Biographical / Historical
Allen Balcom Du Mont was born Jan. 29, 1901, in Brooklyn, NY to S. William Henry Beaman and Lillian Felton Balcom Du Mont. He contracted poliomyelitis when he was eleven and was confined to bed for nearly a year. During his illness, he began to amuse himself with a crystal radio set; by year's end, he had built a receiving and transmitting set. He was licensed as a ship's wireless operator when he was fifteen, and took a job a year later as a radio operator on a passenger vessel that ran between New York and Providence, RI. He worked as a radio operator for the next seven years.
Du Mont graduated in 1924 from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, with a degree in electrical engineering. He had already begun his first invention for the Sound Operated Circuit Controller, a device that turns a switch on or off when it hears a sharp sound; he used it to turn off his radio during commercials with a hand clap. Du Mont began working for the Westinghouse Lamp Company (later a division of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation), raising their output of radio tubes from 500 a day to 5,000 an hour in four years. For this, he received the Westinghouse Achievement Award in 1927. He left Westinghouse to become chief engineer at the De Forest Radio Company in 1928; his inventions increased output there to 30,000 radio tubes a day, and he was promoted to vice president in charge of production. In 1929, he received his first patent, for a radio tube mounting device.
He also worked with television at De Forest, using mechanical receivers with a spinning "Nipkow disk" that scanned electrical impulses and gave the effect of a motion picture. The De Forest experimental transmitter, W2XCD, in Passaic, NJ, broadcast television programs in 1930. Du Mont quickly concluded that there was no future in scanning discs; they produced a small, dark picture, and were difficult to build correctly. Others had developed television pictures that were produced by an electronic beam scanning rapidly across a florescent screen at the end of a tube. However, those cathode ray tubes were still imported from Germany, were very expensive, and burned out after only twenty five to thirty hours.
Du Mont left his job at De Forest in 1931 and started a cathode ray manufacturing business in a garage laboratory at his home. He developed a tube that lasted a thousand hours and could be manufactured inexpensively. There was almost no market for his tubes; gross sales income the first year was only $70. However, the tubes were an integral part of the cathode ray oscillograph, an instrument widely used in physics laboratories that measures and records changes in electrical current over time. The business, incorporated in 1935 as DuMont Laboratories, Inc., prospered in the oscillograph market. DuMont Labs moved in 1933 into a series of empty stores, then to a plant in Passaic, NJ, in 1937. Du Mont also acted as consultant to manufacturers with cathode ray tube problems and served as an expert witness in patent litigations.
Du Mont used the money he made from oscillographs to develop television. His innovations in making precise, quickly manufactured, inexpensive, long lasting cathode ray tubes made commercial television possible. In 1938, Du Mont sold a half interest in his company to the Paramount Pictures Corporation to raise capital for broadcasting stations. In 1939, the company became the first to market a television receiver for homes, and was part of a major display at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Television development and sales were cut off by World War II, since DuMont Laboratories converted entirely to wartime production of oscillographs and to radar research. DuMont Laboratories returned to television production in 1946 and was the first company to market a postwar television set. By 1951 the company grossed $75 million a year and had four plants manufacturing television sending and receiving equipment in Passaic, Allwood, East Paterson, and Clifton, NJ. Du Mont had become the television industry's first millionaire. He was chosen in a Forbes magazine poll as one of the twelve foremost business leaders of America that same year, and was once characterized as "one of the very few inventors in the annals of American industry who have made more money from their inventions than anyone else has" (Rice, 36).
Du Mont began an experimental television station, W2XTV, in Passaic, NJ, in 1939. He added WABD (later WNEW TV) in New York City, WTTG in Washington, D.C., and WDTV (later KDKA) in Pittsburgh, PA. He concentrated on technology and business, leaving entertainment to others in the company. However, the DuMont Network "featured such names as Ernie Kovacs, Morey Amsterdam, Ted Mack, Ernest Borgnine, Jan Murray, and Dennis James. Its long running variety hour, Cavalcade of Stars, showcased not only Jackie Gleason but The Honeymooners, which made its debut as a Cavalcade sketch" (Krampner, 98). The 1950s superhero Captain Video became famous on the DuMont network, and Bishop Fulton Sheen's inspirational show, "Life is Worth Livinq," won surprisingly high ratings (Watson, 17). Ultimately, America's fourth network failed: in 1955, DuMont Broadcasting separated from Du Mont Laboratories, Inc., becoming the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company and, with the addition of other properties, Metromedia, Inc.
Du Mont testified frequently before the Federal Communications Commission to set technical standards for American television broadcast between 1945 and 1952. In 1946, Du Mont's company was one of several to oppose the Columbia Broadcasting System's petition to the FCC to establish color television standards; Du Mont preferred to wait for further research to develop all electronic color television, rather than the mechanical method CBS favored. He felt that method produced a picture far less than optimal, and would have required persons who did not own color sets to purchase adapters to receive broadcasts being produced in color. Standards were developed by the National Television Standards Committee in 1951 1953; the Federal Communications Commission accepted them in 1953, and regular transmission of color programs began on the major networks, including the DuMont Network, in 1954.
Sales of television receivers from DuMont Laboratories, Inc. peaked in 1954; by the late 1950s, the company was losing money. The Emerson Radio and Phonograph Company purchased the division that produced television sets, phonographs, and high fidelity and stereo equipment in 1958. In 1960 remaining Du Mont interests merged with the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation. Du Mont was president of DuMont Laboratories, Inc., until 1956, when he became chairman of the Board of Directors. His title changed to Chairman and General Manager in 1959. In 1961 he became Senior Technical Advisor, Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories, Division of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation.
Du Mont received many awards for his work, including honorary doctorates from Rennselaer (1944), Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (1949), Fairleigh Dickinson College (1955), and New York University (1955). He received the Marconi Memorial Medal for Achievement in 1945, and an American Television society award in 1943 for his contributions to the field. In 1949, he received the Horatio Alger Award, "a yearly prize bestowed by the American Schools and Colleges Association on the man whose rise to fortune most nearly parallels the virtuous careers of Ben the Luggage Boy and Tattered Tom" (Rice, 35). He held more than thirty patents for developments in cathode ray tubes and other television devices. His inventions included the "magic eye tube" once commonly seen on radios and the Duovision, a television that could receive two programs simultaneously. Du Mont was also noted for success in predicted log power boat racing; in his television equipped Hurricane III, he became the national champion of the power cruiser division of the American Power Boat Association in 1953 1955 and 1958. Du Mont died November 15, 1965; his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times. He was survived by Ethel Martha Steadman, whom he married in 1926, and their two children, Allen Balcom, Jr., and Yvonne.
Current Biography 1946, pp. 162 164. Krampner, Jon. "The Death of the DuMont [sic] Network: A Real TV Whodunit." Emmy Magazine (July August 1990): 96 103.
Obituary, New York Times, 16 November 1965, 1:3.
Rice, Robert. "The Prudent Pioneer." The New Yorker, 27 Jan. 1951.
Watson, Mary Ann. "And they Said 'Uncle Fultie Didn't Have a Prayer . . . "11 Television Quarterly 26, no. 3(1993): 16 21.
Who's Who in America, 1962.