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.
Learn more about Lee De Forest, free from leedeforest.org. 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, 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).
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.
De Forest had an interest in wireless telegraphy and he invented the Audion in 1906. He then developed an improved wireless telegraph receiver. At that time, he was a member of the faculty at the Armour Institute of Technology, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
In January 1907, De Forest filed a patent for a two-electrode device for detecting electromagnetic waves, a variant of the Fleming valve invented two years earlier, a.k.a. the diode vacuum tube detector. It was granted US Patent 879,532 in February 1908. It was a three-electrode device (plate, cathode, control grid), was a vacuum tube. It 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, in 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 for electrical signals, notably for radio reception. The Audion could also act as a fast (for its time) electronic switching element, later applicable in digital electronics (such as computers). The triode was vital in the development of long-distance (e.g. transcontinental) telephone communications, radio, and radar. The triode was an important innovation in electronics in the first half of the 20th century, between Nikola Tesla's and Guglielmo Marconi's progress in radio in the 1890s, and the 1948 invention of the transistor.
De Forest had, in effect, 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. 386 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 High Bridge, New York. 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.
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.
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. Case took his patents to studio head William Fox, owner of Fox Film Corporation, who then perfected 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".
He died in Hollywood in 1961 and was interred in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
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". 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 and his statist policies, calling him 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."