Academic journal article Journalism History

Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth: The Pioneering of Television

Academic journal article Journalism History

Elma "Pem" Gardner Farnsworth: The Pioneering of Television

Article excerpt

Philo T. Farnsworth, the "father of television"(1) gave to the world the most powerful communications form of the century, "unparalled in scientific development".(2) However, in the quest to bestow recognition on 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 "[n]o small part of Farnsworth's success is due to his charming and beautiful wife, Elma Gardner Farnsworth."(3) 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."(4) Philo himself put it more directly: "My wife and I started this TV."(5)

Recent studies have described the important role that women have played in journalism history.(6) 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 1845-1872.(7) The wife of Joseph Pulitzer encouraged him to buy the New York World in 1883.(8) The wife of Cyrus H.K. Curtis helped originate the popular Ladies' Home Journal.(9) The wife and daughter of Adolph Ochs were influential in the development of the New York Times.(10) Life magazine was created as the result of the "enthusiastic urging of Clare Booth Luce on her husband."(11) "The Feminine Touch in Telecommunications" briefly reviewed the role of women in wireless telegraphy and concluded by noting that "the advances in the state of communications art have found women working side by side with men to make history."(12) 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"(13) for history as it provides an "added dimension for understanding."(14) Overlooking the woman's role, no matter how unintentional, limits the 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."(15) According to Philo Farnsworth, "You can't write about me, without writing about us."(16) The purpose of this article is to describe the supportive role Pem Farnsworth played in the development of television. Elma Farnsworth worked in her husband's laboratories--both those at home and at corporate headquarters. Even after his death she has crusaded to assure Farnsworth received credit in the annals of television history.

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.(17) It was during Pem's sophomore year that she met the 18-year-old 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. …

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