LIVE FROM WYNDMOOR – IT’S W3XPF ON THE AIR!
Mermaid Lane Home to One of America’s First TV Stations
By Tom Keels
1936 Television Set
It was the first TV set on the block, so the Wyndmoor home was filled with neighbors anxious to witness the wonder of the age. As the hostess served refreshments, the host adjusted the knobs of the tall wooden cabinet, similar to a radio except for the small glass tube at its top.
Suddenly, the screen flickered into life. The room fell silent as a blurry, black-and-white image took shape, like a spirit emerging from a crystal ball. People huddled around the nine-inch screen, watching a little girl dance and sing.
For the next half-hour, the crowd sat transfixed by a string of live entertainers. When the show ended, the adults excitedly discussed the new marvel while their children sat on the floor, mesmerized by a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
A typical baby-boomer memory? Not quite. This scene took place not in 1957 or 1947, but in 1937.
Before World War II, Wyndmoor was home to one of the first experimental TV stations in the country: W3XPF, founded by television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth. From 1937 to 1939, a stream of cartoons, sports, and live entertainment poured from the station transmitter at 1230 Mermaid Lane. Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s research team perfected the technology of electronic television at a nearby laboratory in Chestnut Hill. At both sites, local residents worked before and behind the camera to create this modern miracle.
Today, a growing body of experts considers Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971) the true inventor of television. As a Utah farmboy, Farnsworth was inspired by the linear pattern of a freshly plowed field to envision an electronic television system. This system used an “image dissector” to scan an object line by line, convert it into an electrical signal using an electronic beam, and then transmit it to a receiver that reassembled the image. On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth conducted his first successful experiments in a laboratory on Green Street in San Francisco, transmitting the postage stamp-sized image of a single line to a screen a few feet away. In 1930, Farnsworth received a patent from the U.S. Patent Office for his system.
Unfortunately, Farnsworth became an unwitting David to the Goliath of David Sarnoff, powerful president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Sarnoff was determined to make RCA as dominant in the new medium of television as it already was in radio. When Farnsworth rebuffed his offer to purchase his technology, Sarnoff challenged Farnsworth’s patents in court. Sarnoff claimed that RCA engineer Vladimir Zworykin had filed an earlier patent application for an electronic television system. (While Zworykin’s application was filed in 1923, Farnsworth’s patent was granted first). Farnsworth counter-claimed that Zworykin’s original design was non-functional, and that Zworykin had copied elements from Farnsworth’s system during a 1930 visit to the Green Street lab. The legal battle would last until 1939, delaying the introduction of television to the American public by nearly a decade.
Financially paralyzed by the patent dispute, Farnsworth moved to Philadelphia in 1931 with his wife Elma (or “Pem”) and his two young sons. The Philco Radio Company hired him to run their fledgling television division and to set up an experimental television station, W3XE, at their factory at C and Tioga Streets. The uneasy relationship was marked by personal and professional tensions. In September 1933, Farnsworth left Philco and formed his own company, Farnsworth Television, Inc.
At the time, Farnsworth and his family lived in Chestnut Hill. Before he left Philco, Farnsworth rented space at 127 East Mermaid Lane, the garage and offices of the O’Neill Construction Company. Andrew O’Neill, a contractor who had worked on the Ben Franklin Bridge in the 1920s, went out of business during the Depression when the city of Philadelphia defaulted on the bonds with which he had been paid for the project. Farnsworth brought most of his Philco staff with him to Mermaid Lane, including engineers Romely and Tobe Rutherford, brothers who had worked with him in San Francisco.
Robert Rutherford, son of chief engineer Tobe Rutherford, recalled how he got caught up in the feverish intensity of the laboratory: “The group was working hard to get something they could demonstrate to get investor support but also to get licensees. They did a lot of overtime. If we wanted to see Father we went down to the plant. I was pretty young when it started, about 6 or 7. In those days before OSHA, I learned how to use a lathe. We did a lot of things you would frown on today. We handled mercury fairly casually to make vacuum pumps. Sometimes you got a little mercury in your mouth when you were siphoning it up. It was okay unless you had metal fillings. Accidents were few – sometimes people put a screwdriver through their hand, but it wasn’t particularly hazardous.”
Robert and his friend, Philo Farnsworth Jr., watched their fathers create all the television equipment from scratch. “The (cathode-ray) tubes in those days were Erlenmeyer flasks (flat-bottomed conical lab flasks). You made a tube out of that by coating the end with willemite (zinc silicate), which had a greenish color. So all the television pictures were green, and 5 or 7 inches wide. A continuous test loop was made of a cartoon of Ignatz the Mouse hitting Krazy Kat with a brick. You could see the line structure on the picture – about 144 lines – a much cruder picture than today. The assembled apparatus was built in relay racks, the standard industrial construction of the day. Everything was made with vacuum tubes. It took a fair amount of them because the signals were quite weak.”
Farnsworth also hired several local workers, including Italian-born carpenter and cabinetmaker Joseph Spallone, who lived at 55 East Mermaid Lane. Impressed by Spallone’s abilities, Farnsworth had him make prototype cabinets for experimental televisions, as well as lab equipment and furniture. In her 1989 autobiography, Distant Vision, Pem Farnsworth described Spallone as “an old-world Italian…Joe could fashion almost anything out of anything. His carpentry was flawless, and his molds and metal castings were a delight to Phil.”
Spallone and Farnsworth formed a close bond after Farnsworth helped his employee during a family crisis. According to Spallone’s grandson, Wyndmoor native Gerry M. Serianni, “My grandfather had a daughter who was severely mentally retarded – Beatrice or ‘Bebe’, who was born in 1931. My grandparents couldn’t handle her. Farnsworth found a special school that could take care of her, the Rose Hill School in Chester Heights. Bebe is still there today. My grandfather was eternally grateful to Farnsworth. My family said he would have followed Farnsworth to the end of the universe.”
Another Spallone daughter, Lucy Rose, became one of the first Americans to be televised. One day, Spallone was helping Farnsworth test the transmission and reception of television signals, while his teenage daughter practiced tap dancing in another room with two friends, Mary Cupo and Josephine Viola. Farnsworth asked Spallone if the three girls would dance in front of the camera. According to Serianni, “The girls continued to dance and a signal was successfully broadcast to a nearby receiver, much to the delight of a brilliant scientist, his assistants, and one carpenter. A family star was born!”
Josephine Viola Queensberry, now a resident of York, recently recalled her TV debut nearly 70 years ago. “We were very young, only about 12 or 13 years old, 14 at the most. We were very interested in tap dancing. In fact, I was the lead tap dancer at the Water Tower Recreation Center. Lucy and Mary were in the group. We used to compete with other recreation centers in the city. When they (the Farnsworth team) were experimenting, they would just call us and tell us to do something and we would do our very best so they would be able to televise us. We would try to sing, only we weren’t the best singers in the world -- we were better dancers! We had a phonograph and played all the old songs popular in the 1920s and early 1930s. Darktown Strutters Ball, and things like that.”
The three friends performed for the camera perhaps a dozen times during that summer. “It was 1934 or 1935. We would dance at least 15 minutes each time. We thought we were fantastic in those days! It was a thrilling experience for us, so young and knowing what they were trying to do. I don’t think we understood it thoroughly but Mr. Spallone would try to explain it to us. We just met Mr. Farnsworth once – he came to thank us for what we were doing. He seemed like a very nice person and was very, very nice to Mr. Spallone.”
Leon and Josephine O’Neill, nephew and niece of landlord Andrew O’Neill, were also drafted as test subjects, performing duets in front of the Farnsworth camera. Marian O’Neill Balin, Leon’s younger sister, recalled that “my brother was playing the guitar and my cousin (Josephine) was singing, and it was just like looking at television today. It was like looking at a box with a screen and something behind it and that was the beginning of it all. They used whoever was there. If you were visiting, they put you on. Leon was about 16, and I was maybe 10. I didn’t appear on television, I was one of the watchers. They (Leon and Josephine) were thrilled about being on television but they didn’t realize the importance of it until later.”
According to Bruce O’Neill, Andrew O’Neill’s grandson, the delight of being on TV stayed with his uncle Leon and his father Jerome, another test subject, all their lives. Both were especially excited to see their images on a nearby receiver. “It was a very thrilling moment for them,” O’Neill, a Philadelphia attorney, recalls. “Leon said he never forgot seeing himself on TV. His face would light up whenever he told that story.”
One test subject was particularly important to engineer Romely Rutherford, according to his nephew Robert Rutherford. “My uncle Rom was in charge of facilities and would go and get someone when they needed a live subject. That’s how he met Jean O’Neill (Andrew O’Neill’s daughter). She was an attractive young woman acting as a receptionist. He would ask her to be a test subject and sit in front of the camera all the time. She would put up with this. He thought that anyone who would put up with being a test subject would put up with a lot of other things and be a good wife!” Romely and Jean married shortly thereafter.
In 1934, movie star Mary Pickford, then appearing on Broadway, visited East Mermaid Lane to view the new phenomenon. Pickford motored to Chestnut Hill one Sunday in a chauffeured limousine, graciously shaking hands with the neighborhood children gathered outside the garage. She viewed a televised airing of her 1929 talkie, The Taming of the Shrew. According to Pem Farnsworth, “[Pickford] accepted the offer to be ‘televised,’ but after a few minutes under the klieg lights, she exclaimed, ‘Whew! This is hotter than color!’”
By this time, Farnsworth’s work had attracted national attention. In August 1934, the Franklin Institute arranged an experimental demonstration of his system at its new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Scheduled for ten days, the demonstration lasted three weeks.
Philadelphians flocked to the Institute to watch politicians, athletes, chorus girls, the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, and the rising moon, all televised live from the Institute roof and transmitted to a 10” x 12” screen in the main auditorium.
Shortly after, Farnsworth signed contracts to provide systems to Baird Television in England and Fernseh in Germany (Farnsworth cameras were used to broadcast the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin). Freed of legal entanglements and with new financial backers, Farnsworth embarked on his most ambitious project to date: the construction of his own television studio.
In 1935, Philo T. Farnsworth and his partners leased a six-acre lot at 1230 Mermaid Lane in Wyndmoor as the site of a broadcast studio for Farnsworth Television. Abandoned greenhouses and the tracks of the Fort Washington branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad ringed the property, about two miles from the Chestnut Hill laboratory. A pre-fabricated building and transmission tower were erected. Philo and Pem Farnsworth rented a house on Cresheim Valley Drive in Wyndmoor, within walking distance of the studio. Chief Engineer Tobe Rutherford and his family also moved from Gowen Avenue in Mt. Airy to Flourtown Avenue.
While they waited for their broadcasting license to be granted, Farnsworth’s team refined and improved their equipment. They built two Image Dissector cameras capable of transmitting 441 lines to a screen, creating their clearest image to date. They enlarged their cathode-ray tube size to 12” x 14”, which Farnsworth considered “ideal for home reception.” They built several prototype TV receivers, and created the first electronic video switcher, allowing them to cut from one camera to another.
The station received its license in December 1936, and began live broadcasting under the call letters W3XPF in January 1937. It was the third experimental television station in the Philadelphia area (after RCA’s W3XAD and Philco’s W3XE), and the sixteenth station in the U.S. Like its competitors, W3XPF had extremely low wattage and a limited range, and broadcast only a few hours in the evening. At the time, between 100 and 200 Philadelphia-area households had RCA or Philco TV sets, “pre-tuned” to receive only the manufacturer’s station. Since Farnsworth did not manufacture its own sets, only a few homes in and around Wyndmoor could receive W3XPF signals on prototype or homebuilt receivers. Nearly all belonged to Farnsworth employees.
Once W3XPF was on the air, Farnsworth faced the challenge of filling all that empty ether. He put engineer William Eddy in charge of programming. A technical wizard, Eddy pioneered the use of multiple cameras, miniature sets, and lighting specifically designed for television. One of his innovations was to put a TV camera on a barbershop chair so it could move up and down smoothly. Young Donald Pike, a 1933 graduate of Cheltenham High School, who acted as music conductor and arranger for the fledgling station, assisted him. Later, Pike would become an Emmy Award-winning Technical Director for NBC.
Local performers jumped at the chance to appear on W3XPF. Tobe Rutherford’s son Robert recalls that “they didn’t pay anything for the talent, if you will. They offered it as an opportunity to get the experience of being on a new medium.” Among the stars at Mermaid Lane were actors from The Stagecrafters theater in Chestnut Hill; Nick Ross and his Orchestra, with vocalist Kay Allen; 4-year-old singer/dancer Baby Dolores; and 11-year-old “Smiles” Blum, also known as “Little Miss Television.” Photogenic Bonnie Cruthers, a Farnsworth secretary, was drafted as an announcer. At the end of each broadcast, Cruthers signed off with the phrase, “This is W3XPF, Farnsworth Television, pioneer of the air – I’ll be seeing you.”
Eddy’s team struggled with dozens of unforeseen technical problems. Because of the infrared sensitivity of early TV cameras, performers needed to apply dark blue makeup around their lips and eyes, giving them a ghoulish appearance off camera. Since red photographed as white, a boxer wearing red shorts for a match seemed to be naked. So did a pretty ballerina whose gauzy costume was rendered invisible by the camera. Robert Rutherford recalls that the ballerina “didn’t care and went ahead and danced. My father was stopped from putting it on the air at the last moment. People were a lot fussier then.”
The primitive cameras required painfully strong illumination. Under the searing klieg lights, performers dripped sweat, violin strings snapped, and furniture varnish bubbled. To Rutherford, the studio “was like being in a broiler. That was why you didn’t hang on to a scene too long. You shifted cameras to cut down on the light exposure.” In a 1996 interview, Pem Farnsworth remembered other surprises: “We had a call from a man who said he was getting our signal from the crown of his tooth. And another one, a lady, got it on her kitchen range.”
While the number of viewers was minimal, the potential of television broadcasting captured the country’s imagination. In 1936, Paramount Newsreel Service ran two stories on Farnsworth, describing him as the man who made “Mankind’s most fanciful dream about to become a startling reality.” In October 1936, Collier’s Magazine ran a feature on “Phil the Inventor,” forecasting that television would reach many American homes by Christmas 1937.
Despite these accolades, Farnsworth’s backers complained over the lack of return on their investments. Fed up with bickering over money and frustrated by new legal challenges from RCA, Farnsworth decided to relocate. He purchased a Midwestern radio manufacturer, hoping the revenues from selling TV and radio sets would finance his research. In 1939, the Farnsworth Radio and Television Corporation opened its doors in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Mermaid Lane studio fell silent that year when W3XPF moved to Fort Wayne and was renamed W9WFT.
That same year, David Sarnoff initiated regular NBC television programs with a broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt opening the New York World’s Fair. An avalanche of RCA publicity buried Farnsworth’s accomplishments and established Sarnoff and Zworykin as the “fathers of television.” Sarnoff did not broadcast the fact that after a decade of litigation, he had agreed to pay Farnsworth $1 million to license his television patents, the first time RCA had ever paid an independent inventor.
Joseph Spallone, the Italian-born carpenter who “would follow Farnsworth to the ends of the earth,” followed him to Fort Wayne, along with his wife and daughter Lucy Rose. The move threatened to disrupt Lucy Rose’s romance with Michael (“Mickey”) Serianni, a very determined young man. Mickey, according to Spallone’s grandson, Gerry Serianni, “would go out to Fort Wayne frequently and just wouldn’t let her go. He talked my grandfather into bringing her back East and marrying her. It amazed everyone that an old-world Italian like my grandfather would let my mother come back but he did. He really liked my father.” Lucy Rose Spallone and Mickey Serianni married in 1943, later moving to 8321 Flourtown Avenue in Wyndmoor, where they raised four children (including Gerry). Joseph Spallone continued to live in Fort Wayne but visited his Philadelphia family often, dying here in 1967.
If Wyndmoor marked the pinnacle of Farnsworth’s fortunes, Fort Wayne was his nadir. The manufacturing plant did not produce the cash he needed. As American involvement in World War II grew closer, a “National Emergency” was declared in May 1941, halting all commercial radio and television manufacturing. Beset by depression and alcoholism, Farnsworth retreated to his Maine farm during the war. His 20-year patents on electronic television expired in 1947, just as postwar television production shifted into high gear.
When Farnsworth appeared on “I’ve Got A Secret” in 1957, no one guessed his secret – that he invented modern television while still a teenager. By this time, Farnsworth had come to detest his brainchild. In a 1997 documentary, his son Kent said of his father: “Through my childhood, his reaction to television was, ‘There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household.’” Philo T. Farnsworth died in obscurity in 1971, the same year as David Sarnoff.
Farnsworth’s reputation has emerged from the shadows in the past twenty years, thanks largely to the efforts of his widow Pem, his children, and grandchildren. In 1983, Farnsworth was featured on a commemorative postage stamp for his invention of television. The following year, he was inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame, seven years after Vladimir Zworykin. The State of Utah placed a statue of him in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 1990. In 1999, Time Magazine named Farnsworth one of the “100 Greatest Scientists and Thinkers of the 20th Century.” He has been credited with more than 150 U.S. patents and over 100 foreign patents, including some instrumental in the development of radar, the electron microscope, the baby incubator, the gastroscope, and the astronomical telescope.
Three years ago, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker declared September 7, 2002 to be “Philo T. Farnsworth Day,” marking the 75th anniversary of his first successful experiments with electronic television in San Francisco. In his proclamation, Governor Schweiker recalled Farnsworth’s unveiling of television at the Franklin Institute in 1934, saying that Farnsworth “followed in the footsteps of Pennsylvania’s beloved son, Benjamin Franklin, successfully changing the course of modern technology and the lives of countless millions.”
Despite the official proclamation, no local events celebrated Farnsworth’s achievements. While a historic plaque marks Farnsworth’s Green Street lab in San Francisco, nothing commemorates either his laboratory in Chestnut Hill or his studio site in Wyndmoor. Today, 127 East Mermaid Lane is a well-kept private residence. After being used as a studio by other TV and radio stations, 1230 Mermaid Lane was torn down in the 1970s. Today, a newer building houses several small businesses. Only the original transmitter tower still stands, dwarfed by newer spires, as a silent sentinel to the days when “Little Miss Television” welcomed Wyndmoor to the future.
It was at 4 pm on Friday, September 15, 2006 when the Pennsylvania state marker was unveiled honoring Philo Farnsworth and his experimental television station, W3XPF. The plaque is at the Wyndmoor location. The author of this article, Tom Keels was there to speak. The above article was written years before the dedication of the historic marker.
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Photos originally donated by author Tom Keels
Researched and written by author Tom Keels
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