Perham Collection Creator Profile: Lee de Forest

Few individuals better represent the vicissitudes of invention than Lee de Forest, an ambitious experimenter and inventor with more than 300 patents, but whose business ventures often failed or became embroiled in litigation. Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on August 26, 1873, de Forest grew up at Talladega College, where his father served as president. He enrolled at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, where he earned money from mechanical and gaming inventions, receiving his B.A. in 1896 and Ph.D. in 1899.

Lee de Forest (center), with Douglas M. Perham (right) and Joseph T. Cataldo, assistant general manager of International Rectifier Corporation, (left), looking at de Forest audions, at Perham’s Cavalcade of Electonics Exhibit, 1957 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

A lifelong innovator, de Forest first reinvented himself at a young Palo Alto start-up company named Federal Telegraph. There his 1906 three-element vacuum tube (triode) was recognized as a detector, amplifier and oscillator of radio waves, and de Forest’s career was reinvigorated.

De Forest went on to play a significant role in broadcast radio and sound-on-film development during the 1920s. His work on the de Forest Phonofilm process, and the drama surrounding the development of sound-on-film systems, is the subject of a biography by Mike Adams, Lee de Forest: King of Radio, Film and Television (2012). De Forest received a Life Achievement Oscar from the Motion Pictures Academy in 1959/60 for his pioneering in the advent of “talkies.” He died in Los Angeles in 1961.

Among the many who helped de Forest was a young Federal Telegraph technician named Douglas Perham. Today, the Lee de Forest papers are a part of the Perham Collection of Early Electronics at History San Jose, where they have attracted scholars from around the world. Some fifty linear feet of unprocessed records were arranged and cataloged in 2012 as part of a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

This large collection of papers, publications, photographs, and several pieces of electronics apparatus, spans from de Forest’s years at Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School to his not-so-retiring years through the 1950s with his fourth wife, Marie Mosquini de Forest. Among the collection are de Forest’s correspondence, manuscripts, sketches, notebooks, patents, patent notes and legal papers, memoirs, speeches, photographs, and awards. His papers also include correspondence with Lloyd Espensfield regarding de Forest’s autobiographical claims.

An online guide to the de Forest Papers is available through the Online Archive of California (OAC); in addition, our catalog records are searchable through PastPerfect Online.

De Forest’s Audion Tube

Lee de Forest (1873-1961), an ambitious experimenter, was always on the hunt for profit. He attempted numerous business ventures, often unwisely chose his business partners, and frequently was involved in litigation. He filed more than 300 patents over more than 50 years of invention, but his triode vacuum tube or “Audion,” would be his most important contribution to modern electronics. De Forest’s Audion tube patents (1906, 1915) were at the heart of decades of patent litigation.

In 1911, de Forest faced bankruptcy. After yet another failed business venture, he had asked Cyril Elwell for a job at Federal Telegraph Company in Palo Alto. De Forest had helped Federal Telegraph with installations in San Francisco (1910) and Los Angeles (1911), and was well known by Federal’s small staff. Elwell teamed de Forest with Charles Logwood and Herbert Van Etten — an accomplished telephone engineer — and asked them to develop a more efficient telegraph key using a vacuum tube detector for reception. The result was a triode vacuum tube that could amplify and oscillate radio waves; it became the basis of radio transmission.

De Forest “was an unusual man,” Fuller later recalled, “possessed of an uncontrollable drive to experiment.” He was also extremely secretive, reluctant to share his team’s work with Federal’s electrical engineers. Fuller later questioned whether de Forest actually understood the science behind the Audion’s redevelopment. Nevertheless, de Forest took credit for the new Audion, waiting until after Elwell left the company to file for patent rights.

View audions and other artifacts related to Lee de Forest in the Perham Collection of Early Electronics