Thank you, Mike Adams, Webmaster


Lee de Forest as early radio broadcaster

(This is an excerpt from a longer article, "The Race for Radiotelephone:1900-1920" by Mike Adams, originally published in the AWA Review, Vol 10, 1996 © Antique Wireless Association)

The single most important individual in the twenty year evolution (1900-1920) from two-way wireless telegraphy as a commercial business to the technical perfection and use of the radiotelephone for entertainment broadcasting was Lee de Forest. There were three major events that defined de Forest as a radiotelephone pioneer-cum-broadcaster; his equipping of the Navy Fleet in 1907, his publicized broadcasts of opera in New York City between 1907 and 1912, and his 1916-17 and 1919 broadcast demonstrations over stations in New York and San Francisco. Judging by this early performance, Lee de Forest should have won the race for the radiotelephone hands down.

Arguably, there was no wireless and radio inventor who was surrounded by more controversy than Lee de Forest. He fought for decades to convince the technical community that he deserved to be known as the "Father of Radio," and he spent millions in court battles trying to validate and re-validate his patents. Still, whether you fall into the two opposite camps, whether you love him or hate him, sanctify him or vilify him, (there seems to be no middle ground) the evidence strongly suggests that more than any single individual, Lee de Forest was the first to want to use the wireless for more than two-way commercial message traffic. Throughout his early career he bordered on the edge of the activities of broadcasting, sending entertainment programs to a defined audience. In all the published reports, in all the historical analysis, it is the name of de Forest that is early and often associated with the sending of music and news using the radiotelephone. And while until 1919 he failed to establish a permanent station, failed to broadcast on a regular basis and therefore failed to gain a regular audience, his contribution to the art and science of radio is unprecedented. The evidence strongly suggests that Lee de Forest could rightfully claim to be what he struggled his entire life to be, the "Father of Radio." (36)

Lee de Forest was born in the Midwest but really grew up in the South. Shortly after his birth in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1873 young Lee’s father accepted a position as the President of a small black college (Talledega) in Alabama. But while de Forest grew up on that rural campus, his education was formal, upper class and thorough. After a local grammar school he went on to the Mt. Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts, preparatory to his entrance into Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School. De Forest completed his higher education and received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. His 1898 dissertation was titled: "The Reflection of Hertzian Waves at the End of Parallel Wires." Well-educated, Lee de Forest as an engineering graduate worked for several Chicago companies, Western Electric among them. (37)

Even though it is the purpose of this article excerpt to place de Forest into the context of the transition from radiotelephone to broadcasting, he is most known for his contributions and improvements to the basic invention of all radio and television, the vacuum tube. Thomas Edison’s electric lamp earlier had been modified by the Englishman, Ambrose Fleming, who added a second element, a plate, and called it the Fleming Valve. By 1906 de Forest had modified Fleming’s Valve by adding a grid (which amplified small signals) and called this device the Audion. (38) And while today it is believed that de Forest did not fully realize what he had invented, and while he battled Edwin Armstrong in court for decades over the regenerative or feedback principle of the Audion, it was really Lee de Forest’s work in early radiotelephone experimentation and its broadcast-like applications that proved to be the most interesting of his career. In the beginning he seemed to have followed the work of Marconi, attempting to develop better communication between ships and shore stations. And like Fessenden and Charles Herrold, de Forest first tried spark and later a Poulsen arc in an attempt to give voice to his wireless.

The reality of the early radiotelephone development years did not include the broadcasting of music and information into homes using wireless. If you needed backers, if you wanted to sell stock certificates to raise money, it had to be for a wireless telephone for serious, profitable two-way communication purposes, an addition to the wired Bell telephone. And further, as de Forest and hundreds of inventors lamentably discovered, you had to be a promoter as well as an inventor, and that often meant that you found yourself allied with an unsavory, easy money crowd. De Forest himself was accused, but acquitted of stock fraud, although his backers went to prison. Controversy notwithstanding, de Forest began early and often to find public uses for his version of a Poulsen-like arc radiotelephone transmitter: "In 1906 he devoted his entire energy to the problem of wireless telephony. His first invention of importance was the use of the microphone in the earth connection, where it has been used in practically all (arc) wireless telephone transmitters ever since." (39) That Lee de Forest was both a promoter and a music lover led him and his arc radiotelephone into two areas; one is practical, a demonstration for the Navy, the other reflected his penchant for bringing culture to the masses, the use of opera music to demonstrate his wireless telephone for newspaper reporters.

An early recipient of the de Forest arc radiotelephone system was the Navy: "In 1909 I was manufacturing wireless telephone sets (pictured on the left) for the US Navy; each set was tested by means of phonograph records. Much to my surprise, many wireless amateurs and professional operators intercepted and enjoyed these test transmissions. They came to look for these ‘programs.’ And quite naturally, the idea of mass communication occurred to me, whereby attractive music and interesting talks might be placed on the air, thus creating a profitable demand for wireless equipment by those desirous of listening in." (40) De Forest equipped the Navy Fleet’s lead ship Ohio and others with his arc transmitter and a wind-up phonograph for the fleet’s trip around the world between 1907 and 1908. This is a well-publicized event, and while on the West Coast, de Forest, aboard the Ohio, played music from the phonograph and communicated with Mare Island during June, 1908. Radio operator Herbert J. Meneratti of the U.S.S. Ohio documented these events well in correspondence with historian Clark in 1948: "We gave music regularly to the Mare Island Station. Our record shows that from June 1 to July 5 (1908) we did not miss a day in giving out music to the fleet in the Bay at the time." (41) Meneratti claims that on January 12, 1908, his ship, the U.S.S. Ohio, was sending out band tunes to other ships, even responding to requests, a "date he considers the beginning of broadcasting, although we didn't call it that" (42)

de Forest broadcasts opera, 1910Another early claim of "broadcasting" by de Forest was connected to his love of opera. He had long admired this form of music, and while he realized it appealed to the upper classes who could afford the time and money with which to attend live performances, the evidence suggests that he believed that in the future even the less affluent would be exposed to opera using the wireless telephone: "It will soon be possible to distribute grand opera music from transmitters placed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House by a Radio Telephone station on the roof to almost any dwelling in Greater New York and vicinity. . . The same applies to large cities. Church music, lectures, etc., can be spread abroad by the Radio Telephone." (43) And so between 1907 and 1912 the press was invited to a half dozen of his opera experiments using his arc transmitter. Featuring the voices of the well-known divas Mazarin and Farrar, stories of these one time only promotional events were reported in all the major papers. (44) Of course in later years, in the 1920s and 1930s when broadcasting was an established fact, all inventors, Charles Herrold and Lee de Forest included, reflected back on their radiotelephone work as broadcasting. But in those early years, their major purpose was to make a fortune either by finding a dependable wireless replacement for the wired telephone or an acceptable system that the Navy would use to equip their ships. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that in the early days de Forest, before the others, had ideas of how to use his radiotelephone for purposes other than two-way. Around the time of the Navy experiments, de Forest wrote, in an article about his radiotelephone, an early harbinger of what broadcasting might become: "still another feature of the invention . . . the supplying of music and other forms of entertainment to passengers traveling on the passenger vessels. A service of this kind, aided by a large receiver, so that all of the passengers gathered in a large salon could hear the music or operatic air. . . " (45)

The radiotelephone years, 1900-1920, were known more for the competing voice transmission technologies than for broadcasting. While spark was quickly rejected as too noisy and the alternator as too costly, it was the many permutations of the Poulsen arc that clearly dominated radiotelephone inventions and early broadcasting for an audience. Even today many people apparently believe that early radiotelephone science was dominated by de Forest’s vacuum tube. The evidence suggests otherwise. De Forest himself was manufacturing, marketing and using an arc radiotelephone as late as 1915. This was not an aberration; de Forest, Charles Herrold and all other radiotelephone inventors had between 1910 and 1916 spent countless dollars perfecting the arc as a carrier of voice and music. (Of course much of that money was spent on lawyers in attempts to somehow get around the basic Poulsen patents) It is ironic that the individual responsible for bringing the Poulsen system to America, Cyril Elwell, and the company he founded based on the Poulsen patents, Federal Telegraph, had long abandoned as impractical the use of the arc for voice and instead concentrated on high power, long distance arc telegraphy. Likely because of the high current demands of a microphone in an arc circuit, only low power, limited range arc radiotelephones were ever satisfactorily developed and employed.

By the beginning of 1916, de Forest had finally perfected his Audion for its most important task - that of an oscillator for the radiotelephone. Earlier in Palo Alto, he had made his tube perform as an amplifier and sold it to the telephone company as an amplifier of transcontinental wired phone calls. Returning to his home in New York City, by late 1916 de Forest had begun a series of experimental broadcasts from the Columbia Phonograph Laboratories on 38th Street, finally abandoning his version of the arc transmitter and using for one of the very first times his Audion as a transmitter (photo right) of radio: "The radio telephone equipment consists of two large Oscillion tubes, used as generators of the high frequency current." (46) One early broadcast received mixed reviews: "Columbia phonograph records played from the laboratory of the company at 102 West Thirty-Eighth Street were distinctly heard in the receiving room of the (Hotel) Astor, with the exception of a few interruptions by the powerful naval wireless apparatus at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, when the warning of a storm was heard intermittently with the music." (47) One month later, de Forest told a New York Sun reporter that he, using a ‘wave length’ of 800 meters, "will be setting another record by giving the first public concert by wireless in history." (48)

A few months later, de Forest moved his tube transmitter to High Bridge, New York, where one of the most publicized pre-WWI broadcasting events took place. Just like Pittsburgh’s KDKA would attempt exactly four years later in 1920, de Forest used the most public of events for his broadcast. This time it was the Hughes-Wilson presidential election of November, 1916: "The New York American installed a private wire and bulletins were sent out every hour." (49) This time the listener reports were more positive: "Seven thousand wireless telephone operators withing a radius of 200 miles of New York City received election returns from the New York American. They heard not only election returns, but music as well. Between the bulletins, music was sent thru the clouds. The crowds heard ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ‘Dixie,’ ‘Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,’ ‘America,’ ‘Maryland,’ ‘Yankee Doodle’ and all the other anthems, songs and hymns that American’s love." (50) Because it happened in New York, was listened to by a large audience, and received so much press attention, it was one of the single most important pre-World War I events in radio broadcasting.

Years later, de Forest wrote to Charles Herrold about how he saw the art and science of broadcasting in 1916. He discussed both his and Herrold’s early experiments in the context of the vacuum tube: "Until the 3-electrode tube had been developed sufficiently to serve as a reliable oscillator for radio telephone purposes, and the audion amplifier could be used at the receiver in connection with the detector, those early efforts at radio broadcasting were necessarily unsatisfactory. In 1916, after we had learned how to build ‘Oscillion’ tubes of 50 to 100 watts power, I began a regular nightly broadcasting service from my station at High Bridge, NY. This service was regularly maintained until the federal government caused a suspension of all non-military radio communications shortly before our nation entered the European War." (51) Were it not for the Great War and the closing down of all non essential, non defense uses of radio, de Forest, already exciting small audiences with interesting, entertaining and informing broadcasting, might have succeeded with this new service four years ahead of KDKA.

After the war Lee de Forest was anxious to return to the air. After his near-success in 1916, he was prepared to broadcast again. De Forest later told Herrold: "I resumed these operations in December, 1919, as soon as the governmental ban was lifted. The U.S. Federal Inspector in New York clamped down on me in February, 1920, however, acting on the technicality that I had voided my license by moving my station downtown without his authorization. Whereupon I promptly moved the High Bridge transmitter to San Francisco and installed it in the wings of the California Theatre, running my antenna up to the roof of the bank tower next door. This station was maintained in daily operation, broadcasting the orchestra music of the Weber Orchestra in the theater. In the fall of that year the station was moved over to Berkeley, where it was maintained in operation for perhaps a year." (52) In 1929 de Forest remembered the day that the radio inspector first shut down his post-war New York operation: "Then the Federal inspector (Arthur Batcheller) in New York, taking advantage of the technical fault that I had moved my station from High bridge downtown, peremptorily closed the service after a few weeks, with the definite statement that program broadcasting for entertainment had no place, no legitimate place, in the ether, and should be terminated, and he terminated it." (53) Beginning with his arc telephone experiments for the Navy and his transmissions of opera music, and ending with his radio stations at High Bridge in 1916 and San Francisco in 1920, the evidence strongly suggests that Lee de Forest, more than any other individual entered in the race for radiotelephone, saw a potential for voice transmission beyond just a wireless replacement for two-way communication.

36. De Forest, Lee, Father of Radio, Chicago, Wilcox and Follett, 1950

37. "The Story of Lee de Forest," Electrical Experimenter, December, 1916, p 561

38. Aitken, Hugh G.J., The Continuous Wave: Technology and American Radio, 1900-1932, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1985, see de Forest chapter

39. "The Story of Lee de Forest," Electrical Experimenter, December, 1916, p 561

40. De Forest, Lee, "Milestones in Radio History," Radio World, 1929

41, 42. Meneratti, Herbert J., Letters to GH Clark, Clark Collection, Smithsonian, 1948

43. "Prospectus of the Radio Telephone Co, de Forest System," company advertisement, May, 1907, p 5

44. New York Globe, New York Times, New York Commercial, Modern Electrics, all January, 1910, de Forest sends out the opera from the Metropolitan

45. "De Forest Music on Shipboard to Entertain Passengers," Electrical World, January, 1907

46, 47. "Election Returns Flashed by Radio to 7,000 Amateurs," Electrical Experimenter, Jan, 1917, p 650

48, 49. "Air Will Be Full of Music Tonight," New York Sun, Nov 6, 1916

50. "Election Returns Flashed by Radio to 7,000 Amateurs," Electrical Experimenter, Jan, 1917, p 650

51, 52. De Forest, Lee, Letter to Charles Herrold, Mar 22, 1940, Herrold papers, Perham Foundation, San Jose

53. De Forest, Lee New York World radio edition , 1929

Also see:

Charles Herrold, Broadcaster & Inventor