Who said Lee de Forest
was the "Father of Radio"?

(originally published in Mass Comm Review, February, 1991)

©Stephen L.W. Greene

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Who said Lee de Forest was the “Father of Radio”?

Lee de Forest did—many times—when he spoke in public or wrote in private. The New York Times did in a July, 1961 obituary The front-page, UPI-story detailed the accomplishments of the 87-year-old inventor “who was known as the Father of Radio.” (“Dr. Lee de Forest dies,” 1961). Three months later, so did Popular Electronics magazine. The self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Selling Electronics Magazine with 357,000 Subscribers” honored de Forest’s death with a full-page photo and a brief story which reminded its readers that de Forest had become the “Father of Radio” by adding a third element to the Fleming Valve in 1906 (“Then there were three,” 1961).

What evidence is there that this sobriquet so readily awarded on death was actually earned during de Forest’s long, up-and-down life? Can the title of creator for such a complex device that required a score of integrated components to transmit, detect and amplify signals ever be awarded to a single person? Why were the media so willing to accept his claim?

This article will examine de Forest’s five-decades-long campaign for the title “Father of Radio” in his private correspondence and on the pages of America’s publications. It will conclude that the recognition of de Forest’s paternity by America’s leading newspaper and largest amateur electronics publication speaks as much to his historic appeal to the editors and readers of these publications as to the strength of his claims.

The Invention of the Audion Tube

De Forest was a seat-of-the-pants inventor, a word-of-mouth promoter and a no-head-for-figures businessman. His interest in wireless telegraphy, which developed into early radio, stemmed from his research on Hertz’s electromagnetic waves, which de Forest undertook for his 1899 Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University. In 1906, inspired by Edison’s observations of the black deposits within carbon filament bulbs which Nicholas Tesla had concluded might lead to a method for transmitting radio waves, de Forest transformed an electron tube developed by Sir Ambrose Fleming into a radio amplifier. First, de Forest added a battery in circuit with Fleming’s filament and plate and then he “triggered” this assemblage with a “grid,” a zigzag piece of aluminum wire. The result was a three-electrode, thermionic vacuum tube,[2] a detector of radio waves, like Fleming’s, but after additional improvements by Edwin Armstrong, a generator and amplifier of radio waves as well. Years later, this Audion Tube was to be called one of the world’s 20 great inventions (Dunlap, 1944).

Before 1913, few people, including perhaps the inventor himself, recognized the Audion Tube’s full worth. The Audion could detect signals and strengthen them, but only slightly. Radio reception was limited to a relatively short distance and to the use of headphones. Moreover, de Forest’s understanding of his own invention was clouded by his need to differentiate his discovery from the work of Fleming upon which it was based. Since his experiments employed two electrodes spanned by a Bunsen-flame, de Forest incorrectly argued for years that the Audion worked because a heated gaseous medium passed a direct current.

That explanation did not satisfy an undergraduate student at Columbia University, Edwin Armstrong. He reasoned this so called gaseous medium was composed of electrons streaming from the heated filament. In 1912, Armstrong discovered that alternating, and not direct, current was being produced. The difference was significant because an alternating current could be tuned; a direct current could not. Armstrong placed a tuning coil on the Audion’s output circuit, the plate to headphone circuit, and achieved a remarkable breakthrough: distant signals came booming into his set. Modern radio was born (Lessing, 1969).

Since patenting the Audion in 1906, de Forest had concentrated on business matters. His American de Forest Wireless Telegraph, established in 1902 to compete with Marconi in the emerging field of wireless telegraphy, lost the first of what he liked to call his four fortunes. In 1907, his business partner ransacked a second venture. The same year, de Forest formed yet a third company, the De Forest Radio Telephone Company. For the next seven years he installed several marine-oriented radio stations across the United States. He faced two major obstacles: building reliability into his systems and convincing a skeptical public about their feasibility. Although de Forest was never able to overcome this first problem which, in part, led to the insolvency of his company in 1912, he was able to convince some people about the possibilities for radio. He attracted considerable press attention in a series of public stunts which included broadcasting opera from the Eiffel Tower in 1908, broadcasting Enrico Caruso from the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1910, and broadcasting his mother-in-law’s speech on women’s suffrage in the same year.

High-Brow Subject Matter

De Forest’s pre-turn-of-the century childhood as the son of a white college president at an all-black Alabama college rooted him in what he admitted was an out-of-the-mainstream tradition (de Forest, 1950). Ironically, de Forest’s adopted child, radio, helped spread a mainstream mass culture that was often at odds with his own aesthetic sensibilities. De Forest struggled with this contradiction throughout his life. In broadcasting, as in his personal life, he constantly chose subject matter which suited his personal tastes for classical music and grandiloquent, romantic notions (de Forest, 1950; Carneal, 1930). For example, writing in his 1950 autobiography about his mother’s death many years before, de Forest broached the subject of his own demise.

"The sweetness of her character, the devotional peace which crowned her later years, is to me perfectly typified by the ‘Largo’ of Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World. I never hear the softly harmonious loveliness of that sublime music without picturing in memory the sainted presence of my mother, her loving tenderness. Never was a character so exquisitely portrayed as here. The brush of the artist falls in futility before the spell of such perfection of sound portraiture. When comes the hour of my funeral I ask only that over the wide expanses of ether may be broadcast, as Radio’s service of farewell, the wild grandeurs and the soothing solace of that my best-loved symphony" (de Forest, 1950, p. 400).

De Forest was keenly aware of establishing precedent every time he took to the airwaves. Accordingly, his radio selections were calculated to establish what he thought to be proper standards. In 1916 de Forest began transmission of what he later claimed was the first “sponsored radio program service” (de Forest, 1950, p. 337). He worked out a deal with the Columbia Gramophone people to play their records in exchange for announcements about their company. He also sold his own radio tubes to amateurs, an arrangement which was allowed under terms of his Audion Tube patent sale to AT&T in 1914. De Forest in his later life, when his creative skills and financial resources were depleted, discovered that he could still command headlines by attacking the commercialization of radio.

Criticism of Commercialization of Radio

In 1930, after having been relegated to relative obscurity by the development of commercial radio during the 1920s and by his preoccupation with research on sound in movies, the 57-year-old de Forest came back into public view soon after he was elected President of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE). In his inaugural address, de Forest lashed out against what he called “the insistent ballyhoo of sales talk [on radio], which now viciously interrupts 70% of entertainment programs.” He predicted this would soon lead to a large loss of listeners and huge decline in ad revenues. He urged the engineers to regain control of their creation from the “manufacturers and outside businessmen” who had taken it away from them (“de Forest lashes out,” 1931). These remarks were certainly a departure for de Forest because, up until then, he had publicly supported the way radio was developing.

For example, in 1927 he had reacted strongly to H.G. Wells’ essay inThe New York Times which predicted “a very trivial future” for radio (Wells, 1927). de Forest rushed to radio’s defense with a three-page paean:

"Radio has kept the wanderer home at nights, it has brightened the gloom of separation and shortened the long hours of lonliness [sic]. It is a comforting companion to the shut-in; it soothes the pain of the suffering. It brings counsel to the housewife, information to the farmer, entertainment and gaiety to the young. On silent wings it flies to the forgotten corners where mails are uncertain and few, where the cheer of kindly voices comes only through the head-phones, where music is never heard save that to which the Aeolian harp of the antenna vibrates" (de Forest, 1927, p. 16).

Writing in a 1930 book on the future of radio, de Forest again praised radio, “Today millions of listeners are receiving not only the finest opera, but also no end of entertainment and enlightenment in a constant variety such as King Solomon himself could not have demanded. Twenty years ago our annual radio trade was little over $1,000,000. Today, I am told, the annual radio trade aggregates well over $600,000,000” (de Forest, 1930, p. 319). In a 1930, authorized biography by Georgette Carneal, criticism by de Forest of the radio industry was confined to a brief paragraph in the last chapter. By contrast, de Forest’s autobiography of 1950 devoted a full chapter entitled “A Parent’s Disappointment” to criticizing radio advertising. De Forest also appeared several times on the CBS and NBC networks to talk about the early days of radio. After his comments on the commercialization of radio, he would be absent from the airwaves for a long time.

Newspapers Print de Forest’s Point of View

But his words and picture began to appear with amazing regularity in the pages of newspapers in the first bleak days of the Great Depression. Newspapers were eager to quote anyone who would chastise radio, the print world’s upstart contender for the dwindling ad dollar (Barnouw, 1966). Lee de Forest was perfect: a silver-haired, silver-tongued radio pioneer who was eager to talk. De Forest’s plan for the new medium was relatively simple: encourage radio set manufacturers such as Atwater-Kent, Stromberg Carlson, Philco and Majestic to purchase blocks of time on the radio networks during prime evening hours, then run only “good” music shows interspersed with a few tasteful commercials. De Forest proposed just such a plan to George Scoville, Vice President of Stromberg Carlson. Referring to a downswing in radio set sales, de Forest began by asking a rhetorical question.

"Why should anyone want to buy a radio, or new tubes for an old set when nine-tenths of what one can hear is the continual drivel of second-rate jazz, sickening crooning by degenerate ‘Sax’ players (original or ‘transcripted’), interlared [sic] with blatant sales talk, meaningless but maddening “station announcements”-impudent commands to buy or try, actually superposed [sic] over a background of what might have been good music (de Forest, 1931)? De Forest then warned Scoville that the Federal Radio Commission or Congress would step in to clean up the industry unless someone did something. It would cost the manufacturing industry about $25,000 a day, de Forest estimated, a small price to pay because “the entire American press will joyfully spread the good news” leading the public to buy sets again" (de Forest, 1931) Newspapers were indeed quite willing to spread news about radio, especially if it concerned the commercialization of the medium.

The New York Times, for instance, deemed it newsworthy to run two more stories during de Forest’s IRE term even though both were merely rehashes of his inaugural address. In August, The Times reported his views on the “radio menace steadily growing greater, more ruthless, more deserving of suspicion and more generally detested.” (“Excerpt of speech to IRE,” 1930, p. 2). Another article in the same issue included de Forest’s effusive praise for newspapers. Radio’s debt to the newspaper for daily radio programs, notices, program reviews and for their radio sections is beyond all computations. Unquestionably it was this astonishing interest on the part of the press to broadcasting during the early struggling days ten years ago, which alone enabled it to survive those crucial years until an awakened popular interest made radio self supporting. I sincerely feel therefore that the debt today lies heavily on radio’s side of the ledger (“On radio advertising,” 1930, p. 8).

And, for any casual readers who had failed to get the message, The Times ran a 2-column by 5-inch stand-alone picture of de Forest at the bottom of the page. Five months later, The Times once again reported the IRE president’s view of radio. The occasion was de Forest’s farewell address that was delivered by an associate since he was away in Hollywood working on his new movie sound system. The Times did not allow his absence to dampen its coverage. The headlines told the story: A 24-point head began: “De Forest Assails ‘Ballyhoo’ on Radio.” A smaller head continued: “70 percent of entertainment is viciously interrupted by sales talk, he says.” Finally, in a different typestyle, it summed up: “Unless evil is ended, industry faces disaster, retiring head tells Radio Engineers” (“Assails radio advertising,” 1931, p. 19).

Later that same year, The Times once again addressed the “problem” of advertising on radio, this time in the form of an editorial. It began by stating that a large number of people sympathized with Lee de Forest who had rhetorically asked why anyone should want to buy a radio set. The Times then detailed his litany of complaints against degenerate “sax” players and the like, just as de Forest had done in his letter to George Scoville a year-and-a half earlier (“Quoted in editorial,” 1931).

De Forest was encouraged by the amount of ink his comments received. Writing to the editor of Electronics Magazine in 1931, he said:

"I am delighted some newspapers are taking up the cudgels in efforts to reduce the wholesale use of radio for advertising. While these efforts are, of course, prompted by self interest, all friends of “Radio for the Public” should take advantage of this attitude on the part of the press. Nothing will bring the broadcaster to a sense of his responsibility to the public and to the menace which unbridled advertising has to the future of radio than these repeated criticisms of the press" (de Forest, 1931).

People did rally around de Forest’s exhortations for an end to radio’s commercial excesses. For example, James Rorty, a former ad copywriter, fashioned a new career by bashing advertising. He began the chapter on radio ads in his best-selling 1934 book, Our Master’s Voice: Advertising, by once again quoting de Forest’s rhetorical question: Why should anyone buy a radio? He then described what radio listening was like for him. ". . . the bedlamite exhortations and ecstacies, the moronic coquetries and wise-cracks, the degenerate jazz rhythms, punctuated by the ironic blats and squeals of a demon from the outer void known as “Static.” An evening spent twiddling the dials of a radio set is indeed a profoundly educational experience for any student of the culture. America is too big to see itself. But Radio has enabled America to hear itself" (p. 270).

De Forest’s Reasons for Attacking Radio

De Forest had several reasons for attacking radio in the early 1930s. First, radio had grown from a crystal-set hobby to a multi-tube, commercial craze. One author suggested that 1928 was the year the radio industry solved enough of its problems of equipment, audiences, sponsorship and programming to assume the characteristics of an advertising medium (Spalding, 1963). Another depicted the years between 1922 and 1927 as witnessing the change in receivers from battery operated sets built with a complex assortment of components from numerous manufacturers to receivers largely standardized in construction and price. Broadcasting had emerged “from a public novelty to an indispensable utility” (Page, 1960). This new commercial medium required mass audiences to support the advertisers who paid the bills. What little remained of de Forest’s early broadcasting ideals were crushed under the weight of this new popular radio culture.

By 1930, most of the pieces for radio’s commercial future were in place. Advertising reigned supreme, but not unchallenged. Opponents were encouraged by a series of Federal Radio Commission decisions which seemed to indicate a more vigorous stance for this regulatory body. In 1930, for example, the Commission finally mustered the resolve to rescind the license of drug peddler and goat-gland salesman Dr. John Brinkley, of KFKB in Milford, Kansas. Only the year before KFKB had been voted the most popular station in the United States. In the same year, educational stations, whose ranks had been thinning since a series of frequency reallocations in the late 1920s, finally organized a national lobbying group to protect their rights. These moves emboldened radio’s critics (Barnouw, 1966).

De Forest’s decision to slam radio in 1930 was also undoubtedly influenced by his long history of bad faith deals, bitter patent fights and drawn-out lawsuits with the very same corporations that were commercializing radio. De Forest’s complaints about the perfidy of big business started in 1913 when he claimed an AT&T attorney misrepresented himself so he could purchase rights to the Audion Tube for a mere $50,000. De Forest claimed the company was actually willing to pay 10 times that amount. Two years later, from a booth at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, de Forest ridiculed the nearby AT&T exhibit with a large hand-lettered sign setting the record straight as to whose Audion Tube was responsible for establishing the recently connected transcontinental telephone service (de Forest, 1950; Carneal, 1930).

In 1930 de Forest was involved in three lawsuits with commercial broadcasters. The first attacked General Electric’s claims that its introduction of a superior vacuum tube for de Forest’s original Audion Tube constituted a new invention and thus was patentable for an additional period of time. GE had been hassling tube manufacturers, including de Forest to desist from infringing on its patents. In May, 1931 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the new processes were only refinements and thus could not be patented (Barnouw, 1966; de Forest, 1950).

A second case involved the demise of de Forest’s radio equipment manufacturing company which had gone bankrupt in 1925. In 1930 the company receiver argued successfully that one of the reasons for its failure was the so-called RCA “tube grab clause,” which required the payment of a 7.5% royalty to the broadcasting giant. By prevailing over RCA with a charge of monopolistic practices, de Forest’s case forced the Federal Radio Commission to decide whether to take away RCA’s radio licenses because of monopolistic activities. The Commission eventually voted 3-2 in RCA’s favor (Barnouw, 1966).

Finally, de Forest was involved in a 19-year struggle with Edwin Armstrong over the “feedback” circuit which channeled signals repeatedly back through the Audion Tube to strengthen them. As News-Week magazine pointed out, the epic case, which was twice heard before the Supreme Court, “involved no royalties or accountings of profits . . . since both parties had sold their patent rights years ago” (“Portrait of Lee de Forest,” 1934, p. 26). The recipients of these rights were, of course, the large radio corporations. In the end, de Forest prevailed in the courts, but not in the field of peer opinion. Most scientists credit Armstrong with developing the regenerative or feedback circuit.(Lessing, 1969; Barnouw, 1966).

Saw Radio in Broader Context

De Forest saw radio in a broader context than most people. For him, radio was an amateur hunched over a crystal set tuning the cat’s whisker, an engineer tinkering with a new tube, a ham operator listening to a distant land, an orchestra tuning up for a network broadcast, a crewman on a storm-tossed sea searching the ether for some companionship, an electrode-clad patient receiving short wave treatment for sinusitis. In his mind, these were his constituents, the people whose rights to radio he vowed to protect from the abuses of the medium’s exploiters (de Forest, 1950; Carneal, 1930). In selling his patents, de Forest often insisted on reserving certain rights so he could continue selling the invention to amateurs or develop some process that the purchasing party might consider worthless at the moment. Inevitably, such clauses brought both parties back to the bargaining table or courts to figure out the original contract’s exact meaning in light of new developments.

De Forest was not against giant corporations, per se. In fact, he thought the salvation of radio broadcasting might lie in just such large concerns. For example, he proposed to Chief Radio Commissioner Ira Robinson that more 50,000 watt stations be permitted because only the large organizations that could afford these super stations, “could be brought to realize the importance of maintaining program values worthy of confidence which the Federal Commission has shown in them and in their ability and willingness to properly serve the Radio Public” (de Forest, 1930). On another occasion, de Forest upped the ante by speculating that only a very small number of 100,000 watt stations would be needed “to spread a mantle of good music” over the U.S. (“Favors high-power radio,” 1931, p. 15). The Radio Commissioner responded by agreeing with de Forest’s assessment of the quality of radio programs. “Things are so bad that I don’t listen to the radio except when I know in advance that a program is coming free from auctioneering,” he said (Robinson, 1931).

In 1934 Congress passed the Federal Communication Act and delegated the task of figuring out what to do with radio to the newly created seven-man Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Hearings were held, broadcasters argued for the status quo, critics railed against the present system and several of them quoted de Forest, but in the end nothing happened (Barnouw, 1968). Many newspapers had made their peace with radio by either buying their own stations or by bludgeoning radio’s burgeoning news services into submission. In 1936 Lee de Forest filed for bankruptcy, listing liabilities of $400,000 and assets of $390 (“Files bankruptcy petition,” 1936, p. 28). Except for World War II, de Forest might have faded into obscurity.

Post World War II Developments

The electronic marvels developed during World War II—radar, guided missiles, walkie-talkies—filled the public’s mind with the wonders of the electron tube and the fame of the men who had brought it to light. An article in the June, 1945 issue of Argosy magazine detailed the struggles of the man who had saved the nation with his vacuum tube. It teased the reader with this subhead: “Arrested as a fraud, scoffed at by his friends, often destitute, Lee de Forest still kept his faith in the ‘gadget’ that made radio — and now radar —possible.” (Manchester, 1945, p. 32). In another case, a reader of the Los Angeles Times was so angry that the Armed Forces Day celebrations had not included a tribute to de Forest that she wrote the editor to complain. “How could our armed forces defend our country without the use of the weapons which his key invention of the electron tube made possible? There would be no atom bomb, no radar, none of the potent new guided missiles, no aircraft guiding beams, no communication by radio” (Cline, 1951).

For several of these giddy post-war years, de Forest tinkered with the idea of elevating himself to “Father of the Electronic Age.” The title “Father of Television” was not available because the National Association of Broadcasters had raised David Sarnoff to that position in 1944 ( Lyons, 1966). The Veteran Wireless Operator’s Association declared de Forest “Father of the Electronic Era” in its 1947 annual yearbook upon the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of his Audion Tube patent. Luminaries from the Federal Communication Commission, U.S. Navy, and radio industry attested to his place in the dawning electronic world. The Chairman of the FCC, Charles Denny, wrote: “The transition from wireless to electronics is an appropriate and timely testimonial to one who has contributed so much to the development of Radio” (Veteran Wireless Operators Association, 1947, n.p.). Francis Colt De Wolf from the State Department chimed in: “On the occasion of his designation as ‘Father of the Electronic Age’ I wish to offer my congratulations and an expression of admiration for the enormous contribution which he has made in the service of humanity in the field of electronics” (Veteran Wireless Operators Association, 1947).

De Forest tried to live up to his new name. He broadened his vision beyond radio to embrace the myriad wonders of the new era. For the next decade he assayed the riches of this new world in numerous articles in popular magazines. These ranged from a series on television and motion pictures in Hollywood Reporter magazine to “The Coming Miracles of Science,” which alerted readers of Family Weekly of what to expect for health, home, climate and space exploration in the future (de Forest, 1960).

Radio retained its primacy in de Forest’s esteem, subject to both his praise and wrath. Commercial radio emerged from World War II in a strengthened position. Dollars flowed to it during the conflict when restricted paper supplies had curtailed newspaper size and generous tax breaks had encouraged advertising. The release of the so-called Blue Book by the FCC in 1946 signaled possible dark days ahead for the industry. This document, named after the color of its cover, detailed numerous instances of excessive advertising on local stations and called upon the FCC to scrutinize past programming in future renewal applications (Barnouw, 1968).

A Father Mourns His Child

In 1946 the National Association of Broadcasters met in Chicago for the first time after the release of the Blue Book. Newsweekcalled it “the most important convention in the group’s 24-year history” (“NAB convention convenes,” 1946, p. 66). Lee de Forest was present in spirit to greet them. He wrote a letter that the Chicago Tribune printed in its Letters To The Editor column. It was entitled “A Father Mourns His Child.”

"What have you gentlemen done with my child? He was conceived as a potent instrumentality for culture, fine music, the uplifting of America’s mass intelligence. You have debased this child, you have sent him out in the streets in rags of ragtime, tatters of jive and boogie music, to collect money from all and sundry for hubba bubba and audio jitterbug. You have made of him a laughing stock of intelligence, surely a stench in the nostrils of the gods of the ionosphere; you have cut time into tiny cubelets, called “spots” (more rightly stains), wherewith the occasional fine program is periodically smeared with impudent insistences to buy or try.

Yet, withal, I am still proud of my child. Here and there from every station come each day some brief flashes worth the hearing, some symphony, some intelligent debate, some playlet worth the wattage. The average mind is slowly broadening, and despite all the debasement of most of radio’s offerings, our music tastes are slowly advancing.

Some day the program director will attain the intelligent skill of the engineers who erected his towers and built the marvel which he now so ineptly uses" (Commercial conscience. 1946).

De Forest’s letter was lost in the coverage of the convention itself, highlighted by CBS Chairman William Paley’s stern warning against the “high percentage of advertising material which is irritating, offensive and in bad taste” (“Commercial conscience,” 1946, p. 66). So de Forest re-released his letter two months later to coincide with the ceremonies surrounding the 40-year anniversary of his Audion Tube. This time, the results were more to his liking even though they scarcely measured up to the halcyon publicity days of the early 1930s.

The New York Times ran a story in January, 1947. Its headline read “De Forest Scoffs at American Programs.” It continued, “Father of Radio Wonders If Our Simian Ancestors Knew What Was to Come” (“Radio role recalled,” 1947, p. 27). The New Republic also ran a brief two-paragraph story (“Unhappy parent,” 1947). But that was about all.

New accomplishments lay ahead. De Forest published his autobiography, Father of Radio, in 1950. Many reviewers praised the septuagenarian’s work, several expressed surprise that a turn-of-the-century inventor was still around to tell such an intriguing story. At least one, however, focused on de Forest’s penchant for publicity. “Somewhere there’s a thought if a man does not blow his own horn, no one else will blow it for him. And Lee de Forest has for the last half century been a living exponent of this bit of philosophy . . . Dr. de Forest’s complete lack of modesty at times irks the reader” (Book review, 1952). Yet de Forest’s autobiography was replete with fond memories of the fellow inventors and radio executives with whom he had battled over the years. RCA and AT&T (RCA, the “commercializer” of radio via NBC, and AT&T, the “chiseler” of his Audion patent rights) were now leaders of “this new era of peaceful development” (de Forest, 1950, p. 386).

The radio industry responded in kind to the man who had so often antagonized it in the past. In 1952, de forest was honored on the forty-fifth anniversary of his Audion Tube and fiftieth year of his career in electronics. Among the celebrations that year was a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria’s Starlight Ballroom filled to capacity with the likes of ex-President Herbert Hoover, Navy Fleet Admiral William Halsey and even self-described old friend David Sarnoff, head of RCA. (Lyons, 1966). Hoover, who had regulated radio as Secretary of Commerce during its formative years in the 1920s, declared in his keynote address that the honoree should henceforth rank among the world’s five greatest inventors: Faraday, Edison, Morse, Bell and now de Forest (Press release, 1952).

Acclaim Provides Some Vindication

Such acclaim provided some vindication for a man who had striven so long for fame. After a lifetime of personal and business bankruptcies, after years of craving recognition for ideas brought to financial success by others, after countless letters and speeches attacking the commercialism of radio, de Forest was left with little else. By the 1950s de Forest had been reduced to peddling short wave radio surgery instruments and selling his services to trade schools. In the early 1950s he worked at two radio schools in the Chicago area directing the training of veterans (“Dr. Lee de Forest dies,” 1961). Later his discerning, halftoned countenance gazed out over the ad campaign for Heald College of Technology in San Francisco which added to his list of titles by declaring him “Grandfather of Television” (Heald College advertisement, 1960).

When he died in 1961 de Forest left an estate worth $1250 (“Left only $1250,” 1961).

De Forest had battled a lifetime to become, in many people’s eyes, the “Father of Radio.” He had already penned his epitaph a decade earlier. In the closing words of his autobiography, he wrote: “In spite of circumstances, always most unfavorable, I hewed out the way I had mapped for myself—against poverty, despite adversity, cynical skepticism, and endless discouragement, and without adequate tools, financial or other. . . But I had the vision, inner faith in myself, the inflexible resolve, the all-so-necessary courage” (de Forest, 1950, p. 466).

Reasons for his success

Forgotten in the tributes at de Forest’s death were the inventors and scientists who had contributed to radio’s development: men like Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), who first created, detected and measured electromagnetic waves and Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), the first to develop wireless telegraphy using these waves and Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who many have credited as father of both wireless and radio (Cheney, 1981).

Others deserve mention. Sir Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) invented the first electron tube to detect radio waves. He went to his deathbed certain that de Forest’s Audion Tube was merely a modification of his own (Fleming, 1934). Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932) was the first to send radio voice transmissions on modulated waves superimposed over continuous waves. His wireless company frequently fought de Forest’s in the marketplace and courts. Edwin Armstrong (1890-1954) developed the regenerative circuit which allowed the Audion tube to amplify and transmit radio waves and, most importantly, made commercial broadcasting possible. He and de Forest wrangled over the rights to the discovery in a long legal battle.

Although these people contributed much to the development of radio, none were able to, or preferred to, match de Forest’s enthusiasm, eloquence or stamina in pursuing the title. Among de Forest’s strengths were his extraordinary energy for self-promotion and his singled-minded vision of what he hoped to accomplish. His perspicacity was essential since radio was developed by a system which pitted the fiscal and emotional frailty of individual creativity against the inertial strength of corporate economics and research. The single voice had to be persistent indeed to be heard above the din of corporate ballyhoo.

Here was a man who fit the popular mold of the crusty inventor: an outspoken seer single-handedly battling misfortune and corporate greed to develop a wondrous new Aeolian Harp for the public’s enjoyment. Overlooked were his bankruptcies, his wrenching trial for fraud, his faulty explanations of his discoveries, his haggling in the courts, his failed marriages, his singled-minded devotion to advancing his claims. De Forest’s pluck always pulled him through hard times. In a perverse way, his many misfortunes only strengthened his position in the public marketplace: human nature often concedes more to the underdog. The New York Times obituary summed up de Forest’s public appeal: “He was a great dreamer, a poet, an advocate of uplifting the masses. . . the last of the individual inventors” (“Dr. Lee de Forest dies,” 1961, p 1).

De Forest had other assets. He was an American. Marconi and Fleming were poor candidates in the United States simply because of their English connections. Tesla was an American, but not by birth. The radio business, as the post-Word-War-I maneuverings surrounding the creation of RCA attest, was very nationalistic. De Forest was eager to speak out and defend his views. He was a perceptive writer. Ill-tempered Fessenden turned to Christian archaeology and never produced any memoirs chronicling his accomplishments (Dunlap, 1961; Fessenden, 1940). De Forest lived to be 87. Hertz died young; Armstrong took his own life. All the rest, except de Forest and Armstrong, who became engrossed in developing FM radio, were gone by the end of World War II when the dawning of the electronic age rekindled interest in the radio age which had preceded it. But one reason stands out above all the rest.

Lee de Forest became the “Father of Radio” because he spent five decades campaigning for the title before a press which was all too willing to grant him the honor.

Affixing labels to issues, movements or individuals is a journalistic practice of long standing. It saves time and energy; it reduces complex matters to a manageable size. As others have pointed out, labels do double duty for reporters by summarizing in a word or phrase why an individual has become newsworthy and by indicating the shape of future coverage (Strentz, 1989). Deciding who deserves which title is subject to few rules beyond the exercise of sound judgment. Scientific matters are especially difficult, requiring a longitudinal synthesis of quantitative details. Often, reporters merely shift responsibility by referring to earlier stories in their own paper to ascertain the validity of their claim.

If this were the case for the reporter assigned Lee de Forest’s death, he would have found scant mention of the inventor’s perceived parentage prior to World War II. In the years of the early depression, The New York Times referred to him either as the “inventor of the vacuum tube”—a label which must have vexed Edison, Fleming, Tesla and Langmuir, among others— or euphemistically as the inventor of the “modern Aladdin’s Lamp” (“On radio Advertising,” 1930).

By the post-World War II period de Forest had achieved a new status. The Times now routinely referred to him as the “Father of Radio.” (Radio role recalled, 1947). However, the newspaper did not readily accede to de Forest’s quest for having sired the electronic era. Yet, within two days of his death, The Times rhapsodized about de Forest’s place in history. The July 4, 1961, editorial said the Audion Tube was “one of the greatest single inventions of this or any other century” and made possible “satellites, interplanetary travel, the age of automation, computing machines.” (Quoted in Editorial, 1961). Heady praise, indeed.

How had de Forest climbed this ladder to success? It is tempting to speculate that his trip to the top was sequential and self-justifying: each rung up became easier because generations of journalists were willing to assess credit for distance already traveled. In the late 1920s, de Forest’s criticism of commercial, corporate radio endeared him to the newspapers and amateurs who felt threatened by the emerging medium. De Forest was the credible source of criticism they needed to substantiate their own view of radio.

In the post-World War II period, de Forest assumed an expanded role. He was still the critic of commercial radio, a battle obviously lost but not forgotten. He was also the convenient tie to the past which helped explain the development of wartime electronic wonders in terms more acceptable to the popular myth. At death, since de Forest had already attained the highest rung, the press propelled him into the firmament.

Alternative explanations for de Forest’s success pale by comparison. He clearly was not the “Father of Radio.” Six basic inventions underlie radio: the heterodyne of Fessenden, Hogan and Lee; audio amplifier of Lowenstein; four-circuit tuning device of Marconi; electron tube of Edison, Fleming and de Forest; regenerative and superheterodyne of Armstrong. De Forest’s Audion Tube, while a key component, was still just one of a handful of elements which made radio possible. In fact, the Audion Tube made its greatest impact on yet another device, the telephone, a matter largely ignored since AT&T always stressed its in-house research and de Forest never campaigned for the title of “Father of Trans-Continental Telephony.”

De Forest was a respected member of the scientific community; his election as President of the Institute of Radio Engineers attested to that. But many of his peers questioned de Forest’s grasp of the principles underlying his own inventions. The title of “Father” implies an unswerving peer admiration which de Forest lacked. For example, de Forest, apparently to differentiate his tube from Fleming’s, wrongly argued for years that the Audion worked because of the passage of a direct current by a heated gaseous medium. In his lawsuit with Edwin Armstrong over the feedback circuit, de Forest prevailed in the courts, but not in the field of peer opinion. Most scientists, citing Armstrong’s superior knowledge, credited him with the discovery despite the court ruling (Barnouw, 1966; Lessing,1969).

None of these concerns was reflected in the coverage of de Forest’s death. His peers were gone and forgotten. His discoveries were poorly perceived; their influence inflated beyond belief. None of this was a conscious attempt to deceive. It was only the result of a news process that is repeated far too often. Radio’s complex beginnings a half century earlier apparently dissuaded news people from delving into details. Certain sources—friendly ones with long media track records who fit preconceived notions—were accorded greater credibility. Convenient labels replaced trenchant analysis. Reporting was reduced to the task of affirming one man’s “inflexible resolve.”


Assails radio advertising. (1931, January 8). The New York Times, p. 19.

Barnouw, Eric. (1966). A tower in Babel: A history of broadcasting in the United States, volume I, to 1933. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barnouw, Eric. (1968). The golden web: A history of broadcasting in the United States, volume II, 1922 to 1953. New York: Oxford University Press.

Book Review of Father of Radio. (1952, September 21). Clipping in de Forest Archives.

Carneal, Georgette. (1930). Conqueror of space: An authorized biography of the life and work of Lee de Forest. New York: Horace Livright.

Cheney, Margaret. (1981) Tesla: Man out of time. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Cline, Jerene Clair (1951, no month). Letter to the Editor of Los Angeles Times. Clipping in de Forest Archives.

Commercial conscience. (1946, November 4). Newsweek, p. 66.

de Forest lashes out. (1931, January 8) The New York Times, p. 8.

de Forest, Lee. (1960, January 17). The coming miracles of science. Family Weekly, 10-11.

de Forest, Lee. (1950). Father of Radio: The autobiography of Lee de Forest. Chicago: Wilcox and Follett.

de Forest, Lee (1931, January. 21). Letter to George Scoville. Unpublished letter in de Forest Archives.

de Forest, Lee (1930, December 29). Letter to Ira Robinson. Unpublished letter in de Forest Archives.

de Forest, Lee. (1930). The future of radio. In Martin Codel (Ed.), Radio and Its Future. (pp. 316-327) New York: Harper & Brothers.

de Forest, Lee. (1927, July 2). Reply to H. G. Wells’ criticism of radio. The New York Times, p. 16.

Dr. Lee de Forest dies. (1961, July 2). The New York Times, p. 1.

Dunlap, Orrin E. (1944). Radio's 100 Men of Science. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Excerpt On Speech to IRE (1930, August 24). The New York Times, Section IX, p. 2.

Favors high-power radio stations. (1931, January 18). The New York Times, Section VIII, p. 15.

Fessenden, Helen M. (1940). Fessenden: Builder of tomorrows. New York: Coward McCann, Inc.

Files bankruptcy petition. (1936, December 4). The New York Times, p. 27.

Fleming, Sir Ambrose. (1934). Memories of a scientific life. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott.

Heald college advertisement. (1960, January 7). San Francisco Examiner, p. 7.

Left Only $1250. (1961, August 18). The New York Times, p. 5.

Lessing, Lawrence. (1969). Man of high fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong. New York: Bantam.

Lyons, Eugene. (1966). David Sarnoff: A biography. New York: Harper & Row.

Manchester, Harland. The gadget that changed the world, Argosy Magazine. June 1945, 321,(2). 32-43.

NAB convention convenes. (1946, November 2). Newsweek, p. 66

On radio advertising. (1930, August 24). The New York Times, Section IX, p. 8.

Page, Leslie Jr. (1960). The nature of the broadcast receiver and its market in the United States from 1922 to 1927. Journal of Broadcasting. IV(2), 174-182.

Portrait of Lee de Forest. (1934, June 2). News-Week Magazine, III(22), 216.

Press Release of Remarks by Herbert Hoover. (1950). Unpublished press release in de Forest Archives.

Quoted in editorial. (1931, November 18). The New York Times, p. 22.

Radio role recalled. (1947, January 21). The New York Times, p. 27.

Rorty, James. (1934). Our master's voice: Advertising. New York: John Day Co.

Spalding, John. (1963). 1928: Radio Becomes A Mass Advertising Medium. Journal of Broadcasting, VII(1), 31-44.

Strentz, Herbert. (1989) News reporters and news sources. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Then there were three. (1961, September 16). Popular Electronics, p. 15.

Wells, H. G. (1927, April 3). Radio broadcast criticism. The New York Times, p. 3.


(1)Numerous examples of his private correspondence may be found in the Lee de forest Archives at the Electronics Museum on the campus of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. Material in the archives is stored loose in large boxes marked only by the appropriate decade. The archives have recently been forced to relocate.

(2)Fleming explained the derivation of these terms in his autobiography. He called the tube or, bulb, a valve because it allowed electrons to flow in only one direction. He added the term thermionic to describe the stream of small particles, now known as electrons, which were sent out from the hot surface of the filament. Fleming did not accept the term diode to denote the two chief components of the tube, the filament and plate, because, in his words, it was “scientific gibberish” (Fleming, 1934, p. 143). His reluctance to accept this term may also stem from de Forest’s insistence on describing his own invention as the triode tube, the extra element, of course, being the grid which de Forest added to Fleming’s tube.

(3])And these corporations were parties in the dispute. AT&T, which had invested $400,000 in direct payments for de Forest’s patents and many millions more in research to develop them, was on his side. Armstrong’s position was supported by the Radio Group—GE, Westinghouse and RCA—who owned his patent rights. Lessing (1969) pointed out that AT&T had much to gain from a victory because de Forest’s patents were issued in 1924, 10 years after Armstrong’s. A de Forest victory in the courts, therefore, would extend AT&T’s patents to 1941, allowing it many more years to collect royalties. Lessing argues this was the reason de Forest’s Audion Tube received so much credit. He intimates, but supplies little proof, that AT&T-sponsored public relations efforts pushed de Forest’s claims to further the telephone company’s own interests (p. 237-238). 1