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Lee DeForest, Father of Radio, Grandfather of Television?

Well, not really…

There’s History, and then there’s History.


Lee DeForest is a great historic figure in the history of wireless radio. History can be great with names and places most of the time, but it has a lot of problems with the nit picky details and the motivations involved. Discoveries and inventions are a particularly troublesome aspect of history, and history often seems to get them partially wrong.

The details of Lee DeForest’s life are just such an example of this problem with history.

Most people don’t care that much for history, in general. Their days in a dusty, chalk dust covered schoolroom listening to a teacher drone on about dates and places and generally boring the hell out of everyone in that class, including the teacher themselves, is enough to choke any interest in history out of any student. But, as George Santayana once said “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” (But then if you don’t bother to learn your history you probably never heard of this very smart man and that very smart quotation.) It is important to know history and to learn from it, but it is also wise to doubt history.

Those people that know a bit about history and especially the history of radio, recall that Lee DeForest was the Father of Radio and the Grandfather of Television. This was not because he was either of those things, as much as he was the guy that always described himself as these things. Yes, he was the Michael Jackson, “The King Of Pop”, of his day. His self proclaiming became a truth in many eyes.

Let’s jump over his birth and education, and get into how some might perceive him as the “father” of any major technology. Lee DeForest was an inveterate tinkerer with 180 patents to his name in his long career (he made it to the age of 87). The thing that really put him in the history books was the invention of the Audion tube! You remember that one, right? The very first triode vacuum tube – the invention that made amplifiers possible and with amplification all those important electronic devices that could now follow!

Well, not really.

DeForest’s invention that he first labeled The Audion Tube, was a two element diode, not a triode and was strikingly similar to another inventor’s previously patented thermionic diode (the Fleming valve). Much worse than the little detail that this design was not completely original, was the fact that it was not a very good diode at all. But still, the tinkerer tinkered. He placed another electrode on the outside of the Audion diode (promising, but no cigar). Then he placed the outside electrode inside the tube and since it was shaped like a football gridiron, he named it the Grid and re-christened his invention the Audion Grid Tube!

With his new Audion Grid Tube in hand, Lee DeForest took about promoting the brave new world of radio broadcasting that it would enable, and if there was one thing DeForest was better at than tinkering, it was self-promotion. In a short time he had found enough investors to put on a great demonstration of his new technology. He broadcasted a local Opera to scattered receivers all around a city, for passersby to listen and marvel at. From then on, Lee was a Legend.

Well, not really.

You see, the demonstration was a disaster. His Audion Grid tube was not even meant to act as an amplifier – it was merely a more sensitive diode detector of radio transmissions at first (to be fair the idea of the importance of amplification of a signal was lost on everyone else at that time, as well)!  The Opera was little more than crackles of static, occasionally punctuated by the hiss of maybe someone singing something in the background. The trouble was that the Audion Grid Tube was an unmitigated technological failure. It was a failure primarily because, since Lee DeForest was a tinkerer and an inventor rather than an actual scientist, he did not have the faintest idea why a tube should work, which you would think would be a problem when it came to designing one. Lee had decided on an unproven belief that these tubes operated in low pressure air in some way, so a perfect vacuum would be anathema to him (surprisingly, to me, there are still guys with Electrical Engineering degrees that believe that thermionic vacuum tubes don’t boil free electrons off their cathode but some jumble of ionized particles from the cathode that somehow don’t erode it completely during this imaginary phenomena – just goes to show there are still some clueless E.E.’s out there) .  DeForest was famous for saying that he “didn’t know why it worked, it just did”. All of his designs left some air in the tube and as many of us now know, there is a very good reason why we call vacuum tubes, vacuum tubes! His resulting design produced a device that had very limited dynamic range and a nonlinear erratic characteristic. When the dust settled and threats of arresting him for mail-fraud died down, others tried to get his Audion Tube to work in a vacuum – unfortunately the design did not work well with a reasonably good vacuum. After Lee sold his patent for a song, smarter guys at AT&T redesigned the re-christened Audion Tube to operate in a decent vacuum and the true amplifying triode vacuum tube was finally born. General Electric further advanced the basic design into a useful device. Surprisingly, both people that made improvements that turned the useless thing into a historic device could not get these modifications patented!

Okay, so he didn’t actually invent the first fully functional amplifying triode vacuum tube. At least he almost did. He still went on to do a lot of other great accomplishments. Didn’t he invent the regenerative receiver?

Well, not really.

You see, years before Lee DeForest patented his idea for the regenerative receiver circuit, another guy was already writing all about it. A guy named Edwin Armstrong (the guy that invented the regenerative circuit, the super-regenerative circuit, the superheterodyne receiver and FM modulation – a brilliant Electrical Engineer, but not nearly as good a self-promoter as DeForest).  DeForest seems to have been more successful in the legal system, having other people’s inventions assigned to him, than actually inventing much, so he got a piece of the regenerative circuit patent rights to finance his continuing self-promotion. The man should have gone down in the history books for his wins with the Courts, rather than his re-imagining of other people’s ideas.

As a college student, Armstrong had done extensive research into the workings of the Audion tube. Many years later when Armstrong and DeForest later were involved in a legal dispute over the regeneration patent, Armstrong was able to demonstrate conclusively that DeForest still had no idea how the Audion tube actually worked!

Lee DeForest then went into the vacuum tube business, selling overpriced tubes, that were required to be returned to him when they blew out! The invisible economic force of competition quickly led to this business failing too.

Lee DeForest’s next area of interest was to develop optical sound-on-film for the nascent movie industry. Somewhere along the line Lee started to work with inventors Freemason Harrison Owens and Theodore Case. Not surprisingly Case kicked Lee DeForest to the curb because DeForest kept downplaying Case’s contribution to the technology. Case went on to be very successful with his invention, and DeForest was reasonably successful suing Case (do you see a trend here?).

What about him being the Grandfather of Television. Well, Grandpa had this to say about television in 1929:

“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So much for dear old Grandpa!

After that, DeForest jumped around from place to place. He still held a patent to manufacturer Audion tubes to a limited customer base, so he did just that. He fiddled with diathermy machines (unsuccessfully) as well as mechanically based televisions (equally unsuccessfully). He ended up being one of those guys who write angry letters to the newspapers bitching and complaining that they had taken “his baby” and reduced it to playing ragtime and boogie-woogie – he was expecting Opera. His actual contribution to the development of Television only relates to his original Audion tube invention. He did nothing to create the new television technology at all.

Here’s some great quotes from The Wizard of the Audion:

“I do not foresee ‘spaceships’ to the moon or Mars. Mortals must live and die on Earth or within its atmosphere!” – 1952

“As a growing competitor to the tube amplifier comes now the Bell Laboratories’ transistor, a three-electrode germanium crystal of amazing amplification power, of wheat-grain size and low cost. Yet its frequency limitations, a few hundred kilocycles, and its strict power limitations will never permit its general replacement of the Audion amplifier.” – 1952

He didn’t seem to be a great fortune teller either.

Most of Lee DeForest’s wealth dissolved with the great Stock Market crash of 1929. When he died on June 30th, 1961 at age 87 he had just $1,250 in his bank account.

And so, here is the real story of a legend. The self proclaimed and self promoted Father of Radio and Grandfather of Television.

Rest in Peace Mr. DeForest.

(…and don’t always believe history)


– The [Cranky] Editor –

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