Monday, October 30, 2006


I've put off this bio for some time while I decided if his place in radio history was as lame as I originally ascertained. After over a year of deliberating I have decided he is more lame than I originally thought. Perhaps I am too judgemental, and too hasty. But read on, you decide for yourself from my severely slanted essay...

Lee DeForest went to Yale University in 1893. He was bright, motivated btu not particularly technical. More of a gearhead than a bookworm. Once while being inquisitive he tapped into the electrical system at Yale and completely blacked out the campus one evening. It lead to his suspension. It was a hint of things to come. (Yale gave him an honorary degree in 1926)

While Flemming was off inventing the fleming valve, Lee DeForest was aping Reginald Fessenden. The clear cut-case was in 1903. DeForest makes a "casual" visit to fellow inventor Reginald Fessenden's workshop. He takes a look at Fessenden's invention of the Liquid Barretter detector. Lee steals the design and starts using it claiming it as his own. Fessenden actually has to sue him to stop him frokm using and selling it. And eventually gets an injunction against de Forest for patent infringement in 1906.

As a result Lee had to change all of his stations to use the silicon detector. But that was already patented too, but fortunately by another employee of the American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, Mr. H.H. Dunwoody. (Dunwoody is worth a bio on his own) Spectacular pictoral peice here:
Because of this incident, de Forest resigned from his own company in November 1906 and began looking for a better valve detector. One that he wouldn't have to pay royalties for. He started with the Fleming valves. He made some Fleming valves (design patented 1904), and, in a moment of inspiration, he added a third element. The diode became a triode. It's just another electrode between cathode a.k.a. (filament) and the anode (plate). If you're imagining a lighbulb with 3 filaments you're not far off. It's that fucking simple

It was wild. The third element regulated the current. It was a patentable change. But DeForest didn't even understand how it worked. He just knew that it worked, and that he didn't have to pay Fessenden or Dunwoody to use it. De Forest patented his audion, the first three-element valve in 1907. This did not stop Marconi (who owned the Flemming tube) from suing the crap out of him. It was obvious to the Marconi Co that the idea came form Flemming, and they wanted a peice.

De Forest had difficulty at trial since HE DIDN'T KNOW HOW IT WORKED! His lack of understanding was so incomplete he thought the vaccume tube needed some gas still in it! Not until Edwin H. Armstong wrote a paper on it did Lee have a clue what the third element did. Armstonr wasn't alone in the examination. Other experimentrs including Langmuir, and Van DerPol made contributions as well. ...In 1912 somebody got around to telling him.

By 1916 DeForest was in trouble. After Armstrong explained how his own toy worked, he sued Armstrong. Armstrong had invented the regenerative circuit in 1913. Why? Well, the United States District Attorney started sueing De Forest for fraud on behalf of his shareholders in 1913. Because he promised them a regenerative circuit and well... he didn't have one. So he patented some crap that was kinda iffy to come thru on that in 1916. Problem was Armstrong already patented that in 1914! Despite the obvious problem with the lack of time travel DeForest won the lawsuit. He had the motivation... he didnt' want his shareholders to murder him. DeForest later acquitted of federal charges. Armstrong got screwed royally. The phrase used politely in most boigraphies is something like: "The view of many historians is that the judgement was incorrect."

In 1919 he was at it again. This time ripping off the work of Eugene Lauste, Theodore Case and Freeman Harrison Owens. (and by default the krauts they ripped off too) The De Forest Phonofilm process recorded sound directly onto film. It kept the sound in synch with the movie which before hand ...was really a bugger to figure out. Hollywood was strangely disinterested in the oft-sued inventor. So DeForest gave them the finger and premiered 18 short films on him own. Their debut was in 1923 at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. Some of the above sued DeForest again and by the Fall of 1926 the Phonofilm Company folded. [the Vitaphone system developed by Warner Bros is what we eventually adopted] It was about then DeForest had to sell his own home to pay legal debts.

Lee spent his golden years endlessly shilling for good press and perpetually writing and rewriting his own version of history. He was an inventor yes. He built on the work of others before him like all inventors do -yes. But he barely understood what he was doing and more often than not, he either made (or tried to make) meaningless modifications to defeat patents or just ripped off the work of him employees. He began billing himseelf as The Father of Radio. He hired publicists and had a lionizing autobiography ghost-written in 1950. He lobbied hard for a Nobel Prize inPhysics but was denied. He was trying to build himself a legacy.

I give him credit for the following:
1. He started his own radio station 2XG
2. From 2XG he may have made the first report of a presidential election
3. From 2XG he may have also done the first radio advertisements.. even it was for his own products.
4. He was a effective proponent of music programming over wireless i.e. radio. at 2XG and later at 6XC.
5. He built several early radio staitons, some now heritage stations including WWJ
6. He invented the first synthisizer, an electric keyboard of sorts (the Audion Piano in 1915) it was derided by critics as the "Squawk-a-phone' but it was the inspiration behind the Theremin.