Beautifully engraved certificate from the De Forest Phonofilm Corporation
issued in 1925. This historic document has an
ornate border around it with the company's name on top. This item has the signatures of the Company's President and Secretary and is over 82 years old.
De Forest Phonofilm - Lee de Forest was already well known as the inventor of the Audion tube-a device which amplified weak radio signals-when he turned his attention to talking pictures. Building on the work of German inventors, in 1922 he developed the Phonofilm, a system for recording synchronized sound directly onto film stock. The Phonofilm was used almost exclusively to record stage performances such as vaudeville numbers, speeches, and musical acts rather than to compete with silent film features.
Enlarged series of de Forest Phonofilm shown for illustration purposes
An enlarged series of de Forest Phonofilm frames shows the sound imprinted directly onto the film stock as parallel lines. These lines photographically represent electrical impulses from the microphone and are translated back into sound waves when projected using specialized equipment. However, because the majority of movie theaters in the U.S. were affiliated with the major Hollywood studios, Lee de Forest experienced great difficulty in finding venues for his system and the company declared bankruptcy in 1926.
Even before 1920, silent films had become popular and were being shown in many cities around the world. Inventors, including heavyweights such as Thomas Edison, had spent thirty years trying to perfect a way to link the phonograph and motion pictures. Following his success with his Audion vacuum tube invention, Lee De Forest also experimented with sound systems for motion pictures, but he took a unique approach.
Instead of trying to match up sounds recorded on a phonograph disk with a motion picture projector, De Forest wanted to put the sound right on the film, next to the image. He did not do this with a groove like the phonograph, but used a completely different kind of recording called optical recording. His optical recorder converted sound into a pulsing beam of light, and then photographed the light to preserve a record of it on a narrow strip along the edge of the film. It is reproduced by a sensitive light detector, which converts the image into an electrical signal that can be amplified and heard through a loudspeaker.
De Forest was not the first to try to photograph sound, nor was he the first to try to make optical recordings for motion picture soundtracks. But he was one of the first to demonstrate a workable system. Between 1923 and 1925, his company, called DeForest Phonofilm, equipped over 30 theaters in the United States, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and Japan to use his system. DeForest struggled for several years to convince audiences to come see his movies, but by 1928 he sold the business. Although many thought his system worked well, DeForest never got the financial backing he needed, and his business simply never took off.
About the same time, however, several companies including Fox Movietone, Western Electric, Tonfilm (in Germany), and Tri-Ergon (also in Germany) were preparing to offer similar sound-on-film systems, and this was the type of technology that remained standard for motion pictures until the late 1940s.
Lee De Forest, (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961) was an American inventor with over 300 patents to his credit. De Forest invented the Audion, a vacuum tube that takes relatively weak electrical signals and amplifies them. De Forest is one of the fathers of the "electronic age", as the Audion helped to usher in the widespread use of electronics.
He was involved in several patent lawsuits (and he spent a fortune from his inventions on the legal bills). He had four marriages and several failed companies, he was defrauded by business partners, and he was once indicted for mail fraud, but was later acquitted.
Lee De Forest was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa to a Congregational minister who hoped that his son would become a minister like himself. His father accepted the position of President of Talladega College (a traditionally Black school) in Talladega, Alabama where Lee spent most of his youth. Most citizens of the white community resented his father's efforts to educate Black students. Nevertheless, Lee De Forest had several friends among the Black children of the town.
De Forest went to Mount Hermon School, and then he enrolled at the Sheffield School of Science at Yale University in 1893. As an inquisitive inventor, he tapped into the electrical system at Yale one evening and completely blacked out the campus, leading to his suspension. However, he was eventually allowed to complete his studies. He paid some of his tuition with income from mechanical and gaming inventions, and he received his Bachelor's degree in 1896. He remained at Yale for graduate studies, and earned his Ph.D. in 1899 with a doctoral dissertation on radio waves.
De Forest's interest in wireless telegraphy led to his invention of the Audion tube in 1906, and he developed an improved wireless telegraph receiver. At that time, he was a member of the faculty at the Armour Institute of Technology, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He filed a patent for a two-electrode device for detecting electromagnetic waves. His Audion tube was a vacuum tube which allowed for amplification for radio reception. De Forest said that he didn't know why it worked; it just did.
He was a charter member of the Institute of Radio Engineers, one of the two predecessors of the IEEE. (The other was the American Institute of Electrical Engineers).
De Forest invented the Audion in 1906, an improved version of John Fleming's recently invented diode vacuum tube detector. In January 1907, he filed a patent for a three-electrode version of the Audion, which was granted US Patent 879,532 in February 1908. It was also called the De Forest valve, and since 1919 has been known as the triode. De Forest's innovation was the insertion of a third electrode, the grid, in between the cathode (filament) and the anode (plate) of the previously invented diode. The resulting triode or three-electrode vacuum tube could be used as an amplifier for electrical signals, and, equally important, as a fast (for its time) electronic switching element, later applicable in digital electronics (such as computers). The triode was vital in the development of long-distance (e.g. transcontinental) telephone communications, radio, and radars. The triode was THE most important innovation in electronics in the first half of the 20th century, between Nikola Tesla's and Guglielmo Marconi's progress in radio in the 1890s, and the 1948 invention of the transistor.
The United States District Attorney sued De Forest for fraud (in 1913) on behalf of his shareholders, stating that his claim of regeneration was an "absurd" promise (he was later acquitted). De Forest filed a patent in 1916 that became the cause of a contentious lawsuit with the prolific inventor Edwin Armstrong, whose patent for the regenerative circuit had been issued in 1914. The lawsuit lasted twelve years, winding its way through the appeals process and ending up before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of De Forest, although the view of many historians is that the judgement was incorrect. In 1916, De Forest, from his own news radio station, broadcast the first radio advertisements (for his own products) and the first Presidential election report by radio. He went on to lead radio broadcasts of music (featuring opera star Enrico Caruso) and many other events, but he received little financial backing.
In 1922, De Forest improved on the work of German inventors and developed the "Phonofilm" process. It recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. This system, which synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record stage performances (such as in vaudeville), speeches, and musical acts. De Forest established his "De Forest Phonofilm Corporation", but he could interest no one in Hollywood in his invention at that time. Several years after the Phonofilm Company folded, Hollywood decided to use a different method for "talkies" but eventually it came back to the methods De Forest had originally proposed. Even today, when looking in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, Lee De Forest is cited as the inventor of sound on film.
De Forest sold one of his radio manufacturing firms to RCA in 1931. In 1934, the courts sided with De Forest against Edwin Armstrong (although the technical community did not agree with the courts). De Forest won the court battle, but he lost the battle for public opinion. His peers would not take him seriously as an inventor or trust him as a colleague. For De Forest's initially rejected, but later adopted, movie soundtrack method, he was given an Academy Award (Oscar) in 1959/1960 for "his pioneering inventions which brought sound to the motion picture", and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
De Forest received the IRE Medal of Honor in 1922, as "recognition for his invention of the three-electrode amplifier and his other contributions to radio". In 1946, he received the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 'For the profound technical and social consequences of the grid-controlled vacuum tube which he had introduced'.
An important annual medal awarded to engineers by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers is named the Lee De Forest Medal.
De Forest was the guest celebrity on the May 22, 1957 episode of the television show This Is Your Life, where he was introduced as the "Father Of Radio and the Grandfather of Television".
He died in Hollywood in 1961 and was interred in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
History from Wikipeida, Library of Congress and Encyberpedia.