The Power of Simple Work

How a 14 year old boy in a field changed the world

Dec 26, 2021

The story of Philo Farnsworth is one that I've known for a long time, in fact I wish I could find the article I read where I first learned it since it briefly covers the same sort of things I want to here, but search engines have failed me and I am sure that the church magazine I read it in became unrecognizable in a landfill somewhere years ago. Nevertheless, Farnsworth's story, or at least the part that I am about to share, is one that I feel everyone should know and ponder on.

Farnsworth was a twentieth century inventor, and you could argue that his biggest invention is in the top five most important and influential inventions from the twentieth century, it was the television. The interesting thing about Farnsworth's story is that, unlike Edison, he did not solve the TV problem by working in a lab all day and failing a thousand times before finally coming out with a successful prototype. Instead the inspiration came to him when he was a boy working on a farm in Rigby Idaho. To quote the Smithsonian Magazine:

Farnsworth dreamed up his own idea for electronic-rather than mechanical-television while driving a horse-drawn harrow at the family’s new farm in Idaho. As he plowed a potato field in straight, parallel lines, he saw television in the furrows. He envisioned a system that would break an image into horizontal lines and reassemble those lines into a picture at the other end. Only electrons could capture, transmit and reproduce a clear moving figure. This eureka experience happened at the age of 14.

I've been to Rigby Idaho, and there really isn't much there, I've probably driven through without stopping over a hundred times, so if there isn't much there now there would have really been nothing there in the early 1920s when Farnsworth lived there, and yet out of a town with nothing came such a complex invention.

But while we can say that it came out of a town with nothing, the inspiration itself didn't come out of nothing. Living in a time before TV, Farnsworth's early life was one almost entirely void of modern distractions which, as I've written about, is something incredibly valuable, but what is even more notable about this part of Farnsworth's story is that the inspiration didn't come to him as he was lying in bed waiting for time to pass or something like that, he was out plowing a field. He was out working when the idea that put him in the history books came to him, and had he not been out working like that all the time I don't think the idea would have ever come to him, it makes sense that the act of being productive leads to the inspiration to solve the world's problems.

As I was thinking about that, my mind went back to many of the worlds classical thinkers, people like Socrates and Aristotle, Newton, Da Vinci and Galileo, then up to people like America's founding fathers. I thought of these people because life back then was significantly harder and everyday tasks involved much more work than life today does. Sure many of these men had servants, but servants can't do everything as even the simple act of writing things down was a much more involved process 200 years ago than it is today. How many of the great ideas these men had came to them while they were doing something like gathering water from a well, gathering wood for a fire, or riding their horse on a week-long journey to the next big city over? I believe that the combination of boredom and productivity is quite powerful, how else could a 14 year old boy come up with such an idea?

I feel like we should learn from these people and this idea and not be afraid of simple work that strains the body rather than the mind, doing the work probably won't change the world, but the things that go through your mind while you do it just might.