Audion, error turns to invention.

Reading Where Great Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson last week. I learned that Lee deForest (the grandfather of radio) accidentally invented the Audion which went of to be the vacuum tube.

The story goes that a Bunsun burner in his bedroom laboratory in 1903 changed colour when he sparked his spark gap transmitter. What is a spark gap transmitter?

The spark gap transmitter is a descendent of an Irish invention. The Induction Coil was invented by Rev Nicholas Callan in Maynooth in 1836.

The blue flame of deForest’s Bunsen burner changed to red when the spark gap transmitter was activated. According to Johnson’s book this was an error. The flame change was not created by the massive all band electromagnetic pulse from the transmitter but was caused by more simple wave, an acoustic soundwave or air being pushed.

Never the less the error set deForest off on a tangent that would lead him to invent the Audion which was a very ineffective but much needed amplifier. The Audion was later improved by placing its gates inside a vacuum tube.

I was happy to believe this story until tonight I read a story on

Possible truths
1. Lee deForest didn’t understand what he had invented
2. Flames do conduct electromagnetic waves
3. The Audion was not an efficient amplifier
4. The Vacuum Tube was the improvement the Audion needed.

So here is the really interesting thing, deForest though ignorance, blind faith and belligerence invented something from a scientific error that directly led to the ideal solution which is still used to this day in guitar amplifiers.

So sometimes mad scientists invent what conventional scientists will never discover because learned conventions mean they would never be barking at the wrong tree. All hail the mad scientist.

The Martello Tower in Howth was the scene of tests in the early 1900s for deForest and the British Post Office. At the Martello Tower today is The Hurdy Gurdy Radio Museum that has a real working Spark Gap Transmitter. If you ask them nicely they will demonstrate it for you.

1957 Lee de Forest This Is Your Life