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About Lee de Forest
Lee De Forest (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961) was an American inventor with over 180 patents to his credit. De Forest invented the Audion, a vacuum tube that takes relatively weak electrical signals and amplifies them. De Forest is one of the fathers of the "electronic age", as the Audion helped to usher in the widespread use of electronics. He is also credited with one of the principal inventions which brought sound to motion pictures.
He was involved in several patent lawsuits and he spent a substantial part of his income from his inventions on the legal bills. He had four marriages and 25 companies, he was defrauded by business partners (as well as defrauding business partners himself), and he was once indicted for mail fraud, but was later acquitted.
He typically signed his name "Lee de Forest."
He was a charter member of the Institute of Radio Engineers, one of the two predecessors of the IEEE (the other was the American Institute of Electrical Engineers).
DeVry University was originally named DeForest Training School, after Lee De Forest, by its founder Dr. Herman A. DeVry, who was a friend and colleague of De Forest's.
Birth and education
Lee De Forest was born in 1873 in Council Bluffs, Iowa to Henry Swift DeForest and Anna Robbins.
His father was a Congregational Church minister who hoped that his son would become a minister, also. His father accepted the position of President of Talladega College, a traditionally African American school, in Talladega, Alabama, where Lee spent most of his youth. Most citizens of the white community resented his father's efforts to educate Negro students. Lee De Forest had several friends among the Negro children of the town.
De Forest went to Mount Hermon School, and then enrolled at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University in Connecticut in 1893. As an inquisitive inventor, he tapped into the electrical system at Yale one evening and completely blacked out the campus, leading to his suspension. However, he was eventually allowed to complete his studies. He paid some of his tuition with income from mechanical and gaming inventions, and he received his bachelor's degree in 1896. He remained at Yale for graduate studies, and he earned his Ph.D. degree in 1899 with a dissertation on radio waves. From 1899 to 1901 he was on faculty at Armour Institute of Technology and Lewis Institute (merging in 1940 to become Illinois Institute of Technology) and conducted his first long-distance broadcasts from the university.
De Forest had an interest in wireless telegraphy and he invented the Audion in 1906. He then developed an improved wireless telegraph receiver.
In January 1906, De Forest filed a patent for diode vacuum tube detector, a two-electrode device for detecting electromagnetic waves, a variant of the Fleming valve invented two years earlier. One year later, De Forest filed a patent for a three-electrode device that was a much more sensitive detector of electromagetic waves. It was granted US Patent 879,532 in February 1908. The device was also called the De Forest valve, and since 1919 has been known as the triode. De Forest's innovation was the insertion of a third electrode, the grid, between the cathode (filament) and the anode (plate) of the previously invented diode. The resulting triode or three-electrode vacuum tube could be used as an amplifier of electrical signals, notably for radio reception. The Audion was the fastest electronic switching element of the time, and was later used in early digital electronics (such as computers). The triode was vital in the development of transcontinental telephone communications, radio, and radar after Nikola Tesla's and Guglielmo Marconi's progress in radio in the 1890s, until the 1948 invention of the transistor.
De Forest had, in fact, stumbled onto this invention via tinkering and did not completely understand how it worked. De Forest had initially claimed that the operation was based on ions created within the gas in the tube when, in fact, it was shown by others to operate with a vacuum in the tube. The American inventor Irving Langmuir of General Electric Corp. was the first to correctly explain the theory of operation of the device, and also to significantly improve it.
In 1904, a De Forest transmitter and receiver were set up aboard the steamboat Haimun operated on behalf of The Times, the first of its kind. On July 18, 1907, De Forest broadcast the first ship-to-shore message from the steam yacht Thelma. The communication provided quick, accurate race results of the Annual Inter-Lakes Yachting Association (I-LYA) Regatta. The message 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. DeForest disliked the term "wireless", and chose a new moniker, "radio". De Forest is credited with the birth of public radio broadcasting when on January 12, 1910, he conducted experimental broadcast of part of the live performance of Tosca and, the next day, a performance with the participation of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso from the stage of Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
De Forest came to San Francisco in 1910, and worked for the Federal Telegraph Company, which began developing the first global radio communications system in 1912. California Historical Landmark No. 836 is a bronze plaque at the eastern corner of Channing St. and Emerson Ave. in Palo Alto, California which memorializes the Electronics Research Laboratory at that location and De Forest for the invention of the three-element radio vacuum tube.
The United States Attorney General sued De Forest for fraud (in 1913) on behalf of his shareholders, stating that his claim of regeneration was an "absurd" promise (he was later acquitted). Nearly bankrupt with legal bills, De Forest sold his triode vacuum-tube patent to AT&T and the Bell System in 1913 for the bargain price of $50,000.
De Forest filed another patent in 1916 that became the cause of a contentious lawsuit with the prolific inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong, whose patent for the regenerative circuit had been issued in 1914. The lawsuit lasted twelve years, winding its way through the appeals process and ending up before the Supreme Court in 1926. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of De Forest, although the view of many historians is that the judgment was incorrect.
In 1916, De Forest, from experimental radio station 2XG in New York City, broadcast the first radio advertisements (for his own products) and the first Presidential election report by radio in November 1916 for Charles Evans Hughes and Woodrow Wilson. A few months later, DeForest moved his tube transmitter to Highbridge, Bronx. Like Charles Herrold in San Jose, California -- who had been broadcasting since 1909 with call letters "FN", "SJN", and then "6XF" -- De Forest had a license from the Department of Commerce for an experimental radio station, but, like Herrold, had to cease all broadcasting when the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. From April 1920 to November 1921, DeForest broadcast from station 6XC at the California Theater at Market and Fourth Streets in San Francisco. In late 1921, 6XC moved its transmitter to Ocean View Drive in the Rockridge section of Oakland, California and became KZY.
Just like Pittsburgh’s KDKA four years later in November 1920, DeForest used the Hughes/Wilson presidential election returns for his broadcast. 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. DeForest went on to sponsor radio broadcasts of music, featuring opera star Enrico Caruso and many other events, but he received little financial backing.
In April 1923, the De Forest Radio Telephone & Telegraph Company, which manufactured De Forest's Audions for commercial use, was sold to a coalition of automobile makers, who 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.
Phonofilm sound-on-film process
In 1919, De Forest filed the first patent on his sound-on-film process, which improved on the work of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt and the German partnership Tri-Ergon, and called it the De Forest Phonofilm process. Phonofilm recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines of variable shades of gray, and later became known as a "variable density" system as opposed to "variable area" systems such as RCA Photophone. These lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. This system, which synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record stage performances (such as in vaudeville), speeches, and musical acts. In November 1922, De Forest established his De Forest Phonofilm Company at 314 East 48th Street in New York City, but none of the Hollywood movie studios expressed any interest in his invention.
De Forest premiered 18 short films made in Phonofilm on 15 April 1923 at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. He was forced to show his films in independent theaters such as the Rivoli, since Hollywood movie studios controlled all major theater chains. De Forest chose to film primarily short vaudeville acts, not features, limiting the appeal of his process to Hollywood studios. Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer used the Phonofilm process for their Song Car-Tune series of cartoons—featuring the "Follow the Bouncing Ball" gimmick—starting in May 1924. De Forest also worked with Freeman Harrison Owens and Theodore Case, using Owens's and Case's work to perfect the Phonofilm system. However, DeForest had a falling out with both men. Due to DeForest's continuing misuse of Theodore Case's inventions and failure to publicly acknowledge Case's contributions, the Case Research Lab proceeded to build its own camera. That camera was used by Case and his colleague Earl Sponable to record President Coolidge on 11 August 1924, which was one of the films shown by DeForest and claimed by him to be the product of "his" inventions. Seeing that DeForest was more concerned with his own fame and recognition than he was with actually creating a workable system of sound film, and because of DeForest's continuing attempts to downplay the contributions of the Case Research Lab in the creation of Phonofilm, Case severed his ties with DeForest in the fall of 1925. Case then negotiated an agreement for his patents with studio head William Fox, owner of Fox Film Corporation, who marketed the system as the Fox Movietone process. Shortly before the Phonofilm Company filed for bankruptcy in September 1926, Hollywood introduced a new method for sound film, the sound-on-disc process developed by Warner Brothers as Vitaphone, with the John Barrymore film Don Juan, released 6 August 1926.
In 1927 and 1928, Hollywood began to use sound-on-film systems, including Fox Movietone and RCA Photophone. Meanwhile, a theater chain owner, M. B. Schlesinger, acquired the UK rights to Phonofilm and released short films of British music hall performers from September 1926 to May 1929. Almost 200 short films were made in the Phonofilm process, and many are preserved in the collections of the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute.
Later years and death
De Forest sold one of his radio manufacturing firms to RCA in 1931. In 1934, the courts sided with De Forest against Edwin Armstrong (although the technical community did not agree with the courts). De Forest won the court battle, but he lost the battle for public opinion. His peers would not take him seriously as an inventor or trust him as a colleague.
In 1940 he sent a famous open letter to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he demanded to know, "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."
For De Forest's initially rejected, but later adopted, movie soundtrack method, he was given an Academy Award (Oscar) in 1959/1960 for "his pioneering inventions which brought sound to the motion picture", and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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". Highlights of this, as well as a film clip of his 1940 NAB letter, can be found in the 1991 Ken Burns PBS documentary, whose title was based on one of his quotes: Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. The documentary portrays De Forest as a man of dubious integrity with a relentless desire to become wealthy and famous as an inventor, seemingly at any cost.
De Forest authored an autobiography Father of Radio in 1957, but suffered a severe heart attack a year later, and remained mostly bedridden. He died in Hollywood on June 30, 1961, aged 87, and was interred in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. De Forest died relatively poor, with just $1,250 in his bank account at the time of his death.
De Forest's archives were donated through his widow to the Perham Electronic Foundation, and housed in a museum at Foothill College in Los Altos. In 1991 the college broke its contract and closed the museum. The foundation later won a lawsuit, and was awarded $775,000. The archives are stored in San Jose, waiting for space, perhaps in the San Jose Historical Park.
De Forest received the IRE Medal of Honor in 1922, as "recognition for his invention of the three-electrode amplifier and his other contributions to radio". He was awarded the Franklin Institute's Elliott Cresson Medal in 1923. In 1946, he received the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 'For the profound technical and social consequences of the grid-controlled vacuum tube which he had introduced'. An important annual medal awarded to engineers by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers is named the Lee De Forest Medal.
De Forest was a conservative Republican and fervent anti-communist and anti-fascist. In 1932 he had voted for Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of the Great Depression, 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 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 Communism."
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 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"
Direct descendant of Jessé de Forest who was the leader of a group of Walloon Huguenots who fled Europe due to religious persecutions.
Actor Calvert DeForest portrayed the comic "Larry 'Bud' Melman" character on David Letterman's Late Night With David Letterman television programs for two decades. Calvert DeForest was a cousin to actor DeForest Kelley and movie star Bebe Daniels. Daniels was Lee DeForest's second cousin, so Cavert's relation to Lee was a bit distant.
Lee de Forest had four wives:
Lucille Sheardown in February 1906. They divorced the same year they were married.
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney (1883–1971) in February 1907. 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). Died in a fire in Los Angeles, December 30, 1957 (per Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1957)
Marie Mosquini (1899–1983) on October 10, 1930; Mosquini was a silent film actress, and she and DeForest remained married until his death in 1961.