Lee De Forest, Who Successfully Invented the Audion but Failed at Everything Else
Lee De Forest occupies an interesting space in the history of inventions past. While his work was pivotal to things like the transistor, modern telecommunication, among other things, he failed at nearly everything he did.
De Forest was the defendant in several patent infringement lawsuits, had 4 failed marriages, several failed companies, and was barely able to make any money from his almost 300 patents. In the end, his major accomplishment was that he invented the Audion vacuum tube, a crucial component to radio, television, and radar broadcasting. It was this invention that has led to him being called "the father of radio".
That said, in order to understand the accomplishments of Lee De Forest, we need to go back in time and look at where he began.
De Forest's early life
Lee De Forest was born on August 26, 1873, in the U.S. state of Iowa to a congregational minister. Being a pastor's kid would lead him through an interesting childhood.
His father moved his family to Alabama to become the president of Talladega College. Notably, De Forest's family was white, yet Talladega College was exclusively for African American students. Lee's father felt that it was his duty to champion education for all races, but this viewpoint led to Lee and his family being ostracized by much of the culture in the day.
This ultimately meant, though, that Lee made his friends among the black communities in the area, which shaped much of his upbringing.
Lee, like many future engineers and inventors, was fascinated with machinery at a very early age. By the early age of thirteen, he had already begun inventing new mechanical gadgets like a miniature blast furnace. He even had invented a working mechanical train-like device.
Drawing back to Lee being a pastor's kid in the late 1800s, it was heavily expected of him to go into ministry. However, he insisted that he follow his passion for science.
In 1893, De Forest enrolled at Yale University at the Sheffield Scientific School. It was one of the first institutions in the U.S. at the time that offered premiere scientific education. Lee spent his time in school working hard and trying to afford to continue studying. He didn't do anything of major interest during his time as an undergraduate, like most college students. De Forest earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1899.
After becoming a doctor in physics, he gained a specific interest in the realm of electricity and electromagnetic propagation. He followed closely the works of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi. In fact, his thesis for his doctorate was on the "Reflection of Hertzian Waves from the Ends of Parallel Wires." The ideas he proposed in this paper formed the basis of radio wave technologies.
After graduating, he went on to work at the Western Electric Company. Working first in the Dynamo Department, where he then worked through the telephone department and next into the experimental laboratory. He was clearly an influential technological thinker of the time and his early professional history makes that obvious.
Like most inventors at the time, he spent a large portion of his free time working on his own personal inventions. He first developed an electrolytic detector of Hertzian waves. The device worked decently well for the time, and based on its function, he gathered financial backing to form the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company. The purpose of his business was to give public demonstrations of wireless telegraphs to spread the word about this new and exciting technology to businessmen and the military.
His business ended up failing, though. In large part because he was defrauded by the business partners he chose. This first company was bankrupt by 1906. However, that isn't the end of the story for De Forest's inventions.
The Audion tube
De Forest patented a new type of electromagnetic wave detector in 1906 that he dubbed, the "Audion". In essence, it was capable of receiving sensitive wireless signals, those of less power than the low ranges of other detectors at the time. The main technical component of the Audion was a Thermionic grid triode vacuum tube. Breaking it down simply, Lee had created the world's first triode. Through initial testing, De Forest was able to broadcast speech and music through the Audion to the general public in New York City in 1907.
Based on the success of the Audion, De Forest founded the De Forest Radio Telephone Company, but it collapsed in just 1909 due to his partners stealing money and doing other nefarious things. In fact, De Forest was actually indicted in 1912 for mail fraud for reportedly promoting a worthless device, the Audion. However, he was later acquitted after its usefulness was demonstrated to a grander public.
In 1912, De Forest started toying around with the idea of laying out his Audion tubes in a cascading series to amplify radio signals far beyond traditional means. He was able to feed the output from one tube through a transformer and into the input of the next tube. He wired the tubes up in succession like this and demonstrated significant potential for amplification of an initially weak radio signal.
This amplification process is what went on to make the Audion so successful. It's easy amplification capabilities were needed for radio and telephone communications. Lee also discovered that he could cause a self-regenerating oscillation in the circuit of the Audion devices. The resultant signal was a great means to transmit various forms of information, like speech and music.
While it may sound like Lee had massive success with the Audion, we're glancing over several of the difficulties he faced in his life. Many of his patents and inventions were contested by scientists and patent attorneys at the time. After he realized that he was not going to be able to make a good businessman or manufacturer, so he sold off all of his patents for developments.
By 1920, De Forest was working on recording systems for sound motion pictures. he actually developed a sound-on-film recording technique called phonofilm. While he was able to demonstrate its success throughout the 1920s, it had poor quality and he was able to garner interest from the industry.
So, that's the story of De Forest, self-described as the "father of radio." He has had a pension for failure as he faced numerous patent lawsuits, spending any money he made defending himself, he was married 4 times, had several failed companies, and even was indicted for mail fraud. At the end of the day, though, De Forest did far more than most can say they did during his lifetime.