Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961) was an American
inventor, self-described "Father of Radio", and a pioneer in the
development of sound-on-film recording used for motion pictures. He
had over 180 patents, but also a tumultuous career—he boasted that
he made, then lost, four fortunes. He was also involved in several
major patent lawsuits, spent a substantial part of his income on legal
bills, and was even tried (and acquitted) for mail fraud. His most
famous invention, in 1906, was the three-element "Audion" (triode)
vacuum tube, the first practical amplification device. Although De
Forest had only a limited understanding of how it worked, it was the
foundation of the field of electronics, making possible radio
broadcasting, long distance telephone lines, and talking motion
pictures, among countless other applications.
1 Early life
2 Early radio work
3 American De Forest
Wireless Telegraph Company
Radio Telephone Company
4.1 Arc radiotelephone development
4.2 Initial broadcasting experiments
5 Employment at Federal Telegraph
Audio frequency amplification
Radio Telephone Company
6.1 Regeneration controversy
6.2 Renewed broadcasting activities
Phonofilm sound-on-film process
8 Later years and death
10 Awards and recognition
11 Personal life
11.3 Religious views
14 See also
16 Further reading
17 External links
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest was born in 1873 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the son of
Anna Margaret (née Robbins) and Henry Swift DeForest. He was a
direct descendant of Jessé de Forest, the leader of a group of
Huguenots who fled Europe in the 17th Century due to religious
De Forest's father was a
Congregational Church minister who hoped his
son would also become a pastor. In 1879 the elder de Forest became
president of the American Missionary Association's Talladega College
in Talladega, Alabama, a school "open to all of either sex, without
regard to sect, race, or color", and which educated primarily
African-Americans. Many of the local white citizens resented the
school and its mission, and Lee spent most of his youth in Talladega
isolated from the white community, with several close friends among
the black children of the town.
De Forest prepared for college by attending Mount Hermon Boys' School
in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts for two years, beginning in 1891. In
1893, he enrolled in a three-year course of studies at Yale
Sheffield Scientific School
Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven, Connecticut, on
a $300 per year scholarship that had been established for relatives of
David de Forest. Convinced that he was destined to become a
famous—and rich—inventor, and perpetually short of funds, he
sought to interest companies with a series of devices and puzzles he
created, and expectantly submitted essays in prize competitions, all
with little success.
After completing his undergraduate studies, in September 1896 de
Forest began three years of postgraduate work. However, his electrical
experiments had a tendency to blow fuses, causing building-wide
blackouts. Even after being warned to be more careful, he managed to
douse the lights during an important lecture by Professor Charles
Hastings, who responded by having de Forest expelled from Sheffield.
With the outbreak of the
Spanish–American War in 1898, de Forest
enrolled in the Connecticut Volunteer Militia Battery as a bugler, but
the war ended and he was mustered out without ever leaving the state.
He then completed his studies at Yale's Sloane Physics Laboratory,
earning a Doctorate in 1899 with a dissertation on the "Reflection of
Hertzian Waves from the Ends of Parallel Wires", supervised by
theoretical physicist Willard Gibbs.
Early radio work
De Forest, some time between 1914 and 1922, with two of his Audions, a
small 1 watt receiving tube (left), and a later 250-watt transmitting
power tube (right), which he called an "oscillion".
De Forest was convinced there was a great future in radiotelegraphic
communication (then known as "wireless telegraphy"), but Italian
Guglielmo Marconi, who received his first patent in 1896, was already
making impressive progress in both Europe and the United States. One
drawback to Marconi's approach was his use of a coherer as a receiver,
which, while providing for permanent records, was also slow (after
Morse code dot or dash, it had to be tapped to restore
operation), insensitive, and not very reliable. De Forest was
determined to devise a better system, including a self-restoring
detector that could receive transmissions by ear, thus making it
capable of receiving weaker signals and also allowing faster Morse
code sending speeds.
After making unsuccessful inquiries about employment with Nikola Tesla
and Marconi, de Forest struck out on his own. His first job after
leaving Yale was with the
Western Electric Company's telephone lab in
Chicago, Illinois. While there he developed his first receiver, which
was based on findings by two German scientists, Drs. A. Neugschwender
and Emil Aschkinass. Their original design consisted of a mirror in
which a narrow, moistened slit had been cut through the silvered back.
Attaching a battery and telephone receiver, they could hear sound
changes in response to radio signal impulses. De Forest, along with Ed
Smythe, a co-worker who provided financial and technical help,
developed variations they called "responders".
A series of short-term positions followed, including three
unproductive months with Professor Warren S. Johnson's American
Wireless Telegraph Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and work as an
assistant editor of the Western Electrician in Chicago. With radio
research his main priority, de Forest next took a night teaching
position at the Lewis Institute, which freed him to conduct
experiments at the Armour Institute. By 1900, using a spark-coil
transmitter and his responder receiver, de Forest expanded his
transmitting range to about seven kilometers (four miles). Professor
Clarence Freeman of the Armour Institute became interested in de
Forest's work and developed a new type of spark transmitter.
De Forest soon felt that Smythe and Freeman were holding him back, so
in the fall of 1901 he made the bold decision to go to New York to
compete directly with Marconi in transmitting race results for the
International Yacht races. Marconi had already made arrangements to
provide reports for the Associated Press, which he had successfully
done for the 1899 contest. De Forest contracted to do the same for the
smaller Publishers' Press Association.
The race effort turned out to be an almost total failure. The Freeman
transmitter broke down — in a fit of rage, de Forest threw it
overboard — and had to be replaced by an ordinary spark coil. Even
worse, the American
Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, which
claimed its ownership of Amos Dolbear's 1886 patent for wireless
communication meant it held a monopoly for all wireless communication
in the United States, had also set up a powerful transmitter. None of
these companies had effective tuning for their transmitters, so only
one could transmit at a time without causing mutual interference.
Although an attempt was made to have the three systems avoid conflicts
by rotating operations over five-minute intervals, the agreement broke
down, resulting in chaos as the simultaneous transmissions clashed
with each other. De Forest ruefully noted that under these
conditions the only successful "wireless" communication was done by
visual semaphore "wig-wag" flags. (The 1903 International Yacht
races would be a repeat of 1901 — Marconi worked for the Associated
Press, de Forest for the Publishers' Press Association, and the
Wireless Company (successor to 1901's
Wireless Telephone and Telegraph) operated a high-powered
transmitter that was used primarily to drown out the other two.) 
American De Forest
Wireless Telegraph Company
Wireless Telegraph Company's observation tower, 1904
Louisiana Purchase Exposition
Louisiana Purchase Exposition at Saint Louis, Missouri
Despite this setback, de Forest remained in the New York City area, in
order to raise interest in his ideas and capital to replace the small
working companies that had been formed to promote his work thus far.
In January 1902 he met a promoter, Abraham White, who would become de
Forest's main sponsor for the next five years. White envisioned bold
and expansive plans that enticed the inventor — however, he was also
dishonest and much of the new enterprise would be built on wild
exaggeration and stock fraud. To back de Forest's efforts, White
incorporated the American DeForest
Wireless Telegraph Company, with
himself as the company's president, and de Forest the Scientific
Director. The company claimed as its goal the development of
The original "responder" receiver (also known as the "goo
anti-coherer") proved to be too crude to be commercialized, and de
Forest struggled to develop a non-infringing device for receiving
radio signals. In 1903,
Reginald Fessenden demonstrated an
electrolytic detector, and de Forest developed a variation, which he
called the "spade detector", claiming it did not infringe on
Fessenden's patents. Fessenden, and the U.S. courts, did not agree,
and court injunctions enjoined American De Forest from using the
Meanwhile, White set in motion a series of highly visible promotions
for American DeForest: "
Wireless Auto No.1" was positioned on Wall
Street to "send stock quotes" using an unmuffled spark transmitter to
loudly draw the attention of potential investors, in early 1904 two
stations were established at Wei-hai-Wei on the Chinese mainland and
aboard the Chinese steamer SS Haimun, which allowed war correspondent
Captain Lionel James of
The Times of London to report on the brewing
Russo-Japanese War, and later that year a tower, with "DEFOREST"
arrayed in lights, was erected on the grounds of the Louisiana
Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, Missouri, where the company won a
gold medal for its radiotelegraph demonstrations. (Marconi withdrew
from the Exposition when he learned de Forest would be there).
The company's most important early contract was the construction, in
1905–1906, of five high-powered radiotelegraph stations for the U.S.
Navy, located in Panama, Pensacola and Key West, Florida, Guantanamo,
Cuba, and Puerto Rico. It also installed shore stations along the
Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes, and equipped shipboard stations. But
the main focus was selling stock at ever more inflated prices, spurred
by the construction of promotional inland stations. Most of these
inland stations had no practical use and were abandoned once the local
stock sales slowed.
De Forest eventually came into conflict with his company's management.
His main complaint was the limited support he got for conducting
research, while company officials were upset with de Forest's
inability to develop a practical receiver free of patent infringement.
(This problem was finally resolved with the invention of the
carborundum crystal detector by another company employee, General
Henry Harrison Chase Dunwoody). On November 28, 1906, in exchange
for $1000 (half of which was claimed by an attorney) and the rights to
Audion detector patents, de Forest turned in his stock and
resigned from the company that bore his name. American DeForest was
then reorganized as the United
Wireless Telegraph Company, and would
be the dominant U.S. radio communications firm, albeit propped up by
massive stock fraud, until its bankruptcy in 1912.
Radio Telephone Company
De Forest moved quickly to re-establish himself as an independent
inventor, working in his own laboratory in the Parker Building in New
York City. The
Radio Telephone Company was incorporated in order to
promote his inventions, with James Dunlop Smith, a former American
DeForest salesman, as president, and de Forest the vice president. (De
Forest preferred the term "radio", which up to now had been primarily
used in Europe, over "wireless".)
Arc radiotelephone development
Ohio Historical Marker. On July 18, 1907
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest transmitted the
first ship-to-shore messages that were sent by radiotelephone
At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition,
Valdemar Poulsen had
presented a paper on an arc transmitter, which unlike the
discontinuous pulses produced by spark transmitters, created steady
"continuous wave" signals that could be used for amplitude modulated
(AM) audio transmissions. Although Poulsen had patented his invention,
de Forest claimed to have come up with a variation that allowed him to
avoid infringing on Poulsen's work. Using his "sparkless" arc
transmitter, de Forest first transmitted audio across a lab room on
December 31, 1906, and by February was making experimental
transmissions, including music produced by Thaddeus Cahill's
telharmonium, that were heard throughout the city.
On July 18, 1907, de Forest made the first ship-to-shore transmissions
by radiotelephone — race reports for the Annual Inter-Lakes Yachting
Association (I-LYA) Regatta held on
Lake Erie — which were sent from
the steam yacht Thelma to his assistant, Frank E. Butler, located in
the Fox's Dock Pavilion on South Bass Island. De Forest also
interested the U.S. Navy in his radiotelephone, which placed a rush
order to have 26 arc sets installed for its Great White Fleet
around-the-world voyage that began in late 1907. However, at the
conclusion of the circumnavigation the sets were declared to be too
unreliable to meet the Navy's needs and removed.
The company set up a network of radiotelephone stations along the
Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes, for coastal ship navigation.
However, the installations proved unprofitable, and by 1911 the parent
company and its subsidiaries were on the brink of bankruptcy.
Initial broadcasting experiments
February 24, 1910 radio broadcast by Mme. Mariette Mazarin of the
Manhattan Opera Company. From page 333 of the August 1922 issue of
De Forest also used the arc-transmitter to conduct some of the
earliest experimental entertainment radio broadcasts. Eugenia Farrar
sang "I Love You Truly" in an unpublicized test from his laboratory in
1907, and in 1908, on de Forest's Paris honeymoon, musical selections
were broadcast from the Eiffel Tower as a part of demonstrations of
the arc-transmitter. In early 1909, in what may have been the first
public speech by radio, de Forest's mother-in-law, Harriot Stanton
Blatch, made a broadcast supporting women's suffrage.
More ambitious demonstrations followed. A series of tests in
conjunction with the
Metropolitan Opera House in New York City were
conducted to determine whether it was practical to broadcast opera
performances live from the stage.
Tosca was performed on January 12,
1910, and the next day's test included Italian tenor Enrico
Caruso. On February 24, the Manhattan Opera Company's Mme.
Mariette Mazarin sang "La Habanera" from Carmen over a transmitter
located in De Forest's lab. But these tests showed that the idea
was not yet technically feasible, and de Forest would not make any
additional entertainment broadcasts until late 1916, when more capable
vacuum-tube equipment became available.
Main article: Audion
De Forest's most famous invention was the "grid Audion", which was the
first successful three-element (triode) vacuum tube, and the first
device which could amplify electrical signals. He traced its
inspiration to 1900, when, experimenting with a spark-gap transmitter,
he briefly thought that the flickering of a nearby gas flame might be
in response to electromagnetic pulses. With further tests he soon
determined that the cause of the flame fluctuations actually was due
to air pressure changes produced by the loud sound of the spark.
Still, he was intrigued by the idea that, properly configured, it
might be possible to use a flame or something similar to detect radio
After determining that an open flame was too susceptible to ambient
air currents, de Forest investigated whether ionized gases, heated and
enclosed in a partially evacuated glass tube, could be used instead.
In 1905 to 1906 he developed various configurations of glass-tube
devices, which he gave the general name of "Audions". The first
Audions had only two electrodes, and on October 25, 1906, de
Forest filed a patent for diode vacuum tube detector, that was granted
U.S. patent number 841387 on January 15, 1907. Subsequently, a third
"control" electrode was added, originally as a surrounding metal
cylinder or a wire coiled around the outside of the glass tube. None
of these initial designs worked particularly well. De Forest gave
a presentation of his work to date to the October 26, 1906 New York
meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, which was
reprinted in two parts in late 1907 in the Scientific American
Supplement. He was insistent that a small amount of residual gas
was necessary for the tubes to operate properly. However, he also
admitted that "I have arrived as yet at no completely satisfactory
theory as to the exact means by which the high-frequency oscillations
affect so markedly the behavior of an ionized gas."
De Forest grid
Audion from 1906.
In late 1906, de Forest made a breakthrough when he reconfigured the
control electrode, changing it from outside the glass to a zig-zag
wire inside the tube, positioned in the center between the cathode
"filament" and the anode "plate" electrodes. He reportedly called the
zig-zag control wire a "grid" due to its similarity to the "gridiron"
lines on American football playing fields. Experiments conducted
with his assistant, John V. L. Hogan, convinced him that he had
discovered an important new radio detector, and he quickly prepared a
patent application which was filed on January 29, 1907, and received
U.S. patent number 879,532 on February 18, 1908. Because the
Audion was the only configuration to become commercially
valuable, the earlier versions were forgotten, and the term "Audion"
later became synonymous with just the grid type. It later also became
known as the triode.
Audion was the first device to amplify, albeit only slightly,
the strength of received radio signals. However, to many observers it
appeared that de Forest had done nothing more than add the grid
electrode to an existing detector configuration, the Fleming valve,
which also consisted of a filament and plate enclosed in an evacuated
glass tube. De Forest passionately denied the similarly of the two
devices, claiming his invention was a relay that amplified currents,
Fleming valve was merely a rectifier that converted
alternating current to direct current. (For this reason, de Forest
objected to his
Audion being referred to as "a valve".) The U.S.
courts were not convinced, and ruled that the grid
Audion did in fact
infringe on the
Fleming valve patent, now held by Marconi. On the
other hand, Marconi admitted that the addition of the third electrode
was a patentable improvement, and the two sides agreed to license each
other so that both could manufacture three-electrode tubes in the
United States. (De Forest's European patents had lapsed because he did
not have the funds needed to renew them).
Because of its limited uses and the great variability in the quality
of individual units, the grid
Audion would be rarely used during the
first half-decade after its invention. In 1908, John V. L. Hogan
reported that "The
Audion is capable of being developed into a really
efficient detector, but in its present forms is quite unreliable and
entirely too complex to be properly handled by the usual wireless
Employment at Federal Telegraph
California Historical Landmark
California Historical Landmark No. 836, located at the eastern corner
of Channing Street and Emerson Avenue in Palo Alto, California, stands
at the former location of the Federal Telegraph laboratory, and
references Lee de Forest's development there, in 1911–1913, of "the
first vacuum-tube amplifier and oscillator".
In May 1910, the
Radio Telephone Company and its subsidiaries were
reorganized as the North American
Wireless Corporation, but financial
difficulties meant that the company's activities had nearly come to a
halt. De Forest moved to San Francisco, California, and in early 1911
took a research job at the Federal Telegraph Company, which produced
long-range radiotelegraph systems using high-powered Poulsen arcs.
Audio frequency amplification
One of de Forest's areas of research at Federal Telegraph was
improving the reception of signals, and he came up with the idea of
strengthening the audio frequency output from a grid
Audion by feeding
it into a second tube for additional amplification. He called this a
"cascade amplifier", which eventually consisted of chaining together
up to three Audions.
At this time the American Telephone and Telegraph Company was
researching ways to amplify telephone signals to provide better
long-distance service, and it was recognized that de Forest's device
had potential as a telephone line repeater. In mid-1912 an associate,
John Stone Stone, contacted AT&T to arrange for de Forest to
demonstrate his invention. It was found that de Forest's "gassy"
version of the
Audion could not handle even the relatively low
voltages used by telephone lines. (Due to the way he constructed the
tubes, de Forest's Audions would cease to operate with too high a
vacuum.) However, careful research by Dr. Harold D. Arnold and his
team at AT&T's
Western Electric subsidiary determined that by
improving the tube's design, it could be more fully evacuated, and the
high vacuum allowed it to successfully operate at telephone line
voltages. With these changes the
Audion evolved into a modern
electron-discharge vacuum tube, using electron flows rather than
Irving Langmuir at the General Electric Corporation
made similar findings, and both he and Arnold attempted to patent the
"high vacuum" construction, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1931
that this modification could not be patented).
After a delay of ten months, in July 1913 AT&T, through a third
party who disguised his link to the telephone company, purchased the
wire rights to seven
Audion patents for $50,000. De Forest had hoped
for a higher payment, but was again in bad financial shape and was
unable to bargain for more. In 1915, AT&T used the innovation to
conduct the first transcontinental telephone calls, in conjunction
with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco.
Radio Telephone Company
Radio Telephone Company officials had engaged in some of the same
stock selling excesses that had taken place at American DeForest, and
as part of the U.S. government's crackdown on stock fraud, in March
1912 de Forest, plus four other company officials, were arrested and
charged with "use of the mails to defraud". Their trials took place in
late 1913, and while three of the defendants were found guilty, de
Forest was acquitted. With the legal problems behind him, de Forest
reorganized his company as the DeForest
Radio Telephone Company, and
established a laboratory at 1391 Sedgewick Avenue in the Highbridge
section of the Bronx in New York City. The company's limited finances
were boosted by the sale, in October 1914, of the commercial Audion
patent rights for radio signalling to AT&T for $90,000, with de
Forest retaining the rights for sales for "amateur and experimental
use". In October 1915 AT&T conducted test radio transmissions
from the Navy's station in Arlington, Virginia that were heard as far
away as Paris and Hawaii.
Audion advertisement, Electrical Experimenter magazine, August 1916
Radio Telephone Company began selling "Oscillion" power tubes to
amateurs, suitable for radio transmissions. The company wanted to keep
a tight hold on the tube business, and originally maintained a policy
that retailers had to require their customers to return a worn-out
tube before they could get a replacement. This style of business
encouraged others to make and sell unlicensed vacuum tubes which did
not impose a return policy. One of the boldest was Audio Tron Sales
Company founded in 1915 by
Elmer T. Cunningham
Elmer T. Cunningham of San Francisco, whose
Audio Tron tubes cost less but were of equal or higher quality. The de
Forest company sued Audio Tron Sales, eventually settling out of
In April 1917, the company's remaining commercial radio patent rights
were sold to AT&T's
Western Electric subsidiary for $250,000.
During World War I, the
Radio Telephone Company prospered from sales
of radio equipment to the military. However, it also became known for
the poor quality of its vacuum tubes, especially compared to those
produced by major industrial manufacturers such as General Electric
and Western Electric.
Beginning in 1912 there was increased investigation of vacuum-tube
capabilities, simultaneously by numerous inventors in multiple
countries, who identified additional important uses for the device.
These overlapping discoveries led to complicated legal disputes over
priority, perhaps the most bitter being one in the United States
between de Forest and
Edwin Howard Armstrong
Edwin Howard Armstrong over the discovery of
regeneration (also known as the "feedback circuit" and, by de Forest,
as the "ultra-audion").
Beginning in 1913 Armstrong prepared papers and gave demonstrations
that comprehensively documented how to employ three-element vacuum
tubes in circuits that amplified signals to stronger levels than
previously thought possible, and that could also generate high-power
oscillations usable for radio transmission. In late 1913 Armstrong
applied for patents covering the regenerative circuit, and on October
6, 1914 U.S. patent 1,113,149 was issued for his discovery.
U.S. patent law included a provision for challenging grants if another
inventor could prove prior discovery. With an eye to increasing the
value of the patent portfolio that would be sold to Western Electric
in 1917, beginning in 1915 de Forest filed a series of patent
applications that largely copied Armstrong's claims, in the hopes of
having the priority of the competing applications upheld by an
interference hearing at the patent office. Based on a notebook entry
recorded at the time, de Forest asserted that, while working on the
cascade amplifier, he had stumbled on August 6, 1912 across the
feedback principle, which was then used in the spring of 1913 to
operate a low-powered transmitter for heterodyne reception of Federal
Telegraph arc transmissions. However, there was also strong evidence
that de Forest was unaware of the full significance of this discovery,
as shown by his lack of follow-up and continuing misunderstanding of
the physics involved. In particular, it appeared that he was unaware
of the potential for further development until he became familiar with
Armstrong's research. De Forest was not alone in the interference
determination — the patent office identified four competing
claimants for its hearings, consisting of Armstrong, de Forest,
General Electric's Langmuir, and a German, Alexander Meissner, whose
application would be seized by the Office of Alien Property Custodian
during World War I.
The subsequent legal proceedings become divided between two groups of
court cases. The first court action began in 1919 when Armstrong, with
Westinghouse, which purchased his patent, sued the De Forest company
in district court for infringement of patent 1,113,149. On May 17,
1921 the court ruled that the lack of awareness and understanding on
de Forest's part, in addition to the fact that he had made no
immediate advances beyond his initial observation, made implausible
his attempt to prevail as inventor.
However, a second series of court cases, which were the result of the
patent office interference proceeding, had a different outcome. The
interference board had also sided with Armstrong, and de Forest
appealed its decision to the District of Columbia district court. On
May 8, 1924, that court concluded that the evidence, beginning with
the 1912 notebook entry, was sufficient to establish de Forest's
priority. Now on the defensive, Armstrong's side tried to overturn the
decision, but these efforts, which twice went before the U.S. Supreme
Court, in 1928 and 1934, were unsuccessful.
This judicial ruling meant that
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest was now legally
recognized in the
United States as the inventor of regeneration.
However, much of the engineering community continued to consider
Armstrong to be the actual developer, with de Forest viewed as someone
who skillfully used the patent system to get credit for an invention
to which he had barely contributed. Following the 1934 Supreme Court
decision, Armstrong attempted to return his Institute of Radio
Engineers (present-day Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers) Medal of Honor, which had been awarded to him in 1917 "in
recognition of his work and publications dealing with the action of
the oscillating and non-oscillating audion", but the organization's
board refused to let him, stating that it "strongly affirms the
original award". The practical effect of de Forest's victory was
that his company was free to sell products that used regeneration, for
during the controversy, which became more a personal feud than a
business dispute, Armstrong tried to block the company from even being
licensed to sell equipment under his patent.
De Forest regularly responded to articles which he thought exaggerated
Armstrong's contributions with animosity that continued even after
Armstrong's 1954 suicide. Following the publication of Carl Dreher's
"E. H. Armstrong, the Hero as Inventor" in the August 1956 Harper's
magazine, de Forest wrote the author, describing Armstrong as
"exceedingly arrogant, brow beating, even brutal...", and defending
the Supreme Court decision in his favor.
Renewed broadcasting activities
Lee DeForest broadcasting Columbia phonograph records (October
In the summer of 1915, the company received an Experimental license
for station 2XG, located at its Highbridge laboratory. In late
1916, de Forest renewed the entertainment broadcasts he had suspended
in 1910, now using the superior capabilities of vacuum-tube
equipment. 2XG's debut program aired on October 26, 1916, as
part of an arrangement with the
Columbia Graphophone Company
Columbia Graphophone Company to
promote its recordings, which included "announcing the title and
'Columbia Gramophone [sic] Company' with each playing". Beginning
November 1, the "Highbridge Station" offered a nightly schedule
featuring the Columbia recordings.
These broadcasts were also used to advertise "the products of the
Radio Co., mostly the radio parts, with all the zeal of our
catalogue and price list", until comments by Western Electric
engineers caused de Forest enough embarrassment to make him decide to
eliminate the direct advertising. The station also made the first
audio broadcast of election reports — in earlier elections, stations
that broadcast results had used
Morse code — providing news of the
November 1916 Wilson-Hughes presidential election. The New York
American installed a private wire and bulletins were sent out every
hour. About 2000 listeners heard The Star-Spangled Banner and other
anthems, songs, and hymns.
With the entry of the
United States into World War I on April 6, 1917,
all civilian radio stations were ordered to shut down, so 2XG was
silenced for the duration of the war. The ban on civilian stations was
lifted on October 1, 1919, and 2XG soon renewed operation, with the
Brunswick-Balke-Collender company now supplying the phonograph
records. In early 1920, de Forest moved the station's transmitter
from the Bronx to Manhattan, but did not have permission to do so, so
Arthur Batcheller ordered the station off the
air. De Forest's response was to return to San Francisco in March,
taking 2XG's transmitter with him. A new station, 6XC, was established
as "The California Theater station", which de Forest later stated was
the "first radio-telephone station devoted solely" to broadcasting to
Later that year a de Forest associate, Clarence "C.S." Thompson,
Radio News & Music, Inc., in order to lease de Forest
radio transmitters to newspapers interested in setting up their own
broadcasting stations. In August 1920, The Detroit News began
operation of "The Detroit News Radiophone", initially with the
callsign 8MK, which later became broadcasting station WWJ.
Phonofilm sound-on-film process
Main article: Phonofilm
Poster promoting a
Phonofilm demonstration (December 1925)
In 1921 de Forest ended most of his radio research in order to
concentrate on developing an optical sound-on-film process called
Phonofilm. In 1919 he filed the first patent for the new system, which
improved upon earlier work by Finnish inventor
Eric Tigerstedt and the
German partnership Tri-Ergon.
Phonofilm recorded the electrical
waveforms produced by a microphone photographically onto film, using
parallel lines of variable shades of gray, an approach known as
"variable density", in contrast to "variable area" systems used by
processes such as
RCA Photophone. When the movie film was projected,
the recorded information was converted back into sound, in
synchronization with the picture.
From October 1921 to September 1922, de Forest lived in Berlin,
Germany, meeting the
Tri-Ergon developers (German inventors Josef Engl
(1893–1942), Hans Vogt (1890–1979), and Joseph Massolle
(1889–1957)) and investigating other European sound film systems. In
April 1922 he announced that he would soon have a workable
sound-on-film system. On March 12, 1923 he demonstrated Phonofilm
to the press; this was followed on April 12, 1923 by a private
demonstration to electrical engineers at the Engineering Society
Building's Auditorium at 33 West 39th Street in New York City.
In November 1922, de Forest established the De Forest Phonofilm
Company, located at 314 East 48th Street in New York City. But none of
the Hollywood movie studios expressed interest in his invention, and
because at this time these studios controlled all the major theater
chains, this meant de Forest was limited to showing his experimental
films in independent theaters (The
Phonofilm Company would file for
bankruptcy in September 1926.).
After recording stage performances (such as in vaudeville), speeches,
and musical acts, on April 15, 1923 de Forest premiered 18 Phonofilm
short films at the independent Rivoli Theater in New York City.
Starting in May 1924, Max and
Dave Fleischer used the Phonofilm
process for their Song Car-Tune series of cartoons—featuring the
"Follow the Bouncing Ball" gimmick. However, de Forest's choice of
primarily filming short vaudeville acts, instead of full-length
features, limited the appeal of
Phonofilm to Hollywood studios.
De Forest also worked with
Freeman Harrison Owens and Theodore Case,
using their work to perfect the
Phonofilm system. However, de Forest
had a falling out with both men. Due to de Forest's continuing misuse
of Theodore Case's inventions and failure to publicly acknowledge
Case's contributions, the Case Research Laboratory proceeded to build
its own camera. That camera was used by Case and his colleague Earl
Sponable to record President Coolidge on August 11, 1924, which was
one of the films shown by de Forest and claimed by him to be the
product of "his" inventions.
Believing that de Forest was more concerned with his own fame and
recognition than he was with actually creating a workable system of
sound film, and because of his continuing attempts to downplay the
contributions of the Case Research Laboratory in the creation of
Phonofilm, Case severed his ties with de Forest in the fall of 1925.
Case successfully negotiated an agreement to use his patents with
studio head William Fox, owner of Fox Film Corporation, who marketed
the innovation as Fox Movietone.
Warner Brothers introduced a
competing method for sound film, the
Vitaphone sound-on-disc process
developed by Western Electric, with the August 6, 1926 release of the
John Barrymore film Don Juan.
In 1927 and 1928, Hollywood expanded its use of sound-on-film systems,
including Fox Movietone and
RCA Photophone. Meanwhile, theater chain
owner Isadore Schlesinger purchased the UK rights to
released short films of British music hall performers from September
1926 to May 1929. Almost 200
Phonofilm shorts were made, and many are
preserved in the collections of the
Library of Congress
Library of Congress and the
British Film Institute.
Later years and death
In April 1923, the De Forest
Radio Telephone & Telegraph Company,
which manufactured de Forest's Audions for commercial use, was sold to
a group headed by Edward Jewett of Jewett-Paige Motors, which expanded
the company's factory to cope with rising demand for radios. The sale
also bought the services of de Forest, who was focusing his attention
on newer innovations. De Forest's finances were badly hurt by the
stock market crash of 1929, and research in mechanical television
proved unprofitable. In 1934, he established a small shop to produce
diathermy machines, and, in a 1942 interview, still hoped "to make at
least one more great invention".
De Forest was a vocal critic of many of the developments in the
entertainment side of the radio industry. In 1940 he sent an open
letter to the
National Association of Broadcasters
National Association of Broadcasters in which he
demanded: "What have you done with my child, the radio broadcast? You
have debased this child, dressed him in rags of ragtime, tatters of
jive and boogie-woogie." That same year, de Forest and early TV
Ulises Armand Sanabria
Ulises Armand Sanabria presented the concept of a primitive
unmanned combat air vehicle using a television camera and a
jam-resistant radio control in a
Popular Mechanics issue. In 1950
his autobiography, Father of Radio, was published, although it sold
De Forest was the guest celebrity on the May 22, 1957, episode of the
television show This Is Your Life, where he was introduced as "the
father of radio and the grandfather of television". He suffered a
severe heart attack in 1958, after which he remained mostly
bedridden. He died in Hollywood on June 30, 1961, aged 87, and was
San Fernando Mission Cemetery
San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles,
California. De Forest died relatively poor, with just $1,250 in
his bank account.
The DeForest Lofts at Santana Row, San José, California, are in this
building named for Lee de Forest.
The grid Audion, which de Forest called "my greatest invention", and
the vacuum tubes developed from it, dominated the field of electronics
for forty years, making possible long-distance telephone service,
radio broadcasting, television, and many other applications. It could
also be used as an electronic switching element, and was later used in
early digital electronics, including the first electronic computers,
although the 1948 invention of the transistor would lead to microchips
that eventually supplanted vacuum-tube technology. For this reason de
Forest has been called one of the founders of the "electronic
De Forest's archives were donated by his widow to the Perham
Electronic Foundation, which in 1973 opened the Foothills Electronics
Foothill College in Los Altos, California. In 1991 the
college closed the museum, breaking its contract. The foundation won a
lawsuit and was awarded $775,000. The holdings were placed in
storage for twelve years, before being acquired in 2003 by History San
José and put on display as The Perham Collection of Early
Awards and recognition
Charter member, in 1912, of the Institute of
Radio Engineers (IRE).
Received the 1922 IRE Medal of Honor, in "recognition for his
invention of the three-electrode amplifier and his other contributions
Awarded the 1923
Elliott Cresson Medal
Elliott Cresson Medal for
"inventions embodied in the Audion".
Received the 1946
American Institute of Electrical Engineers Edison
Medal, "For the profound technical and social consequences of the
grid-controlled vacuum tube which he had introduced".
Honorary Academy Award Oscar presented by the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences in 1960, in recognition of "his pioneering
inventions which brought sound to the motion picture".
Honored February 8, 1960 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of
DeVry University was originally named the De Forest Training School by
its founder Dr. Herman A. De Vry, who was a friend and colleague of de
Mary Mayo, his third wife
De Forest was married four times, with the first three marriages
ending in divorce:
Lucille Sheardown in February 1906. Divorced before the end of the
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney (1883–1971) on February 14, 1908. They
had a daughter, Harriet, but were divorced by 1911.
Mary Mayo (1892–1957) in December 1912. According to census records,
in 1920 they were living with their infant daughter, Deena (born ca.
1919); divorced October 5, 1930 (per Los Angeles Times). Mayo died
December 30, 1957 in a fire in Los Angeles (Los Angeles Times,
December 31, 1957)
Marie Mosquini (1899–1983) on October 10, 1930; Mosquini was a
silent film actress, and they remained married until his death in
De Forest was a conservative Republican and fervent anti-communist and
anti-fascist. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, he voted
for Franklin Roosevelt, but later came to resent him, calling
Roosevelt America's "first Fascist president". In 1949, he "sent
letters to all members of Congress urging them to vote against
socialized medicine, federally subsidized housing, and an excess
profits tax". In 1952, he wrote to newly elected Vice President
Richard Nixon, urging him to "prosecute with renewed vigor your
valiant fight to put out Communism from every branch of our
government". In December 1953, he cancelled his subscription to The
Nation, accusing it of being "lousy with Treason, crawling with
Although raised in a strongly religious Protestant household, de
Forest later became an agnostic. In his autobiography, he wrote that
in the summer of 1894 there was an important shift in his beliefs:
"Through that Freshman vacation at Yale I became more of a philosopher
than I have ever since. And thus, one by one, were my childhood's firm
religious beliefs altered or reluctantly discarded."
De Forest was given to expansive predictions, many of which were not
borne out, but he also made many correct predictions, including
microwave communication and cooking.
"I discovered an Invisible Empire of the Air, intangible, yet solid as
"I foresee great refinements in the field of short-pulse microwave
signaling, whereby several simultaneous programs may occupy the same
channel, in sequence, with incredibly swift electronic communication.
[...] Short waves will be generally used in the kitchen for roasting
and baking, almost instantaneously." – 1952.
"So I repeat that while theoretically and technically television may
be feasible, yet commercially and financially, I consider it an
impossibility; a development of which we need not waste little time in
dreaming." – 1926
"To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the
controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can
make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to
earth—all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am
bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur
regardless of all future advances." – 1957
"I do not foresee 'spaceships' to the moon or Mars. Mortals must live
and die on Earth or within its atmosphere!" – 1952
"As a growing competitor to the tube amplifier comes now the Bell
Laboratories’ transistor, a three-electrode germanium crystal of
amazing amplification power, of wheat-grain size and low cost. Yet its
frequency limitations, a few hundred kilocycles, and its strict power
limitations will never permit its general replacement of the Audion
amplifier." – 1952
"I came, I saw, I invented—it's that simple—no need to sit and
think—it's all in your imagination."
Patent images in
U.S. Patent 748,597 "
Wireless Signaling Device" (directional antenna),
filed December 1902, issued January 1904;
U.S. Patent 824,637 "Oscillation Responsive Device" (vacuum tube
detector diode), filed January 1906, issued June 1906;
U.S. Patent 827,523 "
Wireless Telegraph System" (separate transmitting
and receiving antennas), filed December 1905, issued July 1906;
U.S. Patent 827,524 "
Wireless Telegraph System," filed January 1906
issued July 1906;
U.S. Patent 836,070 "Oscillation Responsive Device" (vacuum tube
detector – no grid), filed May 1906, issued November 1906;
U.S. Patent 841,386 "
Wireless Telegraphy" (tunable vacuum tube
detector – no grid), filed August 1906, issued January 1907;
U.S. Patent 841,387 "Device for Amplifying Feeble Electrical Currents"
(...), filed August 1906, issued January 1907;
U.S. Patent 876,165 "
Wireless Telegraph Transmitting System" (antenna
coupler), filed May 1904, issued January 1908;
U.S. Patent 879,532 "Space Telegraphy" (increased sensitivity detector
– clearly shows grid), filed January 1907, issued February 18, 1908;
U.S. Patent 926,933 "
U.S. Patent 926,934 "
Wireless Telegraph Tuning Device";
U.S. Patent 926,935 "
Wireless Telegraph Transmitter," filed February
1906, issued July 1909;
U.S. Patent 926,936 "Space Telegraphy";
U.S. Patent 926,937 "Space Telephony";
U.S. Patent 979,275 "Oscillation Responsive Device" (parallel plates
in Bunsen flame) filed February 1905, issued December 1910;
U.S. Patent 1,025,908 "Transmission of Music by Electromagnetic
U.S. Patent 1,101,533 "
Wireless Telegraphy" (directional
antenna/direction finder), filed June 1906, issued June 1914;
U.S. Patent 1,214,283 "
Birth of public radio broadcasting
Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts
Robert von Lieben
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest entry (#20) in the 1900 U.S. Census (Milwaukee,
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest entry (#29) in the 1920 U.S. Census (Bronx, New York)
^ Father of Radio: The Autobiography of Lee de Forest, 1950, page 88.
^ The two Institutes merged in 1940 to become the Illinois Institute
of Technology physics department.
Telegraphy That Sends No Messages Except By Wire", New
York Herald, October 28, 1901, page 4. (fultonhistory.com)
^ De Forest (1950) page 126.
^ "Cuss Words in the Wireless", New York Sun, August 27, 1903, page 1.
^ A Modern Campaign: War and
Wireless in the Far East by David Fraser,
^ Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899–1922 by Susan J. Douglas,
1987, page 97.
Wireless Communication in the United States: The Early Development
Radio Operating Companies by Thorn L. Mayes, 1989, page
^ "Reporting Yacht Races by
Wireless Telephony", Electrical World,
August 10, 1907, pages 293–294. (archive.org)
^ History of Communications-
Electronics in the
United States Navy by
Captain L. S. Howeth, USN (Retired), 1963, "The
Failure", pages 169–172.
^ "Barnard Girls Test
Wireless 'Phones", New York Times, February 26,
1909, page 7. (nytimes.com)
Metropolitan Opera House: January 13, 1910 Broadcast"
Radio Telephone Experiments", Modern Electrics, May 1910, page 63.
^ De Forest (1950) page 114. The notebook recordings of the 1900
experiments, including the determination that the flickering was due
to sound only, are reproduced on this page.
^ US 841387, De Forest, Lee, "Device for Amplifying Feeble Electrical
Currents", issued 15 January 1907
^ "What Everyone Should Know About
Radio History: Part II" by J. H.
Radio Broadcast, August 1922, page 299: "[De Forest] took
out a patent in 1905 on a bulb having two hot filaments connected in a
peculiar manner, the intended functioning of which is not at all
apparent to one comprehending the radio art."
^ "The Audion: A New Receiver for
Wireless Telegraphy" by Lee de
Forest, Scientific American Supplement: No. 1665, November 30, 1907,
pages 348–350 and No. 1666, December 7, 1907, pages 354–356.
^ An alternate explanation was given by early associate Frank Butler,
who stated that de Forest coined the term because the control
electrode looked "just like a roaster grid". ("How the Term 'Grid'
Originated", Communications magazine, December 1930, page 41.)
^ De Forest (1950) page 322.
^ "The Audion; A Third Form of the Gas Detector" by John L. Hogan,
Jr., Modern Electrics, October 1908, page 233. (earlyradiohistory.us)
^ The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900–1932 by
Hugh G. J. Aitken, 1985, pages 235–244.
^ De Forest (1950) page 327.
^ Tyne, Gerald E. J. (1977). The Saga of the Vacuum Tube.
Indianapolis, IN: Howard W. Sams & Company. pp. 119 and 162.
^ De Forest (1950) page 340.
^ Armstrong, Edwin H. "Edwin Armstrong: Pioneer of the Airwaves".
Living Legacies. Columbia University. Retrieved 2017-12-10.
Empire of the Air
Empire of the Air by Tom Lewis, 1991, pages 77, 87.
^ Ibid., page 192.
^ Ibid., pages 193–198, 203.
^ Armstrong, Edwin H. "Biography". Encyclopædia Britannica.
Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-12-10.
^ Lewis, Tom (1991).
Empire of the Air
Empire of the Air (first ed.). Harper Collins.
pp. 218–219. ISBN 0-06-018215-6.
^ a b "Columbia Used to Demonstrate
Wireless Telephone", The Music
Trade Review, November 4, 1916, page 52. (arcade-museum.com)
Special Land Stations: New Stations",
Radio Service Bulletin, July
1915, page 3. The "2" in 2XG's callsign indicated that the station was
located in the 2nd
Radio Inspection district, while the "X" signified
that it held an Experimental license.
^ De Forest (1950) page 243. He noted that he had been "totally
unaware of the fact that in the little audion tube, which I was then
using only as a radio detector, lay dormant the principle of
oscillation which, had I but realized it, would have caused me to
unceremoniously dump into the ash can all of the fine arc mechanisms
which I had ever constructed..."
^ De Forest (1950) page 337.
^ Ibid., pages 337-338.
^ "Election Returns Flashed by
Radio to 7,000 Amateurs", The
Electrical Experimenter, January 1917, page 650. (archive.org)
^ De Forest (1950) page 350.
^ "'Broadcasting' News by Radiotelephone" (letter from Lee de Forest),
Electrical World, April 23, 1921, page 936. (archive.org)
^ The initial advertisements for
Radio News & Music, Inc.,
appeared on page 20 of the March 13, 1920 The Fourth Estate, and page
202 of the March 18, 1920 Printers' Ink.
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest and Phonofilm: Virtual Broadway" from The Talkies:
American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 by Donald Crafton
^ "March 12, 1923: Talkies Talk... On Their Own" by Randy Alfred,
Wired, March 12, 2008. (wired.com)
^ "The History of Sound in the Cinema" by Dion Hanson, Cinema
Technology, July/August 1998, pages 8-13.
^ Hollywood be Thy Name: The
Warner Brothers Story by Cass Warner
Sperling, Cork Millner and Jack Warner (1998), page 111.
^ "DeForest Company Bought by Jewett",
Radio Digest, April 21, 1923,
^ "'Magnificent Failure'" by Samuel Lubell, Saturday Evening Post,
January 31, 1942, page 49.
^ "Robot Television Bomber", Popular Mechanics, December 1940, pages
^ Highlights of this episode, as well as a film clip of his 1940 NAB
letter, are included in the 1992
Ken Burns PBS documentary Empire of
the Air: The Men Who Made Radio.
^ Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. PBS: 1992.
^ "Dr. DeForest, Father of Radio, Dead at 87" (AP), Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette , July 2, 1961, page 4: "Hollywood, California, July 1,
1961. Dr. Lee de Forest, 87, the so-called "father of radio", died at
his home here Friday."
^ Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio
^ Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century
by Helge Kragh, 2002, page 127: "...De Forest's invention of the
triode (or "audion") was the starting point of the electronic age."
^ Dawn of the Electronic Age by Frederick Nebeker, 2009, page 15: "The
triode vacuum-tube is one of the small number of technical devices...
that have radically changed human culture. It defined a new realm of
technology, that of electronics..."
^ Millard, Max (October 1993). "Lee de Forest, Class of 1893: Father
Electronics Age". Northfield Mount Hermon Alumni Magazine.
^ "The Perham Collection of Early
Electronics at History San José"
^ "IRE Medal of Honor Recipients 1917-1963" (ethw.org)
^ "The 32nd Academy Awards: Memorable Moments" (oscars.org)
^ "Hollywood Walk of Fame: Lee De Forest" (walkoffame.com)
^ James A. Hijya,
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest and the Fatherhood of
Lehigh University Press, pages 119-120.
^ Campbell, Richard, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos. "Sounds
and Images." Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. 113, additional text.
^ a b c "Dawn of the Electronic Age" by Lee de Forest, Popular
Mechanics, December 1940, pages 154-159, 358, 360, 362, 364.
^ Gawlinski, Mark (2003). Interactive television production. Focal
Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-240-51679-6.
^ "De Forest Says Space Travel Is Impossible" (AP), Lewiston (Idaho)
Morning Tribune, February 25, 1957.
The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900–1932 by
Hugh G. J. Aitken, 1985.
"'Magnificant Failure'" by Samuel Lubell, Saturday Evening Post, three
parts: January 17, 1942 (pages 9–11,75–76, 78, 80), January 24,
1942 (pages 20–21, 27–28, 38, and 43), and January 31, 1942 (pages
27, 38, 40-42, 46, 48–49).
"De Forest and the
Triode Detector" by Robert A. Chipman, Scientific
American, March 1965, pages 93–101.
Saga of the Vacuum Tube by Gerald E. J. Tyne (Indianapolis, IN: Howard
W. Sams and Company, 1977). Tyne was a research associate with the
Smithsonian Institution. Details de Forest's activities from the
invention of the
Audion to 1930.
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made
Ken Burns a PBS
Documentary Video 1992. Focuses on three of the individuals who made
significant contributions to the early radio industry in the United
States: De Forest,
David Sarnoff and Edwin Armstrong. LINK
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest and the Invention of Sound Movies, 1918–1926" by Mike
Adams, The AWA Review (vol. 26, 2013).
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Lee de Forest
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lee De Forest.
Lee de Forest, American
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest on IMDb
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest biography (ethw.org)
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest biography at National Inventors Hall of Fame
A Few Moments with
Eddie Cantor (1923) (De Forest
Movie) on YouTube
Lee de Forest
Lee de Forest was the 'Father of Radio'?" by Stephen Greene,
Mass Comm Review, February 1991.
"Practical Pointers on the Audion" by A. B. Cole, Sales Manager – De
Radio Tel. & Tel. Co., QST, March 1916, pages 41–44.
"A History of the Regeneration Circuit: From Invention to Patent
Litigation" by Sungook Hong, Seoul National University (PDF)
Phonofilm Co. Inc. on White House grounds" (1924)
IEEE Edison Medal
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