Lee de Forest and Audion Tubes

Lee de Forest – Audion Vacuum Tube Amplification

            Lee de Forest, inventor of the Audion vacuum tube and other things, lived his entire life seeking the approval and recognition he believed he deserved. He is best remembered for his contributions to telegraph and radio technology and for inventing a method for making motion pictures “talk” (Adams).
A picture of de Forest with his famous Audion tube.
            De Forest was born in Alabama in 1873. His father was a pastor and hoped that the young de Forest would follow in his father’s footsteps. De Forest attended a religious boarding school in Massachusetts, and had to maintain a job to help pay his tuition. Despite his attempts to earn the approval of his peers, he was not well liked; this was a problem he would encounter throughout his entire life. His only recognition in his prep school was “homeliest boy in school” (A Science Odyssey). He went on to earn his PhD from Yale University with a dissertation about radio waves in 1896.
An example of an Arcturus Audion tube.
            After graduating from Yale, he went on to improve wireless telegraph technology, and continued working in the general field of radio and telegraph. He started his first company in 1902, the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, but like many others to come, it would ultimately fail (A Science Odyssey). In 1906, de Forest invented his famous Audion, a three-element vacuum tube that could be used to slightly amplify the signal of a radio signal. Initially, these Audions were quite finicky and difficult to manufacture, and thus of little use (White). De Forest was under the impression that various gases inside the tubes were necessary to their functioning. By 1912, they had been significantly improved to the point of reaching mass implementation in radio receivers and amplifiers as well as very efficient radio transmitters. One of these improvements was the realization that these tubes were for more powerful and sturdier without the gases inside them and instead a complete vacuum. These improvements made radio broadcasting much more feasible of a concept.
            Through his invention and its subsequent improvements that made it more realistic and practical, Lee made radio broadcasting a real possibility and, through the mass production of the necessary elements, a hobbyist activity as well. Besides its uses in radio, his Audion tubes were used to greatly increase the signal of amplifiers for a variety of uses. Many guitar, bass, and other instrument amplifiers still use vacuum tubes descended from the original three-element tubes that de Forest was sure would earn him his place as “Father of Radio” (Adams).
            Though de Forest was instrumental in the development of the vacuum tube, and thus all of radio broadcasting technology, often he did not understand the implications and intricacies of his own inventions (A Science Odyssey). In de Forest’s own essay “Dawn of the Electronic Age” (1952), he discusses the amazing amount of developments on the world of radio and television broadcasting and technology and makes predictions (albeit often incorrect) about the future and the coming implementations of various radio wave technologies. “Automobile collisions will be rendered impossible, or unlikely, by radar-controlled brakes and warning signals. By means of the radio space-analyzer, or ‘telescope,’ astronomers’ knowledge of our universe will be vastly widened. (I do not foresee ‘spaceships’ to the moon or Mars. Mortals must live and die on Earth or within its atmosphere!)” (de Forest).
            Throughout his entire life, de Forest sought the fame and recognition that he felt was due to him for his work in the fields of radio, broadcasting, and film. De Forest invented a method for synchronizing sound with film in 1921, but Hollywood avoided implementing his technique for over 7 years. Eventually he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his contribution to the film industry. His impact on the world of radio, television, film, broadcasting and amplification is undeniable, even if he frequently attempted to overstate his own importance with such autobiographies as The Father of Radio. While he was influential and instrumental in the amplification of sound and signal, he was not sole inventor, developer, or by any means “Father” of radio. He was nevertheless an important and often underrated piece of the ever-increasing, ever-expanding world of broadcast and mass-communication.

Works Cited
Adams, Mike. The Complete Lee de Forest. Perham Collection Of History, San Jose, 2003. Web. 21 Feb 2011. <http://www.leedeforest.org/>.
DeForest, Lee. "Dawn Of The Electronic Age." Modern Mechanix. Popular Mechanics, Jan 1952. Web. 21 Feb 2011. <http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2006/03/20/dawn-of-the-electronic-age/>.
Hijiya, James. Lee deForest and the Fatherhood of Radio. Lehigh University Press, 1992. 119-120. Print.
"Lee de Forest." A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. PBS, 1998. Web. 21 Feb 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btfore.html>.
White, Thomas. "Audion and Vacuum-tube Receiver Development (1907-1916)." United States Early Radio History. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb 2011. <http://earlyradiohistory.us/sec010.htm>.