January 1947 Radio-Craft
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Craft,
published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Lee de Forest, upon whom
the honorary title "Father of Radio" by Radio-Craft editor Hugo Gernsback
(and others, except those who accord that title to
Guglielmo Marconi), exemplifies personal traits of most great inventors: high intelligence,
stick-to-itiveness, courage, passion for his subject, determination, and a willingness
to endure a lot of personal and financial abuse. The January 1947 issue of Radio-Craft
magazine celebrated the 40-year anniversary of Mr. de Forest's invention
of the Audion vacuum tube by including a large number of articles by various authors
who knew him personally and attest to his greatness. I will be posting a few of
those pieces, and you will probably be shocked at some of the shenanigans that went
on by conniving people and naysayers who tried to deny de Forest due credit.
For example, based on his work to make more sensitive receivers a judge in a lawsuit
brought by Marconi strictly enjoined him "to forever desist from the manufacture,
sale or operation of any system of wireless telegraph." de Forest had succeeded
in developing a vacuum tube device that performed better than the coherers and flame-based
signal detectors (yes flames were used in circuits as detectors) of the day, and
detractors claimed he merely added a wire grid to a patented diode tube. Photos
of the flame detectors which de Forest himself patented are shown. I ended
up reading just about every article in this issue.
Lee de Forest - Father of Radio
By Hugo Gernsback
The year 1947 marks the 40th anniversary of the radio vacuum tube - Dr. Lee de
Forest's three-element audion, the first grid radio tube. While de Forest invented
other audions before 1907, these did not contain the all-important and vital grid.
His application for patent of this tube is dated January 29, 1907, hence we can
safely say that this date marks the birth of modern radio.
And what a milestone it proved to be in the history of radio! Imagine for a moment
that the audion had not been invented: We would have no electronics, no radios,
no broadcasting, no ocean phone, no talking motion pictures, no amplifiers, no television,
no klystrons, no cyclotrons that made possible fission and atomic energy and its
bombs, no guided radio weapons - and hundreds of other radio wonders, plus myriads
of new ones to come.
It will always remain a vivid fact which we never forget: de Forest gave us these
priceless gifts - gifts that changed our lives, our habits, that annihilated distances,
that made the spoken word and music through all space on this planet a reality,
which in time will unite humanity as nothing has ever done before.
Verily - to paraphrase Winston Churchill: "Never in the history of the world
has so much been owed, by so many, to one man. "
The callous always will parrot the hackneyed "If he hadn't, invented the vacuum
tube, somebody else would have." Maybe so - but it was de Forest who did it first
- and how, under what heartbreaking obstacles and disappointments!
De Forest never was a "lucky" in inventor who just stumbled accidentally upon
an epoch-making invention -as for instance Dr. Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray.
No, he literally "sweated it out."
This, too, was seemingly preordained. Born into the parsonage of a poor Iowa
minister, he was literally steeped in such virtues as reverence, discipline, humility,
and thrift. All this was augmented by the fact that his mother, too, was the daughter
of a minister.
Reared under the lash of severe discipline, poverty, and denial in the parsonage,
the young boy developed a searing hunger for the better things of life. His constant
dream was to better his. condition. Fortunately, he was gifted not only with a never-to-be-satisfied
curiosity, but with an imagination of heroic dimensions. Thus we later find young
Lee, against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to go to a theological seminary,
enrolled at Yale University.
After the first semester one of the professors gave lecture which was to change
the entire course of de Forest's life. The lecture was on the electromagnetic wave
theory with a demonstration of Heinrich Hertz's experiments. This caused a veritable
flare-up in the young student who made this entry in his notebook: "I shall learn
all about the atom ... shall guess its shape ... shall postulate its causes and
attractions ... And I Shall Invent the Reason for It."
A bombastic promise - but it was more than fulfilled.
It has been my great pleasure to have known Lee de Forest since 1906 - over forty
years. I have come to know him very well, and I have had many opportunities to study
him at close quarters over the years. I have been fortunate to have known Edison,
Tesla, and other inventors equally well, and therefore believe myself qualified
to judge the outstanding qualities of such men.
One cannot be long in de Forest's company before realizing that among his greatest
characteristics is his inherent modesty. He speaks in measured, quiet phrases. His
unusually deep-set eyes proclaim the man of science, the indefatigable worker, the
type of man who never give a quest in search of light and truth. His complete disregard
of his attire, his frugal living, his constantly preoccupied air, points to his
tireless toil and zest for new worlds to conquer. Indeed at 73, he has as yet not
found time to begin his autobiography.
Like so many men of the genius type, de Forest has an utter disregard for money.
Finances have never meant a thing to him, except as a means to new scientific conquests,
for research and for his inventions. Financial transactions bore him to distraction
- and unfortunately for him the world has seen fit to take advantage of this: a
pittance .for his vacuum tube, his re-generation invention, his radiophone (broadcasting),
as well as dozens of his more than two hundred inventions.
Few of history's great inventors have been paid so niggardly for epoch-making
patents. Harassed by patent suits against him and countersuits which he had to bring
in turn against others, the little money that was given him soon vanished. Once,
because he was so rash to tell a Federal court that with his radiophone a man would
soon be able to talk across the ocean, the Father of Radio almost went to jail!
If not for the pleas of a good attorney, de Forest would have been imprisoned for
his temerity in predicting modern broadcasting!
Nothing ever came easy to the great inventor. The invention of the audion was
no exception. It was an epic in frustration, in dogged plodding against seemingly
insuperable, mountainous difficulties. There are too many witnesses who worked with
him and who certified how he started with his Welsbach gas flame audion and step
by step, through literally thousands of separate experiments, finally battled himself
to the three-element grid audion. In spite of all this evidence, there are even
today jealous, narrow-minded intolerants who say:
"Oh, de Forest, he just stuck a grid into the Fleming valve!" This is like saying:
"The Wright brothers flew, because they stuck a propeller on an old kite."
Do all these soul-trying tribulations discourage Lee de Forest? Not in the least.
His mind is as clear as ever at 73, his ideas as young as of yore, his curiosity
keener than ever. The other day he and I discussed certain new aspects of a technical
problem in television. For the first time during a two-hour conversation his deep-sunk
eyes flashed and sparkled! His alert mind was stalking an idea once more!
This augurs well for his future. Let all of us - the entire radio-electronic
fraternity - congratulate Dr. Lee de Forest on the 40th anniversary of his famed
audion. Then let us wish him continuous good health, a long life, and many new laurels.
And, may I add, let the radio industry reward him financially for the staggering
debt it owes the Father of Radio, which it can never hope to fully repay him.
Posted February 18, 2020