The Man Who Made Radio Talk (May, 1929)

The Man Who Made Radio Talk

And Gave the Movies a Voice—The Dramatic Story of Lee De Forest, Inventor of the Audion Tube


THE story of Lee De Forest, and of his long and bitter court struggle for possession of the basic patents on the audion tube, runs parallel to the history of radio. Like most great inventors, he has been maligned, ridiculed, baffled—and all but beaten. Today he emerges victorious, vindicated in his. claim to be called the father of radio broadcasting. Here Mr. Stockbridge writes the drama of the timid, unsociable youth who set his face toward a goal and learned how to fight to win it. —The Editor.

AN EAGER-MINDED boy, compelled by circumstances to suppress most of a boy’s natural outlets for his energy. A keen-minded, diffident youth, with nothing in common with his schoolmates, thrown back upon his own resources in his effort to fit himself for life.

A shy, introspective college student, unable to express himself among his fellows in any manner but through his work in classroom and laboratory.

A visionary young man, fired with inspiration through reading of Tesla’s and Marconi’s experiments with the Hertzian waves, seeking—and finding— a better way to make the wireless telegraph work.

An “impractical” inventor, easily preyed upon by unscrupulous promoters, betrayed by friends, sneered at by rival inventors, his patents infringed by others, disheartened, baffled, almost beaten by the world which he had never learned how to fight.

Then, suddenly, the wheel turns and Lee De Forest is sitting on top of the world.

He made the wireless speak!

Modern radio, as we know it, springs from De Forest’s audion tube. It made voice transmission and therefore modern broadcasting possible and practical. Applied to the wires, it is the foundation of all long-distance telephony. It has turned the world of communications upside down.

Two weeks ago, as this is written, the Supreme Court of the United States officially proclaimed Lee De Forest the “daddy” of modern radio. The highest tribunal in the land at last upheld his basic patents on the audion tube in its applications as a radio detector, a radio amplifier, an oscillator, and a regenerator in receiving sets.

TO THE spare, kindly, gentle-voiced, gray-haired man with whom I talked in his laboratory in New York, this belated confirmation of his pioneer claims came as no surprise. There is a simple faith about Lee De Forest’s outlook on life, a faith based upon the belief that somehow, sometime, every man gets what he deserves. He knew he was right, and was not in the least elated when the nine great jurists on the bench in Washington agreed with him. In his matured philosophy of life, the world’s acclaim means nothing to him. Except as the Supreme Court’s decision pours millions in deferred royalties into his pocket—millions for which he has no personal love nor need— he is all through with radio.

All of Lee De Forest’s interests today are in the movies. For, just as he taught the radio how to talk, he has given the motion picture a voice.

The De Forest phonofilm is the parent of the “talkies,” as his audion tube is of broadcasting. Others have discovered the ways of accomplishing the same or similar results, but it was Lee De Forest’s original conception of photographing sound on the same film which carries the picture which has revolutionized the art of the cinema.

I submit that Edison himself, at fifty-five—De Forest’s present age—had hardly achieved anything more far-reaching than these two accomplishments, of making the radio and the movies talk.

I found it almost as hard to get De Forest to talk as he had found it to coax them into speech. Sitting at his desk in the big building which was designed as a studio for Norma Talmadge’s motion picture productions, he overcame his diffidence sufficiently, however, to give me the high-lights of an inventor’s methods and to indulge in a bit of forecasting of the future possibilities in his fields of work.

The invention of the audion tube was no accident. Like most great inventions, it came about because a man of vision and imagination, familiar with the technique in the field of his labors, saw an unfilled need and set about to find a way to fill it. As a post-graduate student at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, the youthful De Forest, having recognized the need of a better way of detecting wireless waves than Marconi had found, devoted the next half-dozen years to the pursuit of that way, until he found it.

That was his sole recreation as a boy and a young man—the pursuit of knowledge. Born on August 26, 1873, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where his father was a Congregational minister, he was taken as a boy of six to Talladega, Alabama, where his father became the head of one of the earliest colleges for negroes.

IT WAS a difficult environment for a boy,” De Forest told me. “I could not associate with the negro children on terms of equality, and the children of the white families in the town were not permitted to associate with me, because my father was committing the then unpardonable crime, in Southern eyes, of educating negroes. My brother and sister and myself, and the few other children of white teachers of the college, had to build up a little social system of our own, which was too narrow and limited to be good for us. Out of such an environment a boy grows up either arrogant or diffident. He has had no opportunity to associate with his equals, and feels himself either superior or inferior to all with whom he comes in contact.

“I came through that experience shy, diffident, without knowledge of the world or of life. I had plenty of book knowledge, but none of practical affairs. My father, by the utmost frugality, managed to find enough money to send me to a preparatory school in the North, an obscure, sectarian school at Mount Hermon, Mass., where my schoolmates were farm boys, unfamiliar with the cultural standards of my parents’ home but far beyond me in their ability to adjust themselves to the give-and-take of community life. The result was to drive me farther into myself, so that when I finally entered Yale I was probably the most timid, unsocial student who ever went to New Haven.”

The course at Yale was achieved only at the cost of a tremendous struggle against this handicap and financial difficulties. Only the inborn American passion for education kept young De Forest going. He had a strong natural bent for mechanics; he was going to be a mechanical engineer. But electricity was looking up. The war between alternating and direct current had been fought and compromised. Electric railways were spreading all over the country, Niagara was being harnessed for power, one could telephone a hundred miles, every big town had its arc lights in the streets. De Forest read everything he could get hold of about electricity, absorbed all that his professors at Sheffield could give him. He was looking ahead. What was to be electricity’s next step? Where could a youth on the threshold of life and his best toe-hold in this field?

TO GET means to pursue his experiments and his education, he worked for a time, after graduating with the degree of B. Sc. in 1896, for the Western Electric Company in Chicago, the largest makers of telephone equipment. The Spanish war came along, Yale men organized the “Yale Battery,” Battery A of the First Field Artillery, Connecticut National Guard, which saw service in Cuba and in which De Forest served as a gunner. Then he went back to Yale for post-graduate study and the degree of Ph.D.

Great things had happened in electricity. Hertz, in Germany, had discovered that electrical impulses travel through the “ether” without wires. Tesla had startled the world by lighting an electric lamp at a distance, wirelessly.

There is a streak of mysticism in Lee De Forest, a fondness for the occult and the unknown. Here was something which appealed intensely to the introspective, mystical-minded youth to whom the world was still a fascinating storehouse of unexplored mysteries. Electricity without wires! The very thought made him tingle.

“I would get a job with Tesla, if there were any possible way to do it, I decided,” he told me. “But just then a book fell into my hands which described Marconi’s early work in wireless telegraphy.

” There was the new, unexplored field—the field of communications. That was where the Hertzian waves could be made useful, if anywhere. I knew that I had found my niche in the scheme of things.”

HE STUDIED wireless until he felt that he understood it as well as anybody did at that time. Marconi came to America in the fall of 1899, set up his antenna on Sandy Hook, and reported the Shamrock-Columbia yacht race by wireless from a tug. De Forest saw the Marconi apparatus.

Marconi’s method of detecting radio impulses was by means of a device called the “coherer.” This consisted of a small glass tube containing two closely fitting silver cylinders with the small space between their ends filled with a mixture of nickel and silver filings in the proportion of about 20 to 1. The air was exhausted from the tube to prevent oxidization. When a radio wave passed through the filings, they “cohered,” or stuck together, permitting current to flow from a battery circuit, which operated a bell buzzer. The clapper attached to it continuously tapped the coherer, thus breaking the filings apart when the radio waves stopped. De Forest decided at the very start of his work in wireless that he would find a better way of detecting the waves.

Some of De Forest’s critics have contended that his audion tube, which was the result of his search for a better detector, was merely an adaptation of the Fleming valve. Some of the infringers on his patents set up the Fleming valve as their defense. Professor J. A. Fleming, of England, recently knighted by King George, discovered that by heating a filament in a gas-filled bulb, providing a second electrode in the form of a plate to which the electrons given off by the filament could flow, he had a valve which would convert alternating current into direct, as it would let the electrical waves flow through in only one direction. De Forest’s audion tube introduced a third electrode, the grid, between the filament and the plate, and made the Fleming valve into an extremely sensitive wireless detector.

But De Forest told me the other day he had never heard of Fleming or his valve when he set forth on the road of research which led to the audion tube. It was an amusing accident which set him on the trail of the conduct of heated gases as a possible answer to his problem.

HE SET up a little laboratory in Thames Street, New York, where he began to hunt for a substance, a device, or a method which would pick up wireless waves. There were batteries and a Ruhmkorff coil in a closet, connected with the worktable by wires and a button to set off the discharge. The experimental detectors were tried out by means of a telephone receiver, to detect the “click” of the discharge, if it were detectable. The noise of the spark from the closet made detection a matter for keen ears.

“There were no headphones then, so I had to hold the receiver to my ear with one hand, manipulate the detector with the other, and press the button with my knee,” De Forest told me, smiling reminiscently.

” I got hold of a report of the work of a German electrolytic experimenter who seemed to have something which might work. I followed up his work and produced what I called a ‘responder.’ It would work, uncertainly, for half an hour or so, and then go dead.”

An accidental observation seemed to put the young experimenter on the right track. The only light in the room came from a gas jet equipped with a Welsbach mantle. One night De Forest noticed with surprise that whenever he pressed the button, causing an electrical discharge, the gaslight grew dim.

He tested this effect again and again. It worked every time.

Later with his roommate and coexperi-menter he repeated the experiment. The discharge of the coil clearly seemed to affect the combustion of the gas in the burner. De Forest started at once to work out on paper a theory of the properties of heated gas in detecting wireless waves.

THE next day the young experimenters tried again, this time with the closet door closed.

Nothing happened!

They opened the closet door and the gaslight waned again with every discharge. They closed the door, and nothing happened.

“It was made painfully evident that the effect I had been so wildly excited about was an acoustic effect which had nothing whatever to do with electric waves,” De Forest told me. “My associate became disgusted and quit the experiments. But the theory of heated gases which I had worked out seemed so plausible and full of possibilities that I kept on along those lines and finally got what I was after.”

With the aid of a Bunsen burner he first got the effect which he had reasoned out, but to be of practical value the gas must be heated electrically. He tried experiments with an arc lamp, found that it could be used as a detector, but was frightfully noisy. Some way of utilizing the heat given off by a filament inside of an incandescent bulb had to be found.

“I had a lot of trouble getting the vacuum in the bulbs right,” he said, recalling those early days of disheartening experiment. “At last I enlisted the aid of a maker of miniature incandescent lamps and we made bulbs with filaments of platinum, of carbon, and of tantalum. Tungsten had not yet been thought of for this purpose. Those early tubes resembled Fleming’s in that they had both the filament and the plate, but I had a battery connected in series between the filament and the plate, which Fleming never had.”

At last he had found what he had been seeking, a radio detector which not only served as a detector, but as a relay and an amplifier, as well. The American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, first to utilize alternating current generators and transmitters, was formed in 1902, the year in which Marconi got his first signals across the Atlantic.

The pupil was ahead of his master!

THEN came his work for the Government. He built the first five high-power wireless stations for the United States Navy. He kept plugging away at the improvement of his tube. What would happen if he added a third electrode?

He tried it, first with a strip of tin foil around the outside of the bulb, then with a grid between the filament and the plate. Here at last was the most delicate detector yet devised.

A weak electric voltage applied to the grid of the tube acted as a “trigger” to release a much larger flow of electrical energy in the plate circuit of the tube. The tube actually amplified electric currents by adding the power from a separate battery. And by properly arranging the circuit, De Forest found that the grid permitted him to feed smooth, direct current into the tube and obtain from it alternating current at any desired frequency.

The “trigger” amplifying action was adopted by the great telephone systems and made possible the renewal of the energy in long telephone lines as many times as was necessary to overcome the losses in over -1,000 miles of wire. You could talk from Boston to San Francisco.

And the oscillating feature of the tube made it possible to pump a steady stream of radio waves into an antenna.

Radio began to talk!

By the time the United States entered the war, in 1917, our Government had something no other nation possessed, a wireless telephone system which could be used between an airplane and the ground, from point to point over land and sea, from ship to shore and shore to ship. And the credit for that, as the United States Supreme Court has just declared, is all Lee De Forest’s.

THE war over, radio took its next great step forward, a step which De Forest and his wireless telephone had made possible—broadcasting. And De Forest turned to other things.

He had made the radio talk; why not make the movies talk? Dozens of inventors were trying to do that. Nobody had thought of what seemed obvious to De Forest. By means of his audion tubes it was easy enough to make a light flicker in response to a human voice. If he ran a strip of photographic film in front of such a flickering light, the record on the film would be a photograph of a voice—of sound.

To translate the picture thus made back into sound again seemed simple to him. Just reverse the process. Instead of a light, set up a photo-electric cell in front of the film. As the alternately dark and light bands recorded by the voice passed in front of the cell, they would cause oscillations in the current passing through the cell. Pick up that current, amplify it, run it into a loud speaker, and you would hear the picture talk.

So De Forest reasoned and so he did. The De Forest Phonofilm, parent of the talkies, was born, and to its production and perfection he has devoted all of his experimental effort for the last eight years, until now the talkies have come into their own and the big laboratory in East Forty-Eighth Street is rushed to produce apparatus for making and reproducing talking films fast enough to supply the demand.

“What are you going to do next?” I asked.

“I have no definite plans ahead,” he replied. “I am interested in what we are doing here, and in what others are doing in the radio field. I have been watching the experiments with television with considerable interest.”

” What is going to come of them? ” I inquired.

I THINK within two or three years we shall see television on a small scale being broadcast and received quite generally,” he said. ” It will be a long time, if at all, before we have it on any large scale. There is only a comparatively narrow carrier wave-band available. The larger the area to be covered by the transmitted picture, the higher the frequencies required. That brings us down into extremely short waves, a meter or less, which are absorbed by buildings.

“It would be much easier to show a life-size television scene in the open country than in the city, for that reason. Hut the people live in cities, and radio must be brought to them. So I am skeptical about anything beyond small-sized images now being successfully shown by television.”

“What are the other tendencies in radio?”

” I think it is going to be more and more useful for its original purpose, that of communications,” was the answer. ” The facsimile method of transmitting messages is slowly but surely coming into use. When the public wakes up to its advantages it may supersede all present telegraphic methods.

” I believe,’too, that we shall see a great extension of the use of short waves, up to thirty meters or so, for communications. Everybody in the beginning went after longer and longer waves and more and more power at the transmitting end. Now we are working in the other direction. Marconi has got surprising results, and improvements are going on constantly. I think we shall soon see newspapers, for example, using short-wave point-to-point wireless for transmitting not only news and pictures but facsimile advertisements and the like.

” A CHAIN of newspapers might transmit whole pages of news in facsimile to all the offices in the chain, and I believe something like that is being considered by some of them.

“Beyond that I would not care to venture any predictions.”

Time has left its mark on Lee De Forest. He looks older than his fifty-five years. But his enthusiasm has not waned, and while he has overcome a good deal of his youthful diffidence he is still shy, gentle, modest, and unassuming. He has a modest man’s pride in the honors which have been bestowed upon him, the Elliott Cresson medal of the Franklin Institute, the degree of Doctor of Science from his alma mater, the gold medal of the Institute of Radio Engineers, and a dozen others. One of the things he has done with the wealth which has come to him from his inventions is to establish at Yale the De Forest radio library, containing everything published in any language on the subject of radio, and the De Forest lecture course, given by the foremost men in the field, eight or ten of them a year.

And I think that perhaps what Lee De Forest is most proud of is a little booklet issued by Yale University in which his own name is coupled with that of another famous Yale graduate, Dr. Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph.

1 comment
  1. Firebrand38 says: November 15, 20075:05 pm

    Interesting perspective here. http://www.leedeforest…. I wouldn’t have used the word “vindication”

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