By Erika Pribanic-Smith, University of Texas-Arlington
When AJHA met in Salt Lake City in October 1993, organizers chose a local woman with far-reaching impact as the recipient of the organization’s first Distinguished Contributions to Journalism History Award.
Elma “Pem” Gardner Farnsworth received the award at a reception sponsored by Deseret News and KSL television/radio for her work toward developing the technology to broadcast television.
Time Magazine named her husband Philo T. Farnsworth the “Father of Television.” Don Godfrey and Alf Pratte wrote in Journalism History (Summer 1994) that historians had overlooked Pem’s involvement, even though Philo himself had stated, “My wife and I started this TV.” Godfrey and Pratte’s essay outlines Pem’s contributions.
A Utah native, Pem got engaged to Philo on her 18th birthday. From then on, she devoted her life to supporting Philo’s work, including keeping the log books of Philo’s experiments and spot welding tube elements. A photograph of Pem and her brother—who worked as a glass blower in Philo’s lab—was among the first images of humans to be televised.
Godfrey and Pratte’s essay notes that Pem always was humble about her contributions, generally diverting attention to her husband’s genius. Co-organizer of the Salt Lake City conference, Pratte said that when he and his Brigham Young University colleague Jack Nelson invited Pem to be honored, she was “hesitant and scared to speak before such a large and prestigious group.” Nonetheless, she attended, and AJHA members gave her a standing ovation.
Attendees of the convention remember the event fondly. Julie Williams said she found the award presentation meaningful in that AJHA gave Pem the credit she deserved. David Copeland said he continues to use some of Pem’s remarks in his media history classes.
“She talked about meeting Philo and dancing to jazz,” Copeland said. “She was a delightful person.”
Leonard Teel recalled that Pem gave AJHA heartfelt thanks, mostly because the organization remembered her husband. Copeland noted that part of her talk centered on her decades-long fight to get Philo recognition for his work; Philo had died in 1971.
“Even in 1993, she had not given up and believed he had been robbed of much,” Copeland said.
Godfrey and Pratte’s Journalism History essay explains that the large electronics corporation RCA fought the Farnsworths’ claims to television’s invention. Ultimately, the Farnsworths won their patent case against RCA, but RCA “won the public recognition battle”—a victory Pem still was working to reverse at the time AJHA honored her.
Pem’s obituary in the April 26, 2006, issue of the Salt Lake Tribune indicates that she continued fighting to obtain credit for her husband until her death.
Godfrey, who gave the opening remarks and introduction at the 1993 AJHA award reception, penned a biography of Philo that the University of Utah Press re-published in paperback last year.
Others interested in conducting research on the Farnsworths’ work will find a substantial collection at the University of Utah, where Pem donated her husband’s papers.
AJHA will return to Salt Lake City next year for its 37th annual convention. However, the Awards Committee currently is accepting nominations for this year’s Distinguished Service Award, to be presented at the 36th annual convention in Little Rock. For details, see ajha.wildapricot.org/distinguished-service