The Boy Genius and the Mogul by Daniel Stashower

farnsworth

Incidentally, the 90-year-old gentleman running the front desk of a Vermont motel I stayed at once looked just like this guy!

Stashower, Daniel. The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: According to the dust jacket, this is the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, perhaps one of the most influential inventions of our time, right up there with the light bulb, and the internet. But no one remembers Philo. His dreams stacked up in the face of NBC founder, David Sarnoff. Controlling the future (and future profits) of television pitted the two in a short, but heated battle. You can guess who wins, because until now, had you ever heard of Philo T. Farnsworth?

Critique: Strangely the book does not begin with its self-ascribed main character. It begins with a building. The building is getting a new adornment — a corona of success. Thrilling? well, not exactly. But what comes next is a little better. Stashower weaves together little scenes showing Edwin Armstrong, an Edison-esque inventor, demonstrating his latest radio tuning device (a little thing called FM) for radio tycoon David Sarnoff. They pick up a transmission all the way from Honolulu! Hot dog! If you can forget that boring building bit, this makes for a much better opening. Two central characters, a big discovery, a dash of technological exposition, and an inciting incident.

But hang on to your hats, folks, because Chapter 2 is where things really get cooking! Here, we meet 15-year-old Philo begging to be admitted into the senior chemistry course. The teacher naturally underestimates him, but Philo won’t give up. What pluck! It’s extremely compelling and it is Philo’s story, the one the dust flap said we’d get, that we do so enjoy. Sadly, the further you read, the more Philo’s story is abruptly intercut with that of Sarnoff and Armstrong until the entire narrative loses steam and eventually suffocates. It goes to show that the best starts really are the ones with the main character in action. Could the topic (television) have provided a better structural format for the author? I think of the early voice and style of television, where viewing audiences needed so much direction, so much coaxing and cajoling (and now a word from our sponsors…). TV had to teach them not just how it was going to break from one thing to the next, but why. Modern audiences are much more fluent and need very little prompting, but adopting this style could have contributed a splash of fun to the narrative of this text, giving it the air it needed to survive. Oh oh, and just think of all the richness to be gained from converting this story into a graphic novel. Sigh.

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