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August 26

Lee de Forest

A lifelong inventor, Lee de Forest held 180 patents for everything from Phonofilm to a wireless telegraph.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1873: Mister Sound Man
Lee de Forest is born in Council Bluffs, Iowa
Can you imagine a movie without sound accompanying the action? Lee de Forest is the guy who first gave sound to movies in a synchronized way. Invented in 1920, his Phonofilm process made it possible to link the sound and the images on the screen.

Sure, there had been sound in films before this time, but it might have been, say, a scene of a car driving by and a random horn blowing on the soundtrack. De Forest’s technology made it possible for a car and its beep to be linked together.

Basically, de Forest found a way to use a photocell to “read” light and dark areas on the film, then convert them to an audio track matching the action. For his accomplishment, de Forest received a special Oscar® in 1959.
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