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Lee De Forest, Pioneer Broadcaster

Radio scientist was playing a key role years before KDKA’s historic broadcast

One in a series of articles celebrating radio’s first century.

Nov. 2, 1920, traditionally is recognized as the start of radio broadcasting in the United States. It’s the date that station KDKA broadcast the Harding-Cox election returns from a primitive transmitter atop a Westinghouse factory building in Pittsburgh. But in reality, broadcasting had been taking place on an experimental, irregular basis for more than 10 years prior.

Notable early experimenters included Reginald Fessenden in Massachusetts, Charles Herrold in California, Vincent Kraft in Seattle and Frank Conrad in Pittsburgh. And perhaps the most prominent of these early experimenters was Lee de Forest (1873-1961), the radio scientist noted for his invention of the triode vacuum tube.

Lee de Forest transmits into an early arc transmitter, about 1910. Two telephone microphones are joined in parallel to create a double button carbon mic. The arc chamber is attached to the right side of the transmitter cabinet. To the right is an Audion receiver.

De Forest had envisioned the concept of broadcasting news and music to an unseen audience as early as 1907, while experimenting with the transmission of voice using primitive arc transmitters.

“I had in mind its great usefulness as a means for broadcasting news and music entirely in addition to the use of the wireless telephone as a means of two-way communication by voice,” he wrote later. “From the beginning, (as) a great lover of opera and fine music, I was intent on developing the means and methods for broadcast distribution of these elements of culture to widely scattered audiences.”

De Forest conducted a number of demonstrations of voice transmission between 1906 and 1910, principally for the U.S. Navy, in which he broadcast phonograph music as well as the live voices of opera singers. In 1910, he broadcast a live performance from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, although the sound quality was poor and almost no one heard the broadcast.

In 1914, Lee de Forest sold his “Audion” vacuum tube patents to AT&T, but he wisely retained the rights to use tubes for distribution of news and music, and to manufacture devices capable of receiving these broadcasts. AT&T foresaw no commercial value in broadcasting, and so readily conceded to this clause in the contract.

Here is de Forest with one of his first Oscillon transmitters, similar to one used at Highbridge. Before 1915, de Forest and others used arc transmitters, and he was apparently the first to develop a tube transmitter. (Perham de Forest papers, History San Jose)

Then de Forest established a laboratory at 1391 Sedgewick Avenue in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, where he developed a high-power vacuum tube capable of radio transmitting, which he called the Oscillon.

In 1915, de Forest received an experimental station license with the call sign 2XG and began experimental transmissions of concerts and news bulletins on a wavelength of 800 meters (375 kHz). It was the first radio station to use vacuum tubes instead of obsolete arc or spark technologies.

In October of 1916, he made a cross-promotion agreement with the Columbia Gramaphone Company, and 2XG began broadcasting the latest Columbia recordings three nights a week.

Carl Dreher, a young amateur operator, later recalled being a regular 2XG listener: “The quality was quite good, and I used to listen to the station for hours at a time.”

De Forest with singer Mary White, broadcasting from 6XC at the California Theater in San Francisco.

On Nov. 7, 1916, de Forest broadcast the returns of the Woodrow Wilson-Charles Evans Hughes presidential election, four years before KDKA. De Forest later wrote: “The New York American ran a wire line into our office so as to have the up-to-the-minute reports. I myself served as one of the announcers. At 11 o’clock that night we signed off, after assuring our invisible audience that Hughes had been elected president.” The next morning, he was horrified to find out that late results from California had in fact reelected Woodrow Wilson for a second term.

It was estimated that 7,000 people heard de Forest’s broadcast that night, including listeners as far away as North Carolina.

Soprano Ruth Phipps sings over 6XC in San Francisco.

After the United States entered the World War, all private radio stations were ordered off the air on April 17, 1917. The operators were instructed to take down their antennas and disassemble their transmitters. The general public was even prohibited from operating a radio receiver. As a result, all other early broadcast experimentation was halted.

Lee de Forest’s 2XG was shut down, along with the stations operated by Frank Conrad in Pittsburgh and Charles Herrold in California.

The receiver ban was not lifted until April 15, 1919, while the restriction against transmitting ended on September 26. De Forest immediately reopened his 2XG Highbridge station, and on Nov. 8 he broadcast the play-by-play results of a Wesleyan-New York University football game. Popular New York vocalist Vaughn De Leath also made the first of a series of live broadcasts, earning her the title of “The Original Radio Girl.”

Vaughn De Leath, the “Original Radio Girl,” first broadcast over de Forest’s station 2XG in 1920.

Early in 1920, de Forest moved the 2XG transmitter to the top of the World Tower Building in Manhattan, giving him improved coverage and easy access to performers in the city’s theater district. But Radio Inspector Arthur Batcheller ordered 2XG to cease operations because he had not requested prior government approval for the move. “There is no room in the ether for entertainment,” Batcheller declared.

Undaunted, de Forest packed up his equipment and took it to San Francisco, where he opened 6XC in the California Theatre, the city’s most opulent motion picture house. His 1,000 watt transmitter broadcast on 1260 meters (238 kHz) into an antenna suspended between the theatre building and an adjoining bank building. On Jan. 28, 1920, he wrote: “California Theater radiophone is in pretty good shape. Antenna on Humboldt Tower is not ideal, but the music has been heard 1,200 miles out to sea.”

By April of 1920, six months before KDKA, 6XC was airing daily broadcasts of Herman Heller’s 50-piece orchestra live from the stage of the theatre.

A microphone attached to a large Magnavox horn was hung 40 feet above the stage to pick up the music. Live singers also performed into individual microphones, and harp and piano soloists were broadcast. To allow the transmission of phonograph records, a steel needle was connected directly to the diaphragm of a microphone mounted on the tone arm. Demonstration receivers were set up in clubs, hospitals and hotels around the area to introduce the public to the potential of radio broadcasting.

In September, ARRL President Hiram Percy Maxim addressed the 6XC audience, predicting that radio broadcasting would one day serve audiences in the millions.

Late in 1921, Lee de Forest closed 6XC at the California Theater. It was relicensed as KZY by the Atlantic-Pacific Company, and installed in the Rock Ridge neighborhood of Oakland. Seen here is the de Forest 1 kW transmitter, left, and an Interpanel receiver at right.

But de Forest was beginning to lose interest in radio. His professional interests were being directed towards the development of his “Phonofilm” sound-on-film technology, and his radio work was delegated to others in the company.

And so in late 1921, after originating more than 1,500 separate broadcasts from the California Theatre, 6XC was shut down and the equipment was transferred to the Atlantic-Pacific Radio Corporation, the de Forest Radio Telephone and Telegraph Company’s Western representative. A new station was installed in the company president’s home in the Rock Ridge area of Oakland, and KZY, “The Rock Ridge Station,” soon debuted.

KZY went on the air at midnight on Christmas Day, 1921, broadcasting several hours of Christmas carols. It quickly developed a large and loyal following in the Bay Area, and was heard clearly at night throughout the Western states. Live and recorded music programs were supplemented by news reports provided by the San Francisco Call and the Oakland Post-Enquirer.

But soon, like so many pioneer broadcasters, the new operators lost interest in funding the high cost of a radio station without any incoming revenue, and KZY had ceased operation by the end of 1922.

Back in New York, one of de Forest’s employees, engineer Robert Gowen, assumed responsibility for the company’s broadcasting activities. He built station 2XX at his home in Ossining and broadcast phonograph and live music each night at 11 p.m.

Lee de Forest works on his invention of the “dynatherm,” a medical device used on radio waves, in 1937.

Vaughn De Leath again was heard on the New York airwaves, and news reports were broadcast nightly. 2XX operated from December 1919 to May 1921 with 300 watts on 330 meters, and was heard by amateurs around the country.

In 1921, the Department of Commerce became concerned that too many amateur and experimental stations were broadcasting programs intended for the general public, and so in the fall of 1921 it created a new “Limited Commercial” license class specifically for broadcasting. All stations were required to share just two frequencies: 360 meters (833 kHz) and 485 meters (619 kHz). All other classes of licenses were forbidden from broadcasting music and news.

And so, in order to continue broadcasting, the de Forest Company closed 2XX and obtained a Limited Commercial license on Oct. 13, 1921, with the randomly-assigned call sign WJX. But apparently, the station was never a serious venture and appears to have operated only sporadically. The license was finally deleted in June of 1924, marking the end of Lee de Forest’s radio broadcasting activities.

The renowned inventor spent the majority of his remaining career on the development of his sound-on-film system. It fell to the big electrical corporations — General Electric, Westinghouse, RCA and AT&T — to develop radio broadcasting into a solid commercial technology.

John Schneider is a lifetime radio historian, author of two books and dozens of articles on the subject, and a Fellow of the California Historical Radio Society. He wrote in Radio World in December about KJR in Seattle, perhaps the first station in the U.S. to achieve a century of continuous broadcast activity.