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Lee de Forest – King of Radio, Television and Film

While marketed as a children’s movie, the movie HUGO was really a celebration of early film making vs. a “children’s movie.” Sadly, as HUGO detailed, many early pioneers of film were later forgotten by the public at large.

Lee de Forest, the subject of a new book, Lee de Forest – King of Radio, Television and Film, is one such early film pioneer who has largely been forgotten today.

Lee de Forest, Yale doctorate and Oscar winner, gave voice to the radio and the motion picture. Yet by the 1930s, after the radio and the Talkies were regular features of American life, Lee de Forest had seemingly lost everything. Why? Why didn’t he receive the recognition and acclaim he sought his entire life until years later in 1959, when he was awarded an Oscar? A lifelong innovator, Lee de Forest invented the three-element vacuum tube which he developed between 1906 and 1916 as a detector, amplifier, and oscillator of radio waves. As early as 1907, he was broadcasting music programming.

In 1918, he began to develop a system for recording and playing back sound by using light patterns on motion picture film. In order to promote and demonstrate his process he made hundreds of short sound films, found theatres for their showing, and issued publicity to gain audiences for his invention. While he received many patents for this technology, he was ignored by the film industry. Lee de Forest, King of Radio, Television, and Film is about the process of invention—how inventors really get ideas and how every inventor learns that they must know the work of those who came before, and why the myth of the lone inventor and the “Aha! moment” is largely a fiction. Through his inventions, Lee de Forest made possible the mass entertainment media we enjoy today. This is his story.

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