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The evidence indicates that Lee de Forest was not an entirely ethical business person. He spent much time in court defending himself.

Lee de Forest was accused on more than one occasion of dishonest business practices. One of the earliest happened in 1903 during a casual visit by de Forest to fellow inventor Reginald Fessenden's workshop. Apparently de Forest, impressed by Fessenden's invention of the Liquid Barretter detector, stole the design and claimed it as his own invention. After three court appearances, Fessenden finally received an injunction against de Forest for patent infringement
De Forest was associated with unsavory business promoters
In 1902 de Forest joined a Wall Street promoter named Abraham White and formed the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company. Among their early customers were the War Department and the Navy. Under the guidance of White, a public offering of stock was made, public demonstrations were held, and radio equipment was sold. But characteristic of his entire career, the hyperbole surrounding the company was greater than its actual value, and while de Forest continued to invent, he was apparently unaware that White was engaging in less than ethical business practices. Below, discredited de Forest associate Abe White standing behind de Forest, seated, who is operating a telegraph key.
One of de Forest's first major brush with the legal system did not concern the audion, but happened as a result of fraud in his radiotelephone company, and in 1913, he and business partners Smith and Burlingame went to trial for misleading stock offerings. Smith and Burlingame were found by a jury to be guilty, but de Forest was declared innocent.

De forest v. Armstrong was one of the 20th Century's major radio patent battles

Soon thereafter, he began a decades long court battle with Edwin Armstrong over who first discovered the regenerative characteristics of the audion. Regeneration is feedback - a small signal from the output of a vacuum tube is fed back into the input, thus making weak signals very strong. Both de Forest and Armstrong claimed its discovery, and while the litigation lasted from 1914 to 1934, and while the courts would finally side with de Forest, the technical community did not.

Won the Battle, Lost the War

De Forest won the long legal battle over who had the rights to the regenerative properties of the vacuum tube, but in the court of public opinion he may have lost the war. As a result he was not taken seriously as an inventor or trusted as a colleague. In the newspaper photo at the right, de Forest is testifying in one of the many legal arenas that marked and finally defined his career.

De Forest in Court

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