Young men who were looking for new worlds to conquer at the end of the 19th century were already reading by electric light, traveling
by automobile and electric cars, speaking on the telephone over long distances, and sending messages by wire and cable. As the 20th century
dawned, it was the conquest of sound waves that occupied them: how to send words and music through the air on waves of sound, rather than
by means of coded messages. Along came radio, a phenomenon that is the result of the efforts of many brilliant scientists, some working alone,
some in groups. Edisonbegan the search for a means of sending sound through the air waves with his "grasshopper" telegraph,
but it was not sufficiently selective. Then, among others who were pondering the problem of sound waves, there was Reginald Aubrey Fessenden,
Canadian-born of American parents, who had been educated at Purdue University.
Thomas Edison hired Fessenden as a tester and repairer of electric mains. Fessenden was an agressive and resourceful man. He would not bother
with permit to find the trouble in an electric main. He would dig up a street, repair the main and have the street back in good condition before the
next police patrol inspection. One day the great financier J.Pierpont Morgan rushed from his home and demanded to know why his electric
current had been shut off. Fessenden explained that he was repairing the main. When Morgan dragged him into his house to ask him why the
wiring was always causing fires, Fessenden suggested that the wires be encased in galvanized pipe. Morgan was delighted with the young man.
This suggestion was the first of Fessenden's improvements in wiring.
When Fessenden became obsessed with the idea of working with sound waves he left Edison and talked two Pittsburgh bankers into backing
him for his experiments. He carried on his experiments at Sandy Hook, New York by running tests for the Navy. De Forest had a shack nearby.
He too was experimenting. With money at his disposal, Fessenden was able to get the help of the General electric company which hired two
engineers, a German and a Swede, to work on Fessenden's project. It was necessary to develop a generator that would generate 50,000
cycle per second. The effort of those ment were put to the test on christmas eve, 1906, with the first radio-telephone broadcast. To their
surprise and bewilderment, they heard the phonograph playing Handel's "Largo" and Gounod's "Oh Holy Night" over their wireless sets.
The ocassion was marked by speeches and the reading of a poem. That night radio was born. Ressenden, who was an electrical engineer, continued
his experiments. He invented the heterodyne system of reception, the basis of the first receiving sets. Then he withdrew from radio and worked
in the field of submarine signaling as a consultant. He retired to Bermuda. In the course of his life he had taken out over 500 patents. Lee De Forest, Fessenden's competitor in the field of radio, was born in Iowa in 1873. His father was a congregational minister who settled with
his familily in the South. He was intested in astronomy, a subject, in wich his son Lee also became interested. Lee entered Yale's sheffield
Scientific School, one of the first schools of its kind in the country. The young man had to work his way through college. He grew up to be
over-sized and was voted the homeliest man in his class.
Fortunately, at the Sheffield Scientific school, Lee had as a teacher J. William Gibbs, who was perhaps the greatest single mathematical and
scientific intellect in America during the latter part of the 19th century. In 1900 Lee otained his doctorate (PH.D.) and took a job with the
Western Electric Company in Chicago. His spare time away from home was taken up with experiments with the wireless. When Lee De Forest
invented the audion tube, it is doubtful whether he realized the full signifacance of his accomplshement. It had been known for a long time that
hot objects, particularly white-hot metals, threw off electrons or negative electric charges. The tube made possible the public address system,
our sound movies and the electric phonograph. It brought a revolution in the science of physics and it can be said that its invention saw the
beginning of our electronic age. A magic device, the audion tube became the aladdin's lamp for other scientists. It was not replaced in importance
until the invention of the transistor in 1948.
Sir John Fleming, the English scientist, had taken Edison's electric light bulb and made a rectifier which allowed electric current to flow one way
but not the other. De Forest took the same tube and improved it further. His major change was to insert a grid of iron wires between the hot
filament and the electrode. This grid, sometimes attached to an antenna, picked up the high-frecuency waves emitted by a radio transmitter.
In wireless, a steady pitch of one tone is sent out. But for voice transmission, the waves correspond to the rise and fall of the voice. De Forest
used his invention to broadcast from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The voice was heard five hundred miles away. He then broadcast the voices of great
singers. De Forest regarded radio as a means of bringing music, plays and the arts to people and as a way of drawing people together. The story is
told that one day, forty years after he had invented the audion tube, he was listening to a broadcast in which soaps and other items were being
advertised. Sadly, he asked "What have they done to my child?".
In 1919 De Forest left the radio field and experimented with sound pictures. But when he presented his findings to the movie magnates, they
turned him down, saying that the public did not want talking pictures. When sound pictures became a reality, De Forest reaped no benefits
from his work. He became interested in television but lost a great deal of the money he had earned with his audion tube in the depression of the
year 1932-33. Then he went on to experiment with radar and diathermy. In his later years, De Forest ran a Bell telephone laboratory in
California. He was pioneer in many fields, including the desigh and installation of high-powered naval radio stations. As others entered his
special fields of interest, De Forest kept moving on to other projects. His restless pioneering may not have made him a rich man, but he will
certainly remain as one of America's great contributors to electronic age.