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The Farnsworth Invention

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The Farnsworth Invention
Aaron Sorkin discussing The Farnsworth Invention with an audience at the Music Box Theatre on November 8, 2007
Written byAaron Sorkin
Original languageEnglish

The Farnsworth Invention is a stage play by Aaron Sorkin adapted from an unproduced screenplay about Philo Farnsworth's first fully functional and completely all-electronic television system and David Sarnoff, the RCA president who stole the design.


On April 29, 2004, New Line Cinema announced they had acquired the drama script The Farnsworth Invention from award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin. Thomas Schlamme was set to direct.

The release read in part: "The Farnsworth Invention tells the story of Philo Farnsworth, a boy genius born in Beaver, Utah, who later moved to Rigby, Idaho, where he began experimenting with electricity. In 1920, when Farnsworth was 14, he showed his high school chemistry teacher a design he had made for an electronic television only to become involved in an all or nothing battle with David Sarnoff, the young president of RCA and America's first communications mogul." Schlamme described the movie as "a classic American tale driven by the conflict between a Mormon farmer and a Russian immigrant over the ownership of the most influential invention of the 20th Century."

Following its initial press release, New Line did not disclose any additional information about the film. As a result, websites such as the Internet Movie Database incorrectly anticipated a film in 2005. IMDb eventually removed the entry.

Stage play[edit]

In 2005 it was announced that Sorkin was adapting the screenplay for the stage and the play would debut in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. It was staged at the La Jolla Playhouse from February 20 - March 25, 2007 as "a page-to-stage production" with Jimmi Simpson (Zodiac) playing Farnsworth and Stephen Lang (Gods and Generals, Avatar) as Sarnoff. Award-winning composer Andrew Lippa penned 45 minutes of music to underscore the drama.

It was scheduled to open on Broadway on November 14, 2007, but this was delayed due to the 2007 Broadway stagehand strike.[1] It opened at the Music Box Theatre on December 3, 2007, with Hank Azaria in the Sarnoff role due to Lang's commitment to James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar. The show closed on March 2, 2008.[2] Simpson was honored with a Theatre World Award for his performance.[3]

An Australian production directed by Louise Fischer officially opened on July 13, 2011 at the New Theatre in Newtown.

Historical accuracy[edit]

The play is not historically accurate, and is an intentional alteration of the story. It shows Farnsworth as being defeated legally by Sarnoff, and then spending his life in obscurity. In reality, Farnsworth won the lawsuit, later received a $1 million payment from RCA for the purchase of his TV patents, and went on to have an illustrious career in technological research. There is a statue of Farnsworth in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

This issue was later addressed on a Facebook question where Sorkin wrote:

There were many lawsuits, appeals and counter-suits that covered years. Farnsworth won some of them and lost some of them. The final result—certainly in the context of the play I'd written—was a loss. Farnsworth died, as Sarnoff says at the end, "drunk, broke and in obscurity" and whether or not it was the result of corporate espionage or theft was the subject of the play. That's a long of way of saying I conflated many lawsuits into one.[4]
—Aaron Sorkin

Critical reception[edit]

In The New York Times, Ben Brantley panned the play with faint praise:

The show certainly deserves high marks for all those traits that exacting schoolteachers hold dear: conciseness, legibility, correct use of topic sentences, evidence in defense of two sides of an argument and colorful examples to support the main thesis .... And yet you’re likely to leave “The Farnsworth Invention” feeling that you have just watched an animated Wikipedia entry, fleshed out with the sort of anecdotal scenes that figure in “re-enactments” on E! channel documentaries and true-crime shows.[5]

In the New York Post, Clive Barnes awarded it 2½ out of 4 stars and stated, "Sorkin's take on the Farnsworth/Sarnoff standoff would be better suited to a screen, either big or small. Even now, while crackling with crisp dialogue, The Farnsworth Invention often has the air of a clumsy stage adaptation of, say, Citizen Kane."[6]

Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News described it as "disappointing and ho-hum" and "seldom deeply involving . . . Scenes play out like brief vignettes from a History Channel biopic . . . without stirring emotions."[7]

In Newsday, Linda Winer called it "vintage Sorkin and crackling prime-time theater . . . breezy and shrewd, smart-alecky and idealistic."[8]

In Variety, David Rooney said, "The plot-heavy drama is light on fully fleshed-out characters or subtext, making it likely to play more satisfyingly when it inevitably reverts to being a film or cable project . . . [it] never fully moves beyond its stream of over-explained factoids."[9]

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Hedy Weiss described it as "a firecracker of a play in a fittingly snap, crackle and pop production under the direction of Des McAnuff, the drama has among its many virtues the ability to make you think at the same time that it breaks your heart." [10]

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called it "slick yet deeply conflicted" and "restless" and added, "this is one of those Boomer-friendly, media-savvy, self-aware pieces of effective theater that feel like they owe a lot to TV writing and our celebrity-obsessed culture . . . this is a jumpy piece of writing. It feels like the writer is worried the audience might change the channel. That's not entirely a bad thing. As fans of Sorkin's TV shows know well, the internal psyche of Sorkin is a very stimulating place in which to dwell for a couple of hours. His characters are uncommonly articulate and witty—albeit without much differentiation. He has mastered all the dramatic rules so well, he can titillate you by deconstructing and then reassembling them. And in this case he certainly knows how to make a dry scientific quest into a provocative piece of theater."[11]

Further reading[edit]

  • Paul Schatzkin (2023-04-8). The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence and Quiet Passion. Incorrigible Arts. ISBN 978-0-9762000-7-9
  • Evan I. Schwartz (2003-05-13). The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit & the Birth of Television. Harper Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-06-093559-7.


  1. ^ Aaron Sorkin's Farnsworth Invention to Open on Broadway in November Archived 2007-06-26 at the Wayback Machine – Playbill Article, June 21, 2007
  2. ^ "Official Show Website". Farnsworthonbroadway.com. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  3. ^ "Theatre World Award Recipients". Theatre World Awards. Retrieved January 7, 2021.
  4. ^ Sorkin, Aaron. "Questions for me?" Message Board on Sorkin's Facebook page
  5. ^ Brantley, Ben. "A Farm Boy and a Mogul, and How They Changed the World," New York Times. December 4, 2007.
  6. ^ Barnes, Clive (2007-12-04). "New York Post review". Nypost.com. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  7. ^ "New York Daily News review". Nydailynews.com. 2007-12-04. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  8. ^ Winer, Linda (December 4, 2007). "Review: Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention". Newsday. Archived from the original on 2007-12-07. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  9. ^ Rooney, David (December 3, 2007). "Variety review". Variety.com. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
  10. ^ Weiss, Hedy (December 4, 2007). "Moguls, Scientists, and 'Farnsworth'". The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  11. ^ Jones, Chris (2007-12-06). "Chicago Tribune review". Chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2009-09-15.

External links[edit]