Lee De Forest was one of the major scientific contributors to the electronic age in which we now live and which started about 100 years ago. As a matter of fact, exactly 100 years ago, in 1906, De Forest invented a major advance in radio technology, the Audion vacuum tube. The Audion vacuum tube, a triode, was a major advance in vacuum tube technology, especially when compared to the simpler diode vacuum tubes then around. It was a major advance for radio transmission and was the first major contribution to the electronic age by Lee De Forest. Numerous other contributions would follow.
Lee De Forest was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa on August 26, 1873. He was the son of a Congregational minister. During Lee’s early years, the family moved to Alabama where his father became the president of Talladega College, a black higher education institution. Lee later was sent to Mount Hermon School, a college preparatory school, in Massachusetts. Following his schooling there he entered the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University. He graduated with his Bachelor of Science Degree in 1896, stayed on and earned his Ph. D. Degree from Yale in 1899. He then went to work for the Western Electric Company for two years, and then worked as an editor on a technical magazine and part time teacher for one year. He clearly was restless and started his first company, the De Forest Radio Company in 1902. At the 1904 Chicago World’s Fair he received a gold medal for his scientific electronic contributions. All of the above occurred during the five years following his graduation with his Ph. D. Degree.
De Forest was also a major force in using the electronic technology of his day for useful purposes. In 1908 he demonstrated the power of radio broadcasting by using the Eifel Tower in Paris as a transmitter site. His Paris broadcast was heard as far as 500 miles away. In 1916 he used a similar demonstration by broadcasting from his own New York City radio station, transmitting music, and also the results of the 1916 presidential election. The broadcast was heard as far away as the Midwest.
De Forest’s other main invention, in 1919, was the method of attaching sound to film and have it perfectly synchronized. To commercialize his new sound-on-film technology he founded another company, the Sound-on-Film Company. Although his approach was not adopted right away by the film industry, it eventually was, and he received an Academy Award, the Oscar, for the sound-on-film invention, somewhat belatedly, in 1959/1960.
During his entire career, he did encounter many mishaps. His commercial enterprises were not always well managed and as a result he was involved in much litigation. Also he was frequently accused of using some one else’s invention as his own, and this caused much litigation. Interestingly he won nearly all of the law suits in which he was involved.
De Forest was actively involved in the scientific and technical institutions of his time. He was a charter member of the Institute of Radio Engineers [IRE]. The IRE with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers [AIEE] later formed the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers [IEEE]. These institutions would later honor him. In 1922, the IRE awarded De Forest the Medal of Honor for his work. Later in his career, in 1926, he was awarded the Edison Medal by the AIEE. And the IEEE to this day annually awards the Lee De Forest Medal to the most deserving electronic engineer or scientist of that year.
Another important recognition to De Forest was his ability to sell his radio company to RCA in 1931. This allowed him to devote more time to his other activities and interests. He also was given a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And the Encyclopedia Britannica lists De Forest as one of the inventors of sound film.
De Forest’s family life was nearly as rocky as his business life. He was married four times, and the first three marriages ended in divorce. His first marriage was to Lucille Sheardon in 1906. It lasted less than a year. The next year in 1907, he married Norah Blatch, an engineer. That marriage lasted until 1911. It did, however, produce a child. Not believing in long courtships, De Forest married Mary Mayo, a singer, in 1912. This marriage was clearly more successful; it produced two children, one of whom died in child birth. But after 15 years it also failed. In 1930 De Forest married his fourth and last wife, Marie Mosquini, a silent film actress. This marriage apparently was his happiest marriage and lasted until the end of his life. De Forest passed away in Hollywood in 1961 at age 87. He was interred at San Fernandino Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
De Forest’s Dutch lineage is not well documented although he is considered to be of Dutch background. With a name like De Forest one would suspect that his Dutch connection dates back several generations.
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IEEE History Center, www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center/legacies/deforest.html
The Complete Lee De Forest, www.leedeforest.org
Lee De Forest, www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btfore.html
Lee De Forest, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_De_Forest
Lee De Forest, http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/deforest.html