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Über dieses Buch

The life-long inventor, Lee de Forest invented the three-element vacuum tube used between 1906 and 1916 as a detector, amplifier, and oscillator of radio waves. Beginning in 1918 he began to develop a light valve, a device for writing and reading sound using light patterns. While he received many patents for his process, he was initially ignored by the film industry. In order to promote and demonstrate his process he made several hundred sound short films, he rented space for their showing; he sold the tickets and did the publicity to gain audiences for his invention. Lee de Forest officially brought sound to film in 1919. Lee De Forest: King of Radio, Television, and Film is about both invention and early film making; de Forest as the scientist and producer, director, and writer of the content. This book tells the story of de Forest’s contribution in changing the history of film through the incorporation of sound. The text includes primary source historical material, U.S. patents and richly-illustrated photos of Lee de Forest’s experiments. Readers will greatly benefit from an understanding of the transition from silent to audio motion pictures, the impact this had on the scientific community and the popular culture, as well as the economics of the entertainment industry.



1. Born to Invent

In this story of the three important decades of Lee de Forest, it is his inventions of the vacuum tube and the radio that will make the talking picture possible. But this is not just the story of one inventor or a single invention. It is about many interesting and influential people and how they transformed Nineteenth Century science into Twentieth Century art. In this story of invention the film is shown to evolve from a chemical process into entertainment, and wireless telegraphy into radio broadcasting. Lee de Forest puts it all together and creates the sound motion picture. While this story concentrates on the decade of the 1920s and talking pictures, it is also about the creation of the electronic entertainment media and its audiences.
Mike Adams

2. The Race for Wireless

The early inventing life of Lee de Forest can be viewed as a prelude to his final invention of significance, his version of the talkies, the 1920s Phonofilm. His post-Yale years and his early wireless inventions will show a pattern of a man who is interested in communication systems using electricity. While at Yale, he learned about the theories of James Clerk Maxwell and how Heinrich Hertz turned those theories into practical applications when he sent a spark across the room and received it using a crude detector. At Yale he was a curious student, embellishing his lecture notes with ideas, questions, and diagrams, as he begins to understand the scientific world to which he now belongs. He has graduated and he is on his way to what will turn out to be a complicated life as a wireless inventor. In this endeavor, de Forest follows Marconi and attempts to build a better system.
Mike Adams

3. The Meaning of the Audion

As a transmitter for reliable long distance communications, the spark gap was a technology dead end, although no one would realize it for at least another decade. Sure, Marconi had founded a successful company using spark and was competing with the transatlantic cable for communications between London and New York. De Forest himself had success with his similar spark wireless system and had gained and lost several companies because of it. But de Forest was restless. He is tired of the spark message business, and by 1906 he is turning his attention to a wireless replacement for the wired telephone. Reginald Fessenden and other inventors also wanted primacy in this invention, but it was only de Forest who saw both a wireless telephone for two way voice messages and a way to send music into the home. Radio and Broadcasting would grow out of it. Before that could be fully realized, he would have to invent something totally different from the spark gap and its less sophisticated detectors. What de Forest will invent will make the radio and the talkies possible.
Mike Adams

4. California Days

Born in the Midwest and educated on the East Coast, Lee de Forest had spent most of his early inventive years in Chicago and New York City. In 1911, he moved west to California, living for a time in what would be later known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, and Stanford University. Less than 25 miles south of San Francisco, he will find in this tiny town a research and development environment where he can improve upon his basic Audion. Working with other progressive engineers and Stanford professors, he is allowed some freedom and the support to discover new uses for his three-element vacuum tube. And there will be the usual de Forest drama. He’ll write poetry about his love for the natural beauty of California, and for a brief time he will live an idyllic inventor’s life, but that will soon be interrupted by a warrant for his arrest, a return to a life of poverty, and embarrassment at the San Francisco World’s Fair. On the bright side he will travel to New York and meet and marry his third temporary wife.
Mike Adams

5. Radio’s Arrival

The connection between radio broadcasting and the talking motion picture cannot be overemphasized. The acceptance of the sound film would not have happened as quickly as it did were it not for the radio. Broadcasting was grabbed onto by the public beginning in 1920, quickly leading to better programming and better radios, all of which would directly influence the advancement of the movie from silent to sound. And it was not just the improvement in the radio set itself. It was the arrival of the missing voice, something that would seem very natural by the middle of the 1920s. By the time radio broadcasting had exploded in popularity, the movie studios were already worrying out loud that it would kill the silent film, and that the public would rather stay home and listen to their favorite radio programs than go to a movie theater. This was troublesome.
Mike Adams

6. Phonofilm, The Promise

The film going public was not really waiting for sound films. It could be argued that films had never really been “silent,” as there was almost always some musical accompaniment in the theater. The big city movies featured an orchestra or ensemble, maybe the “Mighty Wurlitzer” theater organ, while the small town houses may have had a piano player, but the film audiences of the “pre-sound” era always expected to hear music during the “silent” film experience. And by the 1920s, the major film releases often had music scores specifically written to accompany and enhance the visuals on the screen. The emotional cues that we expect from sound were always a part of the cinema experience as music, carefully selected to reinforce the story. This was the “sound track” for the cinema, pre-1926.
Mike Adams

7. Phonofilm, The Realization

The year 1923 begins with great promise. Using the process he had first imagined in 1918, Lee de Forest is poised for his prime time premiere. By now he has made several dozen short Phonofilms and screened a few of these for the American and German press. This is the year of the Phonofilm, and for the first time members of the public will be able to experience a movie with synchronized sound. As Phonofilm matures Lee de Forest again turns from an inventor into a pitchman. First he speaks about his invention at engineering conferences. Then he carefully attempts to reach the widest audience possible and bring them in on what he has accomplished by making himself available to the daily newspapers, the scientific popular press, and the film technical support fraternity through the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. He also writes a booklet aimed at potential investors. At all of these venues and in print he sounds similar themes as de Forest, as always, “stays on message.” He will continue to be the producer and director of the content he envisions for his improved technology. He will be the face of Phonofilm. This year, 1923, is the premiere year for Phonofilm. But first he will be forced to reconsider his relationship with Theodore Case.
Mike Adams

8. Phonofilm, The Rejection

Phonofilm will not go quietly. In spite of the odds, Lee de Forest will ­continue to make and distribute films in the Phonofilm format to those few theaters equipped to show them. There is limited success, but the field for sound movies is getting crowded. Yes, Phonofilm is finally a mature technology, but now it is not the only sound-on-film system. As a result of rapid progress in the past few years, the quality of the audio that can be recorded and played back has improved in a way that the public just may embrace it. The electrical recording and playback of the phonograph record has been one of the science success stories of the middle 1920s, and while this will be good for home record consumers, it will also form the technical basis of the Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound system for the movies. So Lee de Forest, one of the first inventors to develop and demonstrate a sound-on-film ­system, falls farther behind. The signs are ominous, and as he continues to promote his system and sign up theaters, his influence is waning. Even with the production of hundreds of little films of singers, dancers, and vaudeville acts, it will be Al Jolson, not Lee de Forest, who will be the voice of the movies. This is the beginning of good times for the movie industry. This is the beginning of bad times for Lee de Forest.
Mike Adams

9. Phonofilm, The Lawyers

These are the worst of times; these are the best of times. For Lee de Forest in the late 1920s, the roller coaster that is his life will reach the bottom before soaring back to the top. He begins this ride on the East Coast at his New York home and ends up at a place where he spent time in his earlier years, a place that represents hope and happiness, California. For de Forest, the post-Phonofilm period will be one of continued invention, although none of great significance. This era will mark the validation of some of his basic patents in amplification and sound-on-film, but none will result either in fame or fortune. During this period of time, he will finally discover domestic happiness. Nevertheless, there will not exist what de Forest wants most in his mature years, and that is the total and unequivocal adulation of the public and the scientific community. But make no mistake, the public does know about Lee de Forest and they do regard him as an important inventor. It just will not be enough.
Mike Adams

10. Lesson and Legacy

If the 1930s was the de Forest decade of confusion and resolution, the 1940s will be the decade of the rant. By the 1930s his sound-on-film inventions were universally used by Hollywood for their profit, and while de Forest fought his film patents in court, there was no significant monetary or psychic benefit. He did win a final battle with Major Armstrong but it too only led to a giant letdown, a collective “so what?” He found the good wife, marrying the kind, beautiful, and doting Marie for lifetime marital happiness. But the decade of the 1940s will find Lee de Forest with less to do, less money for lawyers, and even a few unimportant inventions to file. The 1940s de Forest will be a seemingly always peeved person, upset with the Major, upset with radio programming, but living in Hollywood and carefully outlining his legacy. In the last de Forest decade, the 1950s, he will finally find his reward.
Mike Adams


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