“. . . only a crude little glass baby”: The “Father of Radio” Remembers

Well, I am off this instant on a short and none-too-well planned trip to the south of England, to which quick exit you owe the uncommon brevity and, what is more irregular still, the antemeridian dispatch of this entry in the broadcastellan journal. However inconvenient this last-minute post might be for my traveling companions, I simply could not wait another year to share this anniversary. True, I excite easily when it comes to the old wireless; but in this case the enthusiasm is not altogether unwarranted. On this day, 23 March, in 1941, Dr. Lee De Forest was called upon to address the American public through a means and medium for the creation of which he was largely responsible.

“Most people believe Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio,” Tom Lewis states in the Prologue of his Empire of the Air, immediately to make the necessary correction: “he did not.” Among those who did was said Dr. De Forest, once acknowledged to be the “Father of Radio,” due in part to his tireless self-promotion. To mark the 34th anniversary of the invention of the wireless telephone in 1907 (it is thus the 100 anniversary this year), CBS radio caught up with this daddy of the dial for another edition of Behind the Mike, a CBS program billed as “radio’s own show.”

Based on accounts furnished by his assistant, Frank Butler (present in the broadcasting studio), Behind the Story dramatization of de Forest’s story, his initial struggle, his failure to interest the navy in his invention, the destruction of his New York laboratory by fire, and his indictment for fraud. After this fictionalized sketch, a cheerful de Forest, by then “almost the sole living survivor of the old guard,” spoke from Los Angeles to his former assistant, the audience in the East Coast studio, and to the listening public tuning in across America:

In 1907, no one could possibly have foreseen what is occurring right now between Los Angeles and New York because then the amplifier, which has since made possible the transcontinental telephone, was only a crude little glass baby lying in swaddling cotton in that little old shoebox in our laboratory. How well I remember those first audion tubes [. . .]. How difficult they were to construct. How great our chagrin when one of them burned out. And what headaches we suffered to keep those first radio telephone transmitters on the air. Bittersweet are those old memories.

De Forest expressed his wish to “live until the 21st century, just to observe the state of radio and television then.” He died in 1961; and within a few years of this broadcast he would publicly denounce the medium by famously exclaiming, “What have you done with my child!”

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