Lee de Forest (1873-1961)


De Forest made it to History San Jose, his final destination, to be close to the Perham collection (which has many of his inventions in it). September 4 update with great pictures of him at History San Jose!

Sculpture by Jim Pallas


One thinks of de Forest almost like Californian Luther Burbank. A hundred years ago things grew in the Valley of the Heart's Delight, the finest alluvial fruit-growing land and balmy weather in America. The railroad ran to San Francisco and, from San Jose, points east. Packing plants like Libby's located along the railroad line, reduced (or ascended) to a research park shortly after we arrived in the Valley in 1988.

Born in Iowa, Lee de Forest's father became the President of Alabama's black Talledega College, back when such administrators were always white. Lee went on to Yale, supporting himself with engineering and "gaming inventions", and was briefly suspendend for hacking into the university power plant and causing a blackout. He got his Ph.D. from Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School. His interest in wireless telegraphy and Hertzian waves led to his invention of the Audion tube in 1906. Also called the triode, it was an improvement on John Fleming's vacuum-tube diode (adding a third electrode, the grid, between the filament and plate of Fleming's diode). The triode has been called the most important electronics invention between the development of radio and the birth of the transistor.

In 1910, de Forest moved to Palo Alto, California, to work for The Federal Telegraph Company. There he made his Audion tube perform as an amplifier. Though he said he never quite understood why the phenomenon worked, the Audion amplified radio waves. De Forest involved himself in radio, broadcasting the 1916 Presidential election results and grand opera, and enjoying the company of radio personalities. He developed the synchronized sound process for movies and predicted microwave cooking, but poo-pooed manned space flight and was convinced the transistor would never replace the Audion vacuum tube.

De Forest discovered an effect, a phenomenon, upon which the nation's electronics industry was soon to be based. As others grafted new species of fruit, he developed the Audion. An electronics industry could take root here, an orchard of technology. With his tweed wool newsboys' cap jauntily turned backwards (equivalent of today's baseball cap?), he resembled an early aviator like the Wright brothers or San Francisco's daredevil Lincoln Beachey. In the 1930s Moffett Naval Air Station helped bring military contracts to local electronics firms...while southern navy men demanded racially-segregated public schools for their children.

This summer I labor to clean an Augean stables of a moldy midwestern basement (ironically on street called Pomona, muse of fruit growing in a neighborhood carved from an apple orchard), dust- and dirt-encrusted pre-semiconductor electronics in my dad's, and other professors' workshops (their widows invited him over to come take what he wished). I remain baffled by the machinery and fetish of the Detroit car, as I do by the collections my late Electrical Engineer/Professor father, product of the final age of electrifying America, uninterested in computers or even semiconductor technology.

 Reference consulted:




- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Travelogue by Julie Newdoll

July 13 2006: Lee de Forest was shipped without a GPS unit to Julie Newdoll's art studio. He will be wired and then launched August 7 from the Opera House in San Jose. De Forest was married four times and met lots of actresses through his radio work. He was happiest with his fourth wife in Hollywood (http://www.leedeforest.org/ ), so we thought he would enjoy starting off at the Opera House. These photos were taken by Jim Pallas near his studio in Michigan before deForest set off on the delivery truck to California.

August 7: Finally time to release the last Silicon Valley pioneer hitchhiker to the world! Julie takes him to the conference center for a spell, then walks him over to the California Theatre in downtown San Jose. She only had her cell phone for pictures, so they are a bit low res. The construction crew restoring the theatre was kind enough to give her a plastic bag full of broken cement to weight down de Forest's feet. He really looks like he belongs in front of the Theatre. Perhaps he will linger there a while.

August 8: We did not realize when we picked the drop off location for de Forest that the California Theatre was right in the heart of the ZeroOne festival. A kindly participant, Chris Tann, picked him up and sent a photo, "I picked up a hitchiker tonight, Lee DeForest. I met him at the California Theatre, and we strolled down to the Paragon to take a quick drink with some of the artists there. I couldn't persuade him to try "Icecream karaoke" though. I was going to give him a lift further, but unfortunately he couldn't fit all hsi baggage in my car, so I had to leave him behind - I last saw him trying to hitch a lift opposite the Blue Monkey Lounge, on San Fernando Street.
Sorry I couldn't take him further, I'll keep an eye out for him tomorrow, when I'll be travelling by light rail!
August 9: Sadly, de Forest is our first missing hitchhiker. He is so cute, too! We hope that he is just in a large hotel, or somewhere that a signal can not escape. Either Julie or Mike will check the Blue Monkey today. We may have to start a "Have you seen me?" campaign. Please let us know if you have seen him.

August 10: Julie drove around downtown San Jose, and Chris Tan looked around, too. No sign of de Forest. Julie decided not to post his face on milk cartons, however, because Jim Pallas told her, "Julie, Julie,  Take it easy.  It's only art, not real life.  It's all an adventure.  deForest is probably enjoying the freedom of being off the net.  He'll turn up (or not).   Maybe after we're all dead and I bet he'll have a terrific story about where he spent the last 37 years. Of course, his battery will be dead and that would have made Mario sad.  But it's all right.  Feed the kids.  Get some sleep."

Ron Pottol, who tried to nab de Forest, but he was not there at the time, said about his location, "Well, he's not at 345 (First Street), he may be up the street a bit, I did not look on foot where it shows him now.

One of the first radio stations in the country started broacasting just up the street, the first to broadcast human voice, there is a plaque there. It is now known as KCBS."

Maybe Lee sauntered down the street to visit KCBS. I may have to go check out that plaque.

August 11: We hear from Melissa. Lee has been spotted! She writes, "I couldn't find another way to contact you, so I tracked you down at this address. I saw Lee at San Jose City Hall on Friday night. A lovely woman named Liliana was taking him home for the night and then will drop him off at his final destination, History Park. I've had fun watch Hewlett, Packard, Shockley, and now de Forest travel around the Bay Area. Thanks to everyone on the project!"

Oh, happiness! Lee may make it after all. Jim Pallas, the sculptor, says, "I told you Lee was a ladies man. Cherchez la femme and you'll find deForest. He certainly is in good hands now, but will we ever get him back, the dog."

Pictures of de Forest that Melissa sent to me. It's true!

Here is Lee at San Jose City Hall Friday night. One is a close up of Lee's face. The other is left to right: Lilianna, Lee, Melissa, & Judy. (Larger ones later).

August 12: The history of Lee's travels are starting to unfurl. John writes, probably a day or two after his adventures with Lee, with a tale to tell, his text in black below. It is sort of like a poem. He will send in pictures later. Picture came in. Follows the poem and the movie:

I met up with Lee downtown. Lee wanted to donate
some money to an older homeless gentleman. This
homeless man told me that Lee had been there for
an hour trying to get a lift to no avail. This
was on First and San Fernando on the north side
of the street opposite side of what the map

Lee and I decided to get a drink. We walked down
San Fernando meeting people on the way and
getting funny looks. Lee must have already been
drinking because I was practically carrying him
and he was very heavy. He had the annoying habit
of accidentally hitting me in the shins. Maybe
that was why we were getting strange stares.

We asked someone outside a bar if they could take
a picture of us because we didn't have a camera
on us but were having a good time. They couldn't
email the picture and I assumed I didn't have
your cell phone number. Can you tell I don't have
a cell phone? Since we didn't have a camera we
made some audio recordings.

We ran into two members of the Drift Relay team
or Glowlab. They wondered what we were doing and
I introduced them to Lee.

Then we tried to get into the San Jose Bar and
Grill but oops I forgot to pick up my driver's
license after doing the Trace Project. And Lee
couldn't produce his wallet either. Maybe that's
why he's hitchhiking. So they wouldn't let us in.
As we walked away three young women wanted to
take our pictures. Lee was happy to pose with
them. We asked them to email the photos to us.

Then we made our way to the Cinnabar. We met some
young people there. They didn't want us to leave
and then they lost interest and disappeared while
we weren't looking. During this the bouncer said
we had to move away from the front of the
building. They didn't want people to associate
our kind with Cinnabar. They seemed to let
everybody else in.

We then made our way down to 3rd and San Fernando
near an Ultra Lounge. I think it's Fahrenheit.
After being turned down by several bars we gave
up trying. We thought we looked plenty old--maybe
it was the lighting.

So there we met several people. He seemed to be
enjoying himself so I left him there so I could
get my car. I noticed the security guy eyeballing
him and then he came up to him. I was afraid that
Lee would get bounced so I asked him if he would
have a problem if Lee stood there. He said it was
ok but that someone would probably hurt him. I
explained that this was part of the zeroOne
festival. I didn't explain what was on his back
because I wanted to see if someone would read it
themselves like I did. I implied I'd be back. I
got my car. I was trying to help Lee get into my
Nissan Sentra(97) when someone made a comment
about Lee being too tall to fit. Then he refused
to get in my car. I think he has a screw loose.
So I went home and emailed my friends for help. I
was very tired so I went to sleep and hoped that
Lee would get a ride. The next day I noticed Lee
was in the same place. About 4:30 I bought a
Walgreen's 35mm that they reload. I took a
picture of me and Lee. I kept trying to tell my
friends but either they weren't interested or
they couldn't help him. I hope he's alright. I
might go back and look for him.

Although I was checking out the zeroOne festival
I'm from San Jose and was only checking out the
free stuff up to that point.

Thanks for checking out Lee, John. I hope your shins are all right!

August 13: Tina writes in. I am not sure which day it was anymore. Perhaps if we recover Lee's data, we can piece it together. Here is what Tina had to say,

"hi everyone!! looking for LEE????
Well we found him...
As we were happily walking around to each venue for the ISEA conference, we found Lee resting on the street corner. I wish we could tell you which street corner, but as we're from LA, we were quite lost ourselves. We recognized Lee from his many achievements in science and technology and asked him if he needed some help getting where he was going. Unfortunately we were on foot, but seeing as Lee was on a stand, we figured we were moving a little faster then he was.

"Along the way we talked to him about his achievements, asked him where he'd been, checked out his construction. He was a great companion.

We were on our way to San Jose City Hall and that's where we dropped him off! Last we saw of him he was hanging out by the flags looking for his next ride. Good luck Lee!! Thanks for the memories. The Art Center Crew (Syuzi, Jed, Sean, Nikhil and Tina)"

Go to de Forest Travelogue page 1 2




Copyright © 2006 Julie Newdoll, Jim Pallas, Mike Mosher, Mario Wolczko