The American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company was not the kind of firm which gets glowing writeups in business texts. The President, Abraham White, was known for his showmanship, but also for his extensive fraudulent stock-selling practices. Lee DeForest, the company's Scientific Director, was responsible for the company's reputation for crude engineering--the fact that his chief assistant at the Saint Louis Fair had "no more electrical knowledge than that possessed by the average telegraph operator" speaks volumes about the sophistication of the equipment design. DeForest was also famous for patent infringement. His use here of Fessenden's electrolytic detector would be later be repeated, and numerous lawsuits by Fessenden eventually led to DeForest having to hide in Canada for awhile, to avoid the law. But DeForest was also a loyal and tenacious battler, who kept charging forward the best he could.
Radio Broadcast, December, 1924, pages 211-219:

Making  Wireless  History  With  De Forest
Thrilling  Days  of  Trial  and  Error  in  the  True  Pioneer  Wireless  Times--A  Ten-Kilowatt  Set  that  Sent  Four  Miles--Thrills  for  the  Natives  at  the  St.  Louis  World's  Fair--Twenty  Years  of  Wireless  in  Retrospect

Former  Chief  Assistant  to  Dr.  Lee  De Forest
Butler in 1904
TO BE able to look back twenty-odd years, practically to the very inception of radio, and view the development of this wonder art through personal experiences gained from gruelling years of hopes, disappointments, and successes, is a privilege that only a few of us can share with Dr. Lee De Forest, the famous radio inventor.
    Surely, the most enthusiastic radio fan cannot realize the exceptional thrill which is now mine as I listen-in on my radio receiver and compare its wondrous achievements to those of the struggling, experimental days when I assisted Dr. De Forest in his elementary pioneer work; in the building of his first few "audion bulbs", and shared with him the marvel of listening-in for the first time to a wireless telephone.
    For radio is not, as many believe, a new thing. Its development has passed through the crucible of a thousand failures with their resulting disappointments. Its progress was constantly blocked by unknown scientific laws against which we pitted our puny knowledge. Every secret extracted from Nature was gained by relentless tests carried on frequently without funds and often without adequate laboratory equipment or tools, and with comparatively little encouragement from humans or from Nature. But always there was the inspiring guidance of "Determined De Forest."
"The  Man  Is  Crazy"

    At least that is what almost everyone thought of Dr. Lee De Forest back in those early pioneer days, more than twenty years ago. Then, you could easily count all the men in the country who even pretended to know anything about wireless. No one of the few who were working with wireless then, knew whether a set carefully put together would work at all, and how far the signals could be heard was nothing but a guess. Transmissions of a hundred miles or more were hailed as remarkable. Present-day radio listeners are quite prone to think of radio as nothing more than telephonic broadcasting. But before the wireless telephone, came tremendous amounts of hard, sometimes discouraging, but always fascinating and essentially romantic work. Dr. De Forest is one of those pioneers. Mr. Butler's memories of the early days are mightily worth reading, since he not only saw the early wireless drama, but himself acted in it.--T

    It was in the early spring of 1904 when, with no more electrical knowledge than that possessed by the average telegraph operator, I gave up a promising position as train dispatcher on the New York Central to take up the then new work of wireless telegraphy. A short time before this, Marconi had startled the world by successfully sending and receiving telegraphic signals over a short distance without wires. De Forest, who was then a young student at Yale, took up research work in this unknown field of "wireless," and thereby became one of the first American experimenters to turn his entire attention to this work. When I joined him, practically all of my friends and relatives with the exception of my father chided me and advised against the move. My father thought best to let me choose my own career, and while he never lived to listen to modern radio, he was familiar with and proud of the achievement I had made up to the time he passed away. The railroad position carried a large salary with abundant opportunity for advancement, while my new "job" paid only a meagre amount and offered no apparent assurance of a future. The idea of communicating through space without wires was at that time considered fantastic, an idle dream, an impossibility, a game for fools. Many thought it was a fake.


SO, AFTER "burning my bridges behind me," I went to St. Louis and joined De Forest at the World's Fair where he was planning the first public wireless exhibit. Immediately, my troubles began.
    Due to some slip in the arrangement, I found, upon my arrival, that our "financier" had decided upon another man for the job, and the company could not afford to pay two employees. After some scheming on ways and means, the two of us decided to double up on the salary question, and in that way we both stayed. Within a week or two I was chosen as special assistant to De Forest because I could telegraph while he could not. From that time on, and for many years, I was perhaps closer to him in his interesting work than any other of his employees. Subsequent events and severe trials in which I stood by him through thick and thin convinced me that he appreciated my efforts. Others of his employees likewise never deserted him through even his most crucial periods. He called us his "Old Guard" and we were as faithful as Napoleon's followers. Our working mottoes were, "Never say die," and "You can't stop a Yank." We never accepted failure as a finality, but tried to find out why we met it, and then attempted to overcome it. Wireless Auto #1
    At that time there was, of course, no radio public, and the range of wireless was only a few miles. The sending and receiving instruments were unbelievably crude, resembling in no way the marvels of today. Messages were sent at the snail-like pace of a few words per minute, in the dots, spaces, and dashes of the Morse code, instead of the International code which is now generally used. Sending music or talking by wireless was then undreamed of. There were many mountainous obstacles to meet and conquer before we even had the vision of a wireless telephone, which was the forerunner of radio.


ONE of the first changes to be accomplished by De Forest was to use a headphone for receiving instead of the telegraph sounder used by Marconi in early experiments. The first receiving device was called a "coherer" and was made of a glass tube filled with metal filings. These filings "cohered" when the ether impulse passed through them, thus making an electrical circuit which caused the sounder to click. This method was extremely crude and inaccurate, and the device had the unpleasant habit of occasionally failing to "de-cohere." In other words it would not go back to normal after the signal had passed through. It was sometimes necessary to tap the tube with a pencil in the left hand while writing with the right. Short words we guessed at, while long words were so badly disjointed that we figured those out as a child does a rebus puzzle. DeForest Tower
    The apparatus for sending was a Ruhmkorff induction coil with a vibrator on one end. Direct current was used in the coil and the vibrator converted it into alternating current of slow oscillations as compared with those used to-day. The power used then to send six miles would to-day send almost six thousand.
    One of Dr. De Forest's earliest achievements was to produce a transmitter operated by alternating current of high frequency. This gave a strong firm spark and signal far superior in carrying quality, and far easier to read than the thin weak notes from an induction coil. The transformer coils were specially wound, and near at hand were placed a "spark gap" and "helix" or tuning coil, and thus "tuning the signals" was brought into reality. Then we started to talk about certain waves of different lengths, etc., and we used the tuning fork as an illustration. Mathematics had no place in the embryo radio of those days as it was many years before we learned how to measure the wavelengths and use such complicated and fearful sounding terms as of meters, kilocycles, etc. Leyden-jar condensers of various kinds of hookups were placed across the "spark-gap," and we noted the phenomenon of changing the pitch or note the spark as we changed the capacity of jars. We found that this new form of transmitter easily outranked the old induction coil, so a decided step in advance was made. Little did we then think that this was the beginning of the rocky, curved road over which radio was to pass before reaching its goal of to-day.

M ANY experiments were carried on to find a more sensitive receiver than the coherer. We knew nothing about "rectification" then. There were no text books on the subject, nor any radio editors to write to for advice. We were merely electrical eccentrics playing with a dream, so one guess in the way of an experiment was usually as good as another. One day, while working on receivers, it was discovered that a salvy mixture of various ingredients reproduced the signals in the headphone. The "discovery" was thoroughly tried out but found lacking in any definite merit, although it did get as far as to receive a name. It was called the "goo" receiver, and I believe that somewhere in the archives of the Patent Office may be found a formal application for a patent made for it by Dr. De Forest. Finally the electrolytic receiver was introduced. This was such an advance over anything previously introduced that it seemed to be the height of perfection. It consisted of a small glass cell containing a dilute solution of caustic potash and water which formed one anode of the circuit. Into this solution was immersed a cathode point, and the incoming wave was rectified by electrolytic action. Fessenden employed a fine wire coated with silver which was dipped into nitric acid to burn off the coating and make a fine whisker point. De Forest used a different type terminal called the "spade electrode" because of the shape of the terminal. This was found to be both practical and sensitive and not subject to "burning off points" in the middle of a message as was that involved in the Fessenden principle. In this circuit was introduced the potentiometer, a name coined for radio work. Pioneer equipment This set also contained the first "variable condenser." Instead of the movable plates so common to-day, we used a small brass tube split in halves lengthwise and rotated one half within the other without moving them backward or forward. We knew nothing about "measuring" capacity. Either our experiment worked or it didn't. If it failed, then we would "change things" until it did work.


IT WAS always characteristic of De Forest to call every new item discovered by a simple homely name which was significant of the act it did or the thing it resembled. Most of the names coined by him many years ago, are still used in radio to-day. Some of these are the "fan" antenna, the "helix", the "spade" electrode, the "pancake" tuner, the "spiderweb" tuner, the "wing" (now called plate), the "grid" of the audion bulb; the A and B battery; and audio and radio frequency.
    The first transmitters made were of 4-K.W. power. They were soon supplanted by a 10-K.W. set. It was this latter size that was used on the large 300-foot steel tower erected on the World's Fair Grounds at St. Louis. Two spacious elevators carried visitors to the top of this observation tower where the wireless instruments were installed. Many amusing incidents happened. One day, a lady desiring her full share of information, listened intently to our explanation of wireless and then bluntly told me in front of the crowd that the whole thing was a fake. She agreed that we "sent without wires," but she insisted we did this by using a silk thread instead of a wire between the two stations, thus making it "wireless." Many persons would go outside and look up to see if anything was visible from the top of the mast when the signals left.
    From this tower we transmitted daily news to the St. Louis Star and the Post-Dispatch, a distance of five miles. Thus was established the first newspaper radio service, and the reprint from the Post-Dispatch during the third week of June, 1904, is the first radio news message to be flashed through the air and published in a newspaper upon a predetermined and established schedule.

Post-Dispatch Sending Station for World's Fair News Fairly
Sings as Words Leaps Across the Copy--Visitors
Attracted Manifest Keen Interest.

Via  De  Forest  Wireless.     

    Flashing messages through space from the Fair to the office of the Post-Dispatch continues to be the wonder of Fair visitors and crowds watch the process from morning until night.
    The flash of 20,000 volts every time the operator presses his key is to them a thing of fascination. Then they turn from it to look from the great De Forest tower out eastward across the large city, but they see no sign of the message which the clicking instrument is sending out there through space.
    Sometimes they stop the operator at his work to ask him if it is really so. They shake their heads in amazement when he answers yes, and explains that in the Post-Dispatch office another instrument is ticking in response to his, and thus carrying Fair news to the newspaper and the world. The loud
buzzing of the powerful instrument surrounding the operator 200 feet above the ground in the De Forest tower does not prevent the visitors from crowding about him.
    It is so loud that the operator must keep his ears full of cotton. It fairly deafens visitors and sending them away with a headache if they stay too long, but nevertheless they stay, for the power of the mystery is very great.
    This buzzing is caused by the powerful electric spark which the operator's key releases and corresponds to the click of the ordinary wire telegraph instrument. The dots and dashes are so audible that operators for telegraph companies and the police and fire departments anywhere within two blocks of the wireless tower amuse themselves with reading the wireless messages as they are buzzed off by the sending operator.
--Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during 3rd Week of June, 1904.

Saint Louis Fair Exhibit


AT NIGHT the tower was illuminated by thousands of electric lights which could be seen for many miles. In addition to this station, another exhibit was maintained in the Electricity Building and from both places we demonstrated "wireless" to endless streams of curious people. In an adjoining booth was displayed "Wireless Auto No. 1," which was the very first wireless automobile. Its range of reception was only a few blocks but it always created much interest whenever it was driven about the streets or viewed at its exhibitor's stand. Its design of chassis in comparison with present-day automobiles shows its antiquity.
    Not content with the honors the 10-K.W. station had won for him, De Forest started a special experimental station on the western limits of the Fair Grounds near the Boer War Exhibit. The object of this was to increase distance of transmission. Obviously there were but two methods by which this could be done. We had either to increase the power of the transmitter or develop the sensitivity of the receiver. The former plan was adopted and a twenty-kilowatt station was planned--of exactly twice the power used in any previous experiment. It seemed as though when we doubled our power we increased our troubles at a compound ratio. As there were no stations operating at that time it was not necessary to concern ourselves about selectivity of tuning. The immense void of ether above us was free to use without the least fear of interference.
    I was placed in charge of this station, where, in company with Dr. De Forest, we experimented for many weeks in privacy and free from the madding crowds around the other wireless exhibits.
    The new experimental station was called the "Jerusalem station" because of its proximity to the Jerusalem Exhibit. It was the first high-powered station in the world. It was soon found that many of the principles employed in the ten-kilowatt station did not apply to the new station with its 60,000 volts of oscillating current. Heretofore we had been handling just a big lot of current, while now, comparatively, we were playing with miniature lightning of static electricity and did not know very well how to handle it. DeForest Lab


THE spark-gap condensers, instead of being Leyden jars, were made in heavy two-inch plank boxes, seven feet long, two and one half feet high and equally wide, and liquid-tight to hold kerosene. Immersed therein were two large sections of plate glass upon which heavy sheets of tinfoil were pasted on both sides. Each complete tray weighed about a ton, and from four to six of these tanks were used. Huge transformers six or seven feet high "stepped up" the tremendous voltage. The spark gaps had terminals one and one half inches in diameter upon which cold blast of air from an electric blower was constantly blown. Telegraph keys, even of extra large design, were impossible to use. We devised a long handle arrangement operated like a pump. The contact points were encased in a tank of oil to prevent arcing and fusing. Imagine pumping water at the old town pump for half an hour,--that's how we sent signals before we discovered a better way. Our test signal was always the Morse letter "D" consisting of "dash, dot, dot." This would be sent out for hours at a time. We occasionally changed the helix adjustment or the condensers.
    Our experiments continued to result in nothing but one failure after another. Sometimes, after days and nights of hard, painstaking work building up the series of condensers we would "blow up" the entire set in an instant, smashing the heavy glass plates to small pieces, blowing kerosene all over us and over the premises, only to gather up the fragments, rebuild with new glass and tinfoil, change the experiment, and try another hook-up. Static electricity was so free and unharnessed in this station, that it was not at all uncommon to get a "poke" in the head or elbow if one came within a foot of the apparatus while it was sending. The roar from the spark gap could be heard a block away and it held its own in noise intensity with the ballyhoo bagpipe of the Jerusalem Exhibit on the one side and the cannonading in the Boer War Exhibit on the other. The odor of ozone, mixed with kerosene, was always present.
    And hour after hour, one of us was listening-in with the headphones with ears strained to the utmost. Nothing in that long period of experimentation was more tiresome than this. Arc demo


THUS, blazing the radio trail, we encountered the immensity of space. We listened-in on this infinite space and heard nothing. The silence was at times unbearable; the waiting, nerve racking; but always there were hope and expectancy. It was a royal game of angling. We changed things, fussed and fussed and experimented, still hearing nothing except an occasional rift of static which at that time was a blessing, because it meant that we were at least "getting something." Oftentimes we were awed at the thing we were trying to do. There was something uncanny in trying to snatch the tangible out of the intangible nothingness of the free air. No wonder people doubted our sanity. However, our longest waits were always rewarded, and finally, we accomplished what we had aimed to do. The thrill then was indescribable because the very thing we had just accomplished had never before been done by man. We never thought then that in our little way we were piecing together some of the foundation stones of the huge radio structure which exists to-day. In his memoirs of those days, Dr. De Forest writes:
    "Night and day there is no respite from care, from toil, from interest. But it is a life well worth the living, the full accomplishment such, perchance, as is not given to many. Those who once enter this work, on whom the enticing spell of the wireless once falls, never quit it, no matter what the demands on patience, nor how great the sacrifices--always hopeful, always in effort, fascinating forever."
1907-1924 tubes
Mr. Butler is holding a De Forest audion tube made in 1907 and contrasting it with a tube made by the same company in 1924. He hazards that the 1907 one is perhaps the oldest tube in existence. The old tube was made with a fragile double filament so that when one burned out, the remaining one could be used. Their life was very short. The grid and "wing" were on opposite sides of the tube. The "wing"--now called the plate--was a flat piece of metal and not a tube as is used to-day

    Control of the apparatus having been achieved, we immediately began to smash records for distance. The first event was on September 5th, when communication was established between St. Louis and Springfield, Ill., a distance of 105 miles. On this occasion, President Francis of the World's Fair sent the following wireless message to Governor Yates of Illinois:

    I salute you as the distinguished executive of a great commonwealth by the modern means of communication, the wireless telegraph, a great achievement of science, of the marvelous advancement of which this universal exposition furnished many interesting evidences. I hope to see you within these grounds often during the remaining three months of the St. Louis World's Fair.

    Shortly afterwards, communication was established with the Railway Exchange Building in Chicago, a distance of 300 miles. In writing of this event of September 18th, 1904, Dr. De Forest says:
    "This was indeed a stride in progress, fulfilling careful promises, crowning long and discouraging efforts. Especially significant was it that the formal opening of the St. Louis-Chicago service should occur on Electricity Day at the Fair with the Jury of Awards and the Delegates of the Electrical Congress present."
    It is amusing to recall the elaborate precautions this austere body of officials took to make certain that this new service was actually by wireless. Some of the party was stationed at Chicago and the remainder at St. Louis. Complete communication was maintained all afternoon to their entire satisfaction, and as a result we were rewarded the Grand Prize which was one of the highest honors bestowed upon any exhibitor.
    Upon the strength of these singular accomplishments the United States Government became so interested that a contract was signed to erect five similar high-powered stations in the West Indies, each station guaranteed to work successfully one thousand miles. This was a distance three times greater than that we had just bridged, but with light heart and high hopes we packed up our tools and started south for new worlds to conquer. Little did we dream of the tremendous difficulties awaiting us and the months of tedious, sweltering days ahead before our task was accomplished.

The next article of this series will describe and illus-
trate the events of this tropical venture.