Historical Imagination

a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman

The death of Calvert DeForest last Monday triggered a weird flurry of thoughts. There wasn’t much to say about it, though I couldn’t quit thinking about the factoid that Larry “Bud” Melman was the nephew of Lee DeForest, inventor of the triode. Both men were not strangers to the intellectual property circus—Calvert lost his stage name to NBC, and DeForest won a hollow battle establishing himself as the father of feedback. But there is divergence.

Calvert DeForest will have no funeral and leaves no survivors. His web site has already left the Internet, and no real details of his personal life/interests outside of his fictional caricature/signature are accessible. Lee DeForest, however, has left a strong trail of autobiographies and papers—both personal and professional. Lee DeForest was falsely accused of misleading the public over the possibility of transmitting radio signals across the Atlantic, while Calvert DeForest referred to the public as “suckers.”

I never watch David Letterman. I don’t find him funny. Calvert DeForest is a different story. I first saw Calvert in the Run DMC video “King of Rock.”. The video, interestingly enough, is about creative history. I find it curious that the “fluff” of Calvert’s career deliberately obscures any “stuff” that a researcher might hope to uncover. But perhaps it’s because his persona was the charge of “Big Look Management” (also the home of other small-box notables like Yasmine Bleeth). The website expired, as his persona did, after the cliché fifteen minutes. Vanished, without much of a trace. Small scale, and small time.

This is the antistrophe to what Bruce Sterling labeled as the “Cahill factor.” The telharmonium was big in scale and ambition—yet it vanished with few traces. If only Thadeus Cahill had taken Lee DeForest’s advice and broadcast instead of relying on the wired network, perhaps we’d all be tuning in. The audion piano ultimately survives, genetically at least, in analog synthesizers. But perhaps we just have to get used to people and things having increasingly shorter expiration dates. I wonder if the disappearance/ disrepair of celebrity sites might be termed the “Calvert factor”? The litany of dead media which Sterling rattles off at the New Media and Social Memory conference has a certain genetic similarity to the rock and roll museum curated by Calvert DeForest in King of Rock; neither history has any function beyond second banana for the romance of the new.