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Lee de Forest

Since he was a child he dreamt of becoming an inventor. His idol was Thomas Alva Edison.

Born in Council Bluffs (Iowa) in 1873, after completing his studies at Yale De Forest was hired by Western Electric in Chicago. In 1900 he devised – together with a colleague – a “responder” that was meant to improve the performance of the coherer utilized by Marconi. In 1902 he founded one of his many companies, the “American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company”, with which he set out to contend with Marconi for the expansion of the American market. He did receive some commissions from the U.S. Navy but went bankrupt after just a few years, especially because of some legal cases lost against Reginald Fessenden.

He stubbornly resumed his experiments and, in October 1906, announced the creation of the audion, an evolution of Fleming's diode. After a few improvements, the audion will become the triode, an essential component for capturing the modulations of the human voice in the air. During more or less the same period (winter 1906-1907), De Forest decided to avail himself of radio broadcasting – at the time no more than an experimental hypothesis – to make music accessible to everyone. In the years that followed, he took part in some public demonstrations (Eiffel Tower, Metropolitan Opera Company etc.) with varying results but always betting on entertainment as the final goal, which many considered to be ill-suited for broadcasting.

A restless personality to say the least, De Forest was arrested in 1912 for stock fraud (then acquitted in 1914). He had a twenty-year controversy with Edwin Howard Armstrong, who in 1913 discovered the audion to be a potential transmitter (and not only a receiver).

He became a hero for radio operators, who were rapidly growing in number in the United States, thanks to the experimental broadcasts that he carried out until 1917 and also afterward, once the war had ended. In 1923 he invented the “phonofilm”, the first example of sound-on-film. In the Thirties he also dedicated his time to television, but with few significant repercussions. However, in 1960 he received an Oscar for his career achievements before dying the following year in Hollywood, in 1961.

The mastermind of over 300 patents, De Forest was probably the inventor who contributed the most to the changeover from Marconi's wireless telegraphy to the system that transmits voice and music. But – despite the title of the autobiography (The Father of Radio) – he only achieved in part the fame that he had sought all his life, perhaps because he always preferred to be his own boss, surrounding himself with disputable collaborators, or perhaps because he never matched his scientific acumen to a method or work ethic, often leaving unfinished that which he had brilliantly perceived.






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