shared with Josephine demonstrates that vision is often borne of invention – you see the future differently when your personal experience suggests unorthodox things that might be possible.
Philo Farnsworth nurtured a corollary vision borne of his own unique understanding of what might be possible.
In the summer of 1926, Farnsworth was still a year away from delivering television into the world, but already he could sense what the future had in store. And, like Townsend Brown, he expressed that vision to his wife while they were on a boat.
Farnsworth’s laboratory was at the foot of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco; the cottage he shared with his new wife Pem was across the bay in Berkeley. They often spent their days in the lab together. Pem contributed drawings and diagrams for the patents and helped with administrative chores while Phil and Pem’s brother Cliff Gardner began fabricating tubes and circuits.
As described in The Boy Who Invented Television:
The first few months in San Francisco were a heady and romantic time for the newlywed Farnsworths. One night in particular stood out in Pem’s memory—a brisk, moonless night in January when she and Phil were taking the late ferry back to their cottage on Derby Street.
They’d walked out on the deck, and Phil pointed out some of the constellations and planets he had learned from his father. Then, out of the blue, Phil said “Some day, I’m going to build a space ship and go out there—and I hope that you will want to go with me.”
A chill ran down Pem’s spine. She’d never been off the ground, never even been up in an airplane. Now, suddenly, the man she had married, a man she knew was quite capable of achieving any fanciful dream he imagined, was proposing to take her into the infinite darkness of space.
The very thought of it scared her witless. She was silent for a full minute, until Phil asked her, “Does that scare you?”
“Yes,” Pem answered, “it scares me to death. But I’m not going to let you go off into space without me. I get goose bumps just thinking about it, but I suppose I’d rather die with you in space than live on Earth without you.”
“That’s my girl,” Phil said with a smile, “That’s what I wanted to hear. But you can relax, we’ve got a lot to do before we could take on such a project, and it may take longer than we think to make something commercial out of television.”
From the work he did over the next decade “to make something commercial out of television,” Farnsworth learned to do1 with quantum mechanics more than any man alive at the time. From his novel vacuum tubes came the inspiration for a device that could bottle a star – and from that conception came his own unique sense of what the future might have in store.
In the middle of the 20th centyury, as mankind confronted gravity with ever more powerful rockets, Farnsworth expressed his vision for space travel using the analogy of “a pineapple and a pea.”
With rocket propulsion, Farnsworth would say, the first Earthlings in space needed a launch vehicle “the size of a pineapple” in order to lift a payload “the size of a pea.”
Just picture the Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon: a Volkswagen-sized spacecraft sits atop a 40-story-tall fuel tank – and much of that fuel was burned just getting the rest of the fuel off the launch pad!
With fusion energy as the source of propulsion, Farnsworth believed, that ratio would be reversed: a fusion-powered launch vehicle “the size of a pea” would lift a payload “the size of a pineapple.” In the last chapters of The Boy Who Invented Television, he describes…
…small, fusion-powered rockets gently lifting enormous payloads into orbit. Once in orbit, fusion-powered spacecraft could make it to Mars on as much nuclear fuel as could be stored in a tank the size of a fountain pen…”
This is where the two stories intersect: “…gently lifting enormous payloads…” sure sounds a lot to me like “silently pushing away from the Earth just as easily as this sailboat pushed away from the dock.”
Farnsworth may not have been thinking in terms of synthetic gravity any more than Townsend Brown was thinking of synthetic stars, but the two ideas fit together perfectly: The electrical potential of Philo Farnsworth’s fusion reactor is precisely what Townsend Brown needed to produce artificial gravity.
And a vessel that can ‘just sail away’ sounds like ‘a pea propelling a pineaple’ to me.
Taken together, these two stories suggest that mankind has come so far along in his technological progress that he has reached a threshold, beyond which lies that “universe of magical things” that Eden Phillpotts speaks of in the epigraph that opens The Man Who Mastered Gravity:
And then comes the daunting question: if we have reached that threshold, why can’t we cross it?
I may be making a few shekels from these books, but that one is waaaay above my pay grade.
1 While Ph.D physicists like Werner Heisenberg and Neils Borh debated whether electrons were particles or waves, Philo T. Farnsworth was actually doing things with them – and delivered one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.