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|Lee De Forest
inventor who considered himself the father of radio
Lee De Forest was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on August 26, 1873, the second of three children born to Henry Swift and Anna (Robbins) De Forest. His father was a Congregational minister and president of Talladega College, an all-black school in Alabama, who hoped Lee would follow in his footsteps; Lee had other ideas, however.
After attending Mount Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts, De Forest entered the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University. While in college De Forest tried to earn money (and fame) by inventing things he might sell or enter in contests, but none were great successes. After receiving a PhD from Yale in 1899 with a dissertation on radio waves, "Reflection of Hertzian Waves from the Ends of Parallel Wires," he was hired by Western Electric, where he devised dynamos, telephone equipment, and early radio gear. In 1902 he started his own business, the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, selling radio equipment and demonstrating the new technology by broadcasting Morse code signals. Within a span of four years, De Forest had been squeezed out of the management of his own company.
While working on improving wireless telegraph equipment, De Forest modified the work of other inventors and created the Audion, a vacuum tube containing some gas. It was a triode, incorporating a filament and a plate, like ordinary vacuum tubes, as well as a grid between the filament and plate. The grid strengthened the current through the tube, amplifying weak telegraph and even radio signals. Patented on February 18, 1908, the Audion proved to be the fastest electronic switching element of the time and eventually became vital to the development of digital electronics. It would not be improved upon until the invention of the transistor in 1948.
In the prospectus for his second try at business, De Forest Radio Telephone Company in 1907, he envisioned using radio (a term he coined) to broadcast church meetings, lectures, even opera performances into people's homes. On July 18, 1907, De Forest broadcast the first ship-to-shore message from the steam yacht Thelma. The message, race results from the Annual Inter-Lakes Yachting Association Regatta, was received by his assistant, Frank E. Butler of Monroeville, Ohio, in the Pavilion at Fox's Dock located on South Bass Island on Lake Erie. On January 12, 1910, he conducted an experimental broadcast of part of the live performance of Tosca and, the next day, a performance with the participation of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso from the stage of Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. For several years after De Forest operated an experimental radio station, 2XG in High Bridge, New York, which broadcast music nightly and was received as far away as New Jersey.
After the De Forest Radio Telephone Company failed in 1912, De Forest was sued by the U.S. Attorney General's Office, which accused him of selling a "worthless device" by mail. Although De Forest was eventually exonerated in court, he had to sell his Audion patent to AT&T in order to pay his legal bills. AT&T subsequently used the Audion to improve the quality of its long-distance telephone service.
In 1912, De Forest developed a feedback circuit that increased the output of a radio transmitter and produced alternating current. He didn't see the worth of this discovery, however, and by the time he applied for a patent in 1915, it had already been patented by Edwin Howard Armstrong. De Forest sued, with legal action lasting until 1926, when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
In 1916, De Forest broadcast the first radio advertisements, for his products, from his own station. That same year he became a pioneer in radio news by broadcasting (incorrectly) the results of the presidential election.
In 1919, De Forest filed a patent for a sound-on-film process that used his Audion to improve upon the work of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt and the German partnership Tri-Ergon. He then established the De Forest Phonofilm Company, which used his process to make experimental shorts, mostly filming vaudeville acts at New York theaters. None of the established movie studios were interested in the process, however. Although Phonofilm was not the system used for The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the flood of "talkies" which followed, De Forest was given an honorary Oscar in 1960, "for his pioneering inventions which brought sound to the motion picture."
As radio changed from a crystal-set hobby to a big business, De Forest was a frequently cited expert on the medium's early days. In 1930 he was elected president of the Institute of Radio Engineers, and he immediately made headlines with a public denouncement of the growing commercialization of radio, after which he was rarely invited onto the major networks. For the next few decades, De Forest's main work revolved around building and preserving his legacy as the "Father of Radio," a term he coined himself. In the 1950's he worked as a pitchman for shortwave radio sets, and wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter on "The Coming Miracles of Science." In his last years he developed paranoid suspicions about friends, family, and former colleagues, and complained bitterly that his contributions to science had been unappreciated.
Lee De Forest died in Hollywood, California, on June 30, 1961. Despite holding almost 180 patents and having a major impact on the radio industry, his many legal battles and poor business practices kept him from amassing an estate, and he had just $1,250 in his bank account at the time of his death.
This page was last updated on February 27, 2017.