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A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Lee de Forest
1873 - 1961

Lee de Forest's father was a minister and hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. In order to be trained for this calling, de Forest left Alabama for prep school in Massachusetts. His life at school was hard, with chores as well as academics, plus work to supplement his scholarship. Besides, he was not well-liked there. Biographers report he was extremely concerned with getting recognition from his peers, an issue which lasted throughout his life. Alas, he only won acknowledgement as "homeliest boy in school."

Despite this, he was confident. During school, de Forest had tried to get 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 1896 with a dissertation on radio waves, he developed an improved wireless telegraph receiver. By 1902, he had founded the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company but like other firms he would start, it failed because of poor business practices.

De Forest was extremely creative and energetic, but often was uable to see the potential of his inventions or grasp their theoretical implications. While working on improving wireless telegraph equipment, he 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, but also a grid between the filament and plate. This strengthened the current through the tube, amplifying weak telegraph and even radio signals. De Forest thought the gas was a necessary part of the system. In 1912, others showed that a triode in a complete vacuum would work far better.

This kind of "nearly getting it" would characterize de Forest's life. In 1912, he developed a feedback circuit, which would increase the output of a radio transmitter and produce alternating current. He didn't see the worth of his discovery, though, and by the time he applied for a patent in 1915, it had already been patented by E. Howard Armstrong. De Forest sued, with legal action lasting until 1934. He won, but the radio industry always credited Armstrong with the invention. His other major contribution was to the film industry. In the 1920s, he had been trying to use electricity to improve sound recordings. He found a way to record sound on film, again adapting the work of others and using his Audion. This led directly to the creation of motion pictures with sound. He applied for a patent in 1921 (awarded in 1924) and tried to interest the film industry in his technology. They resisted. Hollywood didn't start talking until 1927 when The Jazz Singer appeared in theaters as the first feature-length "talkie" using a method different from de Forest's work. Ironically, the industry later reverted to the sound method de Forest first proposed.

Throughout his tumultuous life -- many failed businesses, ongoing lawsuits, patent applications, and four marriages -- de Forest promoted radio and later television as a way to raise Americans' cultural awareness. In 1910, he attempted the first live broadcast from New York's Metropolitan Opera House (starring Enrico Caruso). In 1916, he pioneered radio news, broadcasting -- although incorrectly -- the results of the presidential election. He was disappointed with how radio and television evolved, however, and was deeply critical of its low standards. De Forest wrote an autobiography entitled Father of Radio, but did not get that recognition from the rest of the world. He is remembered as one contributor to an industry that was, in truth, the work of many people.



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