When we think of successful inventors whose inventions ushered in a new era, we imagine that they would have had significant personal financial success as well. However, this is not always the case as some of them turn out to be bad for business. One of them was the American inventor Lee de Forest. Although he made enormous contributions to the broadcasting industry and had many academic achievements, he personally gained little from them.
De Forest was born in Iowa, USA, in 1873 and had an unusual upbringing for his time. After his family moved to Alabama, they were shunned by the white community. This was because his father had assumed the presidency of Talladega College for Negroes and became involved in black education efforts.
Despite his unusual circumstances, de Forest grew up a happy child, unaware of the prejudice that was being held towards him, and befriended the black children of town. He was drawn to machines and by the time he was 13 he was already making gadgets at will. So instead of becoming a clergyman as his father had planned, he took the path to science.
Invents the first triode
Although the education was not easy, as he had to work odd jobs to cover expenses in addition to the expenses supported by his scholarship and his parents’ allowances, de Forest completed his Ph.D. In 1899 he received his doctorate in physics. In 1906 he presented the Audion – the first triode – and it became an indispensable part of electronic circuits.
For several decades, inventors, including the great American Thomas Edison, had attempted to bring the phonograph (a device for recording and reproducing sound) and the moving image together. De Forest, working with fellow inventor Theodore Case, first became interested in the idea of sounds for movies in 1913.
The patented system, which he called Phonofilm, began as a drawing in 1918. Over the next few years, he acquired a number of patents for the process while perfecting it over time. On March 12, 1923, he made a successful screening for the press, presenting his phonofilm.
sound in the movie
The technological advance that de Forest brought forth was to synchronize sound and movement. He did this by putting the sound recording directly onto the film as an optical soundtrack. This meant that audio frequency and volume were represented in the form of analogue flashes of light.
In the weeks that followed, several short films were premiered using phonofilm. Because it was still quite difficult to synchronize the sound of the human voice with lips moving on the screen, the first talkies audiences saw still had dialogue titles but were accompanied by music.
Below average fidelity
While de Forest supplied nearly 30 movie theaters around the world with phonofilm, he failed to interest Hollywood in his invention. De Forest had a solution to the sound synchronization problem with his phonofilm, but the fidelity on offer (how accurately a copy reproduces its source) did not meet the expectations of the time.
In the years that followed, the motion picture industry shifted to talkies, and the sound-on-film process was basically similar to that of de Forest’s phonofilm. However, De Forest was a failed businessman who was bad at judging people. He was betrayed by his own partners, had to pay for his patents in lengthy legal battles, and even had to sell many of those patents, which were then put to profitable use.
Despite his best efforts, de Forest still became an Oscar winner. In 1959, two years before his death in 1961, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded de Forest an honorary Oscar for “the groundbreaking invention that brought sound to motion pictures”.
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