Lee De Forest

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 18:59, 25 October 2022 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs) (→‎External links)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Lee De Forest
De Forest patented the Audion,
a three-electrode tube.
BornAugust 26, 1873
DiedJune 30, 1961
Hollywood, California

Lee De Forest (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961) was an American inventor with over 300 patents to his credit. De Forest invented the triode vacuum tube, which ushered in a new age of electronics through its use in the amplification of electrical signals. He made some of the earliest motion pictures with sound, and the system he devised was later adopted by the large Hollywood studios.

De Forest's zeal for promoting the mass media helped shape it into the force it is today. Unfortunately, his life was marred by bitter lawsuits over patent rights with other inventors, particularly Edwin Howard Armstrong, and was driven toward bankruptcy. He married four times, going through three divorces.


Lee De Forest born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the second eldest of three children born to Henry Swift De Forest and Anna Robbins. His father was a Congregational minister who hoped that his son would become a minister also. In 1879, De Forest's father accepted the position of president of Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, a school established after the American Civil War to educate African Americans who were no longer under the bondage of slavery. There was simmering resentment over the presence of what many in the south considered meddling northerners. Nevertheless, De Forest's father persevered in what he believed was a God-given task, and Lee De Forest made friends in the town.

During this period of his life, De Forest spent time in the local library absorbing information from patent applications and otherwise indulging his fascination with machinery of all kinds.

Years at Yale

De Forest went to Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts to prepare for college. In the summer of 1893, after graduation, he managed to get a job shuttling people in and out of the Great Hall at the Columbia Exhibition in Chicago. This enabled him to visit the many displays of machinery there. In the fall of that year, he entered Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University. 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 saved money by rooming with his mother, brother and sister in New Haven. De Forest received his Bachelor's degree in 1896. He remained at Yale for graduate studies, and earned his Ph.D. in 1899 with a doctoral dissertation on radio waves.

Forest the entrepreneur

De Forest tried to obtain employment with Marconi and Tesla, but failed on both counts. He traveled to Chicago to take a job at Western Electric, and then to Milwaukee, where he worked for the American Wireless Telegraph Company.

During this period, De Forest invented an improvement to a device called a coherer, basically a tube filled with iron filings which coalesced in the presence of radio waves and conducted electricity. This device had to be constantly reset. De Forest had the idea of using a liquid electrolyte for the same purpose, since it wouldn't require resetting. He called his invention a "responder." When the company he worked for asked him to hand over his new invention, he refused and was fired.

Inspired by his progress, De Forest rushed to the east coast to relocate his laboratory and cover the yacht race off Sandy Hook, N.J. Due to mutual interference of their transmitters, none of the wireless reportage of the race was successful, but some of the news services publicized the news as delivered by De Forest's wireless anyway. This attracted the attention of Abraham White, an entrepreneur, who with De Forest established the American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company.

De Forest's patent for the responder was challenged, however, by another inventor, Reginald Fessenden, who claimed priority. The litigation that followed was decided in favor of De Forest in 1906.

Although De Forest's company managed to sell 90 radio stations, disillusioned stockholders forced De Forest and White to liquidate the company in 1906. But in the same year, De Forest patented what he called the audion, but what is now called a triode, and which proved to be a major advance in radio technology. In 1904, John Ambrose Fleming had patented a diode, which consisted of an anode and a cathode in a vacuum tube. This tube could be used to turn alternating current into direct current. De Forest's tube placed a grid between the anode and cathode which, when the voltage was changed, regulated the current flow. The new tube could be used as an amplifier, in much the way as his responder had been, although with much greater control and sensitivity.

Marconi, who bought out Fleming's patent, sued De Forest, and De Forest in turn sued Fleming. Each won their respective suits on different grounds.

Based on this new invention, De Forest established the De Forest Radio Telephone Company in 1907 with White, his former business partner. With great vigor, he began voice broadcasts that featured the latest songs on phonograph records transmitted from his studio in downtown New York City. De Forest also began to invite singers into his studio for live broadcasts. In 1908, he staged a well-publicized broadcast from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Around this time, White engaged in a corporate manipulation that basically robbed the value of De Forest's and other shareholders' investments and concentrated it in a new company. De Forest managed to keep control of his patents. In the meantime, in 1910, he staged a live broadcast of a performance of the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. These successive broadcasting extravaganzas brought De Forest much publicity, and kept his company in the public eye.

Middle years

The United States Attorney General sued De Forest for fraud (in 1913) on behalf of his shareholders, but he was 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. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of De Forest.

In 1916, De Forest, from 2XG, broadcast the first radio advertisements (for his own products) and the first Presidential election report by radio in November 1916, for Hughes and Woodrow Wilson. A few months later, de Forest moved his tube transmitter to High Bridge, New York, where one of the most publicized pre-World War I broadcasting events took place. Just like Pittsburgh’s KDKA four years later in 1920, de Forest used the presidential election returns for his broadcast. The New York American newspaper installed a private wire and bulletins were sent out every hour. About 2,000 listeners heard The Star-Spangled Banner and other anthems, songs, and hymns. De Forest went on to lead radio broadcasts of music (featuring opera star Enrico Caruso) and many other events, but he received little financial backing.

Sound films

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 called it the De Forest Phonofilm process. It recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, and 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, speeches, and musical acts. De Forest established his De Forest Phonofilm Corporation, but he could interest no one in Hollywood in his invention at that time.

De Forest premiered 18 short films made in Phonofilm on April 15, 1923, at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. He was forced to show his films in independent theaters such as the Rivoli, since the movie studios controlled all major theater chains. De Forest chose to film primarily vaudeville acts, not features, limiting the appeal of his process. Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer used the Phonofilm process for their series of cartoons starting in May 1924. De Forest also worked with Theodore Case, using Case's patents to perfect the Phonofilm system. However, the two men had a falling out, and 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 different method for the "talkies," the sound-on-disc process used by Warner Brothers as Vitaphone. Eventually, Hollywood came back to the sound-on-film methods De Forest had originally proposed, such as Fox Movietone and RCA Photophone. 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. Hundreds of 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.

De Forest also became involved in the advent of television, working with inventor C. Francis Jenkins on a technologically crude system which nevertheless resulted in some of the first television programming in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Later years

De Forest sold one of his radio manufacturing firms to RCA in 1931. In 1934, the courts sided with De Forest against Edwin Armstrong. This did not help De Forest's finances, however, and in 1936, he declared bankruptcy, thereafter being employed by major corporations in a variety of capacities.

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 received the IRE Medal of Honor in 1922, in "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 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."

De Forest suffered from a heart ailment in his last years, and this, plus a bladder infection, finally overwhelmed him. He died in Hollywood, in 1961, and was interred in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Other inventions

From the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, De Forest manufactured diathermy machines, which used electricity to heat the human body. In his lifetime, he secured 300 patents for various inventions, few of which he was able to turn into economically viable ventures. His last patent, for an automatic telephone dialing machine, was filed when he was 84 years old.


There can be no doubt that De Forest revolutionized the electronics industry, and radio in particular, with his invention of the triode. The triode became the template for amplification systems until the advent of the transistor in the second half of the twentieth century.

Other electronics pioneers, such as Edwin Armstrong, often crossed paths with De Forest when attempting to patent similar inventions. The legal battles were fought by major corporations that had already bought out the respective patents. De Forest's claims more often than not held up in the legal sphere, although technicians sometimes sided with other inventors.

De Forest was a bombastic entrepreneur who understood the potential of radio early on and pressed it to its limit, broadcasting operas and major political fights. As much as his inventive skills, these promotional acts of his career shaped radio, and later, television, into the media they are today. In the 1930s, in writings and speeches, De Forest campaigned for a better, less commercialized and more tasteful mass media.

A sense of public-mindedness and a religious sense of duty were part of the impetus for De Forest's ambitions. De Forest's father, a Christian minister, imparted strong values to his son that were hard to shake. "I firmly believe in an Omnipotence infinitely above the mind of man," said De Forest in the 1920s, "and in the divinity of our evolution (Hijiya, 1992, p. 45)."

De Forest's foray into sound pictures in the 1920s, also shows his foresight and technical acumen that he relied upon to the end of his life as an inventor and promoter of mass media.


Lee De Forest had four wives:

  • Lucille Sheardown in February, 1906. They divorced the same year they were married.
  • Nora Blatch in February, 1907, but by 1911, they divorced.
  • Mary Mayo in December, 1912.
  • Marie Mosquini (1899–1983) in October, 1930. She was a silent film actress.

De Forest had three daughters by his second and third marriages.


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 called him American'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 canceled his subscription to The Nation, accusing it of being "lousy with Treason, crawling with Communism."[1]


De Forest was given to expansive predictions, many of which were not borne out, but he also made many correct predictions, including microwave communication and cooking.

  • "I foresee great refinements in the field of short-pulse microwave signaling, whereby several simultaneous programs may occupy the same channel, in sequence, with incredibly swift electronic communication. Short waves will be generally used in the kitchen for roasting and baking, almost instantaneously."—1952[2]
  • "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility."—1926
  • "To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth—all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances."—1926
  • "I do not foresee 'spaceships' to the moon or Mars. Mortals must live and die on Earth or within its atmosphere!"—1952
  • "The transistor will more and more supplement, but never supplant, the Audion. Its frequency limitations, a few hundred kilocycles [kilohertz], and its strict power limitations will never permit its general replacement of the Audion amplifier."—1952


  1. James A. Hijya, Lee De Forest and the Fatherhood of Radio (Lehigh University Press, 1992), p 119-120.
  2. "Dawn of the Electronic Age," Popular Mechanics, January, 1952.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnouw, Erik. 1978. A Tower In Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195004744
  • Froehlich, Fritz E. and Allen Kent, eds. 1999. The Froehlich/Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications. New York: M. Dekker. ISBN 0824729021
  • Hijiya, James A. 1992. Lee De Forest and the Fatherhood of Radio. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press. ISBN 0934223238

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.



New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.