Biography of Allen Balcom Du Mont

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Du Mont was a brilliant inventor, television manufacturer and broadcaster. He invented first commercial TV by perfecting cathode ray tube; made radar possible by devising the first TV guidance system for missiles; developed method to locate shrapnel in wounds; invented anti-knock gasoline; durable lacquer for cars, etc.

He founded the company that became Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories. Allen Balcom Du Mont was born on January 29, 1901, in Brooklyn, NY. His father, William, was secretary and treasurer of the Waterbury Clock Company, maker of the celebrated Ingersoll dollar watch.

When the boy was 11 he was stricken by poliomyelitis during an epidemic in the city and was in bed for almost a year. “Maybe this attack of polio I had was a blessing in disguise,” he said years later. His father bought him a crystal radio set and by the time he returned to school he had studied the principles of radio and had built a receiving and transmitting set.

The family moved to Montclair when the young Du Mont was 13. He continued to experiment with radio and received a license as a ship’s wireless operator when he was 15. A year later he took a vacation job on a passenger vessel operating between New York and Providence. For the next seven years he shipped out every summer, once being stranded in Copenhagen for several months by a longshoremen’s strike.

Du Mont obtained High School Diploma from Montclair High School in 1919 and Bachelor of Science, Electrical Engineer, from Rensselaer PolytechnicInstitute in Troy, N.Y. in 1924. He started his career in electronics with the Westinghouse Lamp Company, later a division of the Westinghouse Electric Corp. Westinghouse was making 500 radio tubes a day when he was named engineer in charge of production.

His improvements in testing had raised the output to 50,000 tubes a day by the time he left the company four years later to join the De Forest Radio Company as chief engineer. At De Forest Dr. Du Mont first began working with television, using the whirling disk technique. He helped build the first television transmitter with simultaneous broadcast of sight and sound.

Unable to interest his superiors at De Forest in the cathode ray tube as a better approach to television, Dr. Du Mont, by then promoted to vice president in charge of production, resigned to start his own laboratory. In 1931, even though economic conditions were quite inauspicious for innovators, Dr. Du Mont left a $15,000-a-year position with the De Forest Radio Company and founded Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories, Inc., in his garage with $1000-half of it borrowed.

The company achieved its initial success as the primary U.S. manufacturer of cathode-ray tubes, which had become critical to the electronics industry. Working in a garage laboratory at his home, Dr. Du Mont developed a cathode ray tube that could be manufactured relatively inexpensively and lasted for a thousand hours. Until Dr. Du Mont’s discoveries, cathode ray tubes, the basis of all electronic television, were imported from Germany at high cost. They burned out after 25 or 30 hours. The tubes developed by Du Mont were much better.

Early Du Mont cathode ray tube EX4024P1 Circa late 1930′s; 5″ CRT from oscillograph demonstration unit. It had a power supply only in an open frame wood box for use in classrooms. Selling price in 1948 was $45.00.

There was virtually no market in television at that time for his improved tubes; the gross income from sales the first year was only $70. However, a successful by-product of his television work was the cathode rayoscillograph. While Dr. Du Mont kept at work on television, the laboratory, which was incorporated in 1935 as Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories, Inc., prospered through the sale of oscillographs. With the broadening of the oscillograph market, Dr. Du Mont’s progress was swift. The laboratory soon outgrew the garage at his home, moving first into a series of empty stores and then to a plant in Passaic.

One of Du Mont’s early inventions (1932) was the “tuning eye”, which he sold to RCA for $20,000. “Tuning Eye” is the common name applied to the green-glow tubes (1V3 tube) used in radio equipment to visually assist the listener in tuning a radio station to the point of greatest signal strength. Officially called “Electron-Ray” tubes, they are so named to distinguish them from the cathode-ray tubes used to produce images in television, though the two types share a common ancestry and fundamental architecture.

Dr. Du Mont was a round-faced man with light blue eyes. His early skill as a swimmer (in college he was called the “human fish”) later led to an active interest in yachting. He married Ethel Martha Steadman on October 19, 1926 and they had two children: Allen Balcom Du Mont, Junior, (1929) and Yvonne Du Mont, (1937). Dr. Du Mont’s business success never affected his basic qualities of prudence and preference for a simple life.

He dressed in a haphazard manner and usually carried a slide rule in the breast pocket of his suit coat. One associate said that he would be unlikely to commit himself on how many was six times four without consulting the slide rule. Once, when his wife was pressing him to redecorate his office, equipped with battered furniture that he had used for years, he retorted: “You know, ever since we got successful, all the young fellas in the plant want big, fancy offices. I figure leaving mine this way saves me a lot of arguments.”

In a prophetic statement in 1930, Dr. Du Mont, then still chief engineer for De Forest Radio, told a Government commission at a hearing to obtain a construction permit for a television station: “Television is developing very rapidly and no one can tell what will happen within six months”. With the breakthrough in television after World War II, Dr. Du Mont was to become the industry’s first millionaire. In 1939 his company was the first to market a home television receiver, and by 1951 it was doing a gross business of about $75 million a year.

Early Du Mont TV receivers

Du Mont Model-180 – 14″ picture tube gave an 8″x10″ picture area (22 tubes, 250 Watts, Walnut Cabinet, $395 cost when new).

Released to the public in 1938 before regular television broadcasts were initiated on April 30, 1939. Only four sets are known to exist today.

Du Mont console with 12″ screen and radio, manufactured by Du Mont Television Co., 1946

Du Mont television with continuous tuner, FM radio settings, and tuning eye

Du Mont entered into television broadcasting – first experimentally, then as a commercial venture – in 1938. In fact, the only way to receive NBC-RCA’s historic public broadcast of television outside their 1939 World’s Fair pavilion was on sets made by Du Mont Labs. People were crowding around Du Mont television sets to watch President Franklin Roosevelt open the World’s Fair.

Determined to enter all aspects of television, Dr. Du Mont in 1938 sold a half interest in his company to the Paramount Pictures Corporation, to raise capital for broadcasting stations. Beginning with an experimental station, W2XWV, in 1942, a year later he got a license for WABD (now WNEW-TV) in New York and later added WTTG in Washington and WDTV (now KDKA-TV) in Pittsburgh. In 1955 Du Mont Broadcasting was separated from the Du Mont Laboratories, Inc., first becoming the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company and subsequently, with the addition of other properties, Metromedia, Inc.

Other stations were later joined to create the Du Mont Television Network, which originated programs primarily from its New York studios, beginning at 515 Madison Avenue, then at John Wanamaker’s department store, and finally at the Du Mont Tele-Centre at 205 East 67th Street, where New York’s Channel 5 still has its studios today.

Du Mont Tele-Centre, 515 Madison Ave., 42 stories, 1931, view to the northeast.

Du Mont achieved a number of firsts in commercial television practice, but with little success. He tried to expand his network too rapidly both in the number of affiliates and the number of hours of programming available to affiliates each week. Even as Du Mont was developing into the first commercial television network, the other networks, most notably CBS and NBC, were preparing for the time when rapid network expansion was most feasible-experimenting with various program formats and talent borrowed from their radio networks, as well as encouraging their most prestigious and financially successful radio affiliates to apply for television licenses.

Old Du Mont cameras shooting a TV commerical

Prime-time programming was a major problem for Du Mont. The network would not or could not pay for expensive shows that would deliver large audiences, thereby attracting powerful sponsors. When a quality show drew a large audience in spite of its budget, it was snatched by CBS or NBC. Du Mont televised the occasional successful show, including Cavalcade of Stars (before Jackie Gleason left), Captain Video, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living. The network never seemed to generate enough popular programming to keep it afloat, however – possibly be – cause it lacked the backing of a radio network.

The NBC, CBS and ABC radio networks provided financial support for their television ventures while the fledgling industry was growing-creating what the FCC deemed ‘an ironic situation in which one communications medium financed the development of its competitor.”

Du Mont’s only outside financial assistance came from Paramount Studios between 1938 and 1941. The company created and sold class-B common stock exclusively to Paramount for one dollar per share and a promise to provide affiliation with CBS and NBC. Analysts have suggested that Du Mont’s lack of primary affiliates was a key factor in the network’s demise.

One important factor contributing to the demise of the Du Mont Network was Allen B. Du Mont himself. Many people thought of him as a “bypassed pioneer” with no head for business. Major stockholders began to publicly question the soundness of his decisions, especially his desire to keep the TV network afloat despite major losses. In 1955, concerned holders of large blocks of Du Mont stock began to wrest control from the company founder.

When the fiscally weakened Du Mont corporation spun off its television broadcasting facilities in 1955, Business Week claimed that Du Mont had been forced into television programming in order to provide a market for his TV receivers. No evidence has been found to support this claim, however. In markets where licenses for television stations were being granted during the postwar period, there were sufficient license applicants to provide audiences with programming to stimulate set sales.

One reason Du Mont television sales lagged behind other manufactures was that his sets were of higher quality, and consequently much more expensive. In fact, in 1951 Du Mont cut back television set production by 60%-although profits from this division had been subsidizing the TV network-because other manufactures were undercutting Du Mont’s prices.

After the Du Mont Television Network and its owned- and-operated stations were spun off into a new corporation, there remained only two major divisions of Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories, Inc. In 1958 Emerson Electric Company purchased the Du Mont consumer products manufacturing division. Du Mont was no longer employed by his own company when the last division – oscillograph and cathode-ray tube manufacturing – was sold to Fairchild in 1960. Du Mont was hired by Fairchild as group general manager of the A. B. Du Mont Division of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation until his death in 1965.

Du Mont may have remained in television broadcasting despite fiscal losses in order to uphold the title once given him, ‘the father of commercial television.”

His company pioneered many important elements necessary to the growth and evolution of the industry. Du Mont was the first to synchronize audio and video broadcasting in 1930. Du Mont engineers perfected the use of cathode-ray tubes as TV screens, developed the kinescope process, as well as the “magic eye cathode-ray radio tuning indicator, and the first electronic viewfinder.

Du Mont was an intelligent and energetic engineer who took risks and profited financially from them-becoming history’s first television millionaire. But when the big radio networks entered the field of television, Du Mont was unable to compete with these financially powerful, considerably experienced broadcaster.

Dr. Du Mont received many honors for his work, among them honorary doctorates including Doctor of Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1944) and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (1949), and Doctor of Science from New York University (1955).

He received the Westinghouse Award in 1927, the Marconi Memorial Medal for Achievement in 1945 and an American Television Society award in 1943 for his contributions to the field. He was a recipient of the American Association of Advertising Agencies Gold Medal (1947), of the Horatio Alger Award (1949) and De Forest Medal. He held more than 30 patents for developments in cathode ray tubes and other television devices. Among Dr. Du Mont’s early discoveries was the principle of radar, but he was dissuaded by the Army Signal Corps for security reasons from attempting to patent his findings in 1933.

Dr. Allen Balcom Du Mont became the first American to receive the Cross of Knight, by order of the President of the Republic of France, and became a decorated “Chevalier Order French Legion of Honor”, 1952, for accomplishments in Radar and Television. Besides his achievements in electronics, Dr. Du Mont was noted for victories in predicted-log power boat racing. In his cruiser, Hurricane III, Dr. Du Mont won many trophies for accuracy in navigation and calculation of variables in this sport.

Dr. Allen Balcom Du Mont, a pioneer in the practical development of television, died at Doctors Hospital after a short illness. He was 64 years old.

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