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Lee De Forest

Lee De ForestBorn: 26-Aug-1873
Birthplace: Council Bluffs, IA
Died: 30-Jun-1961
Location of death: Hollywood, CA
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, CA

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Inventor
Party Affiliation: Republican

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Inventor of the Audion vacuum tube

Inventor and electrical engineer Lee De Forest held nearly 180 patents, but is best known by far for his 1907 improvements to the vacuum tube invented by John Ambrose Fleming. De Forest's innovation was a three-electrode vacuum tube, or triode, which he trademarked as the Audion. Capable of detecting, controlling, and even amplifying electrical signals, the Audion revolutionized electronics and formed the basis for subsequent technologies including telephone, television, radar, and early computer systems until the development of transistors in the late 1940s.

De Forest's father was a Congregationalist minister and the President of Talladega College, an all-black school in Alabama. For teaching Negros the family was virtually shunned by white neighbors in Alabama, and all of young De Forest's friends as a child were blacks. A bright boy who enjoyed tinkering, he was sent to the Mount Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts, where he was named "homeliest boy in school". From there he went to Yale, where he graduated with a thesis on "Reflection of Hertzian Waves from the Ends of Parallel Wires" -- radio.

After graduating from college he worked at Western Electric, where he designed dynamos, telephone equipment, and early radio gear. In 1902 he opened his own business, the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, selling radio equipment and demonstrating the new technology by broadcasting Morse code signals. Within four years he had been squeezed out of the management of his own company.

In the prospectus for his second try at business, De Forest Radio Telephone Company in 1907, he envisioned using radio to broadcast church meetings, lectures, even opera performances into people's homes. In 1910 he successfully broadcast Enrico Caruso's performance from the New York Metropolitan Opera to a small roomful of reporters some blocks away from the theater. For several years De Forest operated an experimental radio station, 2XG in High Bridge, New York, which broadcast music nightly and was received as far away as New Jersey. In 1913 he sold his patent for the Audion to AT&T, which used it to improve the quality of long-distance telephone service feasible.

Still, acceptance and practical uses for his inventions came slowly, and after the collapse of his second company in 1912, De Forest was prosecuted for mail fraud. Prosecutors deemed his Audion a "worthless device", but he was exonerated at trial. He later spent 19 years in various courtrooms wrangling with Edwin H. Armstrong, who had first noted the Audion's ability to feed back (feedback) its signal to itself, thus amplifying signals or sound. De Forest won that battle at the US Supreme Court, though most experts found Armstrong's claim far more persuasive. De Forest was also victorious in a 1931 lawsuit against General Electric for patent infringement.

Most of De Forest's many patents were for relatively minor technical advances, though almost any invention would be deemed minor in comparison to the Audion. His most notable other work was Phonofilm, a recording system that embedded a soundtrack in motion picture film, allowing talking movies. In the 1920s he ran the De Forest Phonofilm Company, using his movie sound system to make experimental shorts, mostly filming vaudeville acts at New York theaters. His Phonofilm was not the system used for The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the flood of "talkies" which followed. Still, he was given an honorary Oscar in 1960, "for his pioneering inventions which brought sound to the motion picture."

As radio changed from a crystal-set hobby to a big business, De Forest was a frequently cited expert on the medium's early days. In 1930 he was elected President of the Institute of Radio Engineers, and he immediately made headlines with a public denouncement of the growing commercialization of radio, after which he was rarely invited onto the major networks. For the next few decades, De Forest's main work revolved around building and preserving his legacy as the "Father of Radio" — a term coined by De Forest, who often described himself as "a disappointed parent."

In the 1950s he worked as a pitchman for shortwave radio sets, and wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter on "The Coming Miracles of Science." In his last years he developed paranoid suspicions about friends, family, and former colleagues, and complained bitterly that his contributions to science had been unappreciated. He publicly referred to AT&T as the “chiseler” of his Audion patent rights.

He was a cousin of actress Bebe Daniels, best known for the movie 42nd Street, and a great-uncle of TV oddity Calvert DeForest, who was a frequent presence on David Letterman's TV programs. His second wife, Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, was a well-known suffragette and civil engineer, and the granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Father: Henry Swift DeForest (Congregational minister, b. 17-Mar-1833, d. 27-Jan-1896)
Mother: Anna Margaret Robbins DeForest (b. 2-Jul-1848, m. 25-Aug-1869, d. 8-Jun-1927)
Sister: Mary De Forest (b. 1871)
Brother: Charles Mills De Forest (author, b. 1878)
Wife: Lucille Sheardown (clerical worker, m. 1906, annulled 1907)
Wife: Nora Stanton Blatch Barney (suffragette, b. 1883, m. 24-Feb-1908, sep. 1909, div. 1912, d. 1971)
Daughter: Harriot Stanton De Forest Allabem Wagner (flight instructor, b. 19-Jun-1909)
Wife: Mary Mayo (opera singer, b. 1892, m. 23-Dec-1912, div. 1930)
Daughter: Eleanor De Forest Peck ("Deena")
Son: (b. 1926, d. infancy)
Wife: Marie Mosquini (silent film star, b. 3-Dec-1899, m. Oct-1930 until his death, d. 21-Feb-1983)

    High School: Northfield Mount Hermon School, Northfield, MA (1892)
    University: BS, Sheffield School of Science, Yale University (1896)
    University: PhD, Sheffield School of Science, Yale University (1899)

    Western Electric Research (1899-1902)
    American Wireless Telegraph Company Research (1899-1902)
    De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company Founder and President (1902-06)
    De Forest Radio Telephone Company Founder and President (1907-12)
    De Forest Phonofilm Company Founder and President (1920-29)
    National Association for Better Radio and Television Vice President (1951)
    The Hollywood Reporter Columnist
    Bell Laboratories Research
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    Society of Wireless Telegraph Engineers
    Institute of Radio Engineers President (1930-32)
    Oscar (honorary) 1960:For motion picture sound system
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1977
    IEEE Medal of Honor 1922
    IEEE Edison Medal 1946
    Hollywood Walk of Fame 1750 Vine St. (motion pictures)
    Radio Hall of Fame 1989
    Mail Fraud Indicted 1913, acquitted

Author of books:
Father of Radio (1915, memoir)
Television: Today and Tomorrow (1942, nonfiction)


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