We interrupt our regular transmission of Science News to wish a very happy 138th birthday to Lee De Forest, a prolific inventor who collected hundreds of patents before he was done. We at Caterpickles Central are particularly fond of his Audion vacuum tube, which was instrumental in the development of radio, telephone, radar, television, and computer systems (at least until the transistor came along in 1947).
If Wikipedia can be trusted, this minister’s son was more scamp than saint. From his suspension from Yale in the mid-1890s for shorting the university’s electrical system and causing a campus-wide blackout to the financing of his university education with gaming inventions and his indictment (and later) acquittal for mail fraud in 1913, there is no shortage of rogueishness in his personal history. Which may explain his four wives.
And the very large legal bill that forced De Forest to sell his patent for the vacuum tube to AT&T and the Bell System in 1913 for a mere $50,000.
Despite what sounds like an unusually large helping of scalawag in his personal makeup, De Forest was well-respected by the scientific community at large, and received multiple awards in his lifetime, including:
- The IRE Medal of Honor in 1922
- The Franklin Institute‘s Elliott Cresson Medal in 1923
- The Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1946.
Perhaps more impressively, he has a medal named after him. Every year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers awards outstanding engineers the Lee De Forest Medal.
This man’s life story cries out for a more in-depth biographical treatment than we have room to give him here at Caterpickles. A quick Amazon search is mildly disappointing, yielding only a few out-of-print titles (including Father of Radio, De Forest’s autobiography) and one, Lee de Forest: King of Radio,Television, and Film, by Mike Adams, available in October 2011. If like us, you find it tough to wait for Adams’ biography, you may find solace in his De Forest website, which touches on the man, his marriages, his inventions, and his legacy.
So, what about you? What caught your eye this week?