The First Electronic Church of America
Edwin Howard Armstrong is the father of FM radio and the grandfather of radar and a great grandfather of space communication, but he never reaped the full reward of his genius. He was born on December 18, 1890 in New York City and died on February 1, 1954, alone and in disgrace.
Young Howard Armstrong had been so full of life. In his teens, he was charged with energy, and totally wrapped up in radio. He liked girls, but he was too busy to date. He studied his head off at Columbia University. He drove a red motorcycle. He liked to climb towers and hang from his heels when he got to the top. And he was always ready to question the untested (and frequently wrong) theories of some of his professors.
Armstrong didn't invent radio. Alexander Popov and Guglielmo Marconi and Lee de Forest get the credit for that. But, in 1912, at the age of 22, Armstrong found out for himself how Lee de Forest's radio tube really worked -- and redesigned it by taking the electromagnetic waves (or electrons) that came from a radio transmission and feeding the signal back through the tube again and again, each time increasing its power as much as 20,000 times a second. He called the phenomenon "regeneration." It was the most important advance in the young history of radio -- because, when the feedback was increased beyond a critical level, the tube gave forth an oscillation that created its own radio waves. Armstrong made the de Forest tube into a transmitter as well as a receiver. It not only amplified radio signals. It generated them as well. And this advance made all the difference. Now radio engineers no longer needed 20-ton generators to get their stations on the air.
Armstrong patented his discovery in 1913, and licensed it to the Marconi company in 1914. And then he was off to France to fight in World War I. On the battlefields of western Europe, Captain Armstrong discovered that the American Expeditionary Force had little or no radio. Almost single handedly, he remedied that situation -- on the ground, and in the air. He personally designed and outfitted the fledging Allied air force with radios, often going up and testing them himself. Then, while still stationed in Paris, he invented something then called the superheterodyne receiver, a complex bit of electronic sorcery that is still basic to the tuner found in almost every radio and television and radar.
In 1920, Westinghouse bought Armstrong's patent for the superheterodyne receiver, and started up the nation's first radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh. It signalized its accomplishment by broadcasting the election returns that brought Warren G. Harding to the White House. All of a sudden, radio was the craze of the post- war period. Kids in America started making their own crystal sets. Other manufacturers started making their own brand of "radiola." Other stations came on the air. Though all this, Marconi's company, the Radio Corporation of America, had been sitting on the sidelines, content to concentrate on its international telegraph business. But not for long. RCA soon bought up all of Westinghouse's radio patents, and those of AT &T and any others who had them, including Armstrong's patents for regeneration.
Another radio pioneer, Lee deForest, objected. He said regeneration was his idea, and started legal procedures with the U.S. Patent Office. He lost his case, but then went on to pursue appeals against Armstrong in the federal courts for almost two decades. He lost his case at every step of the way, and then, in a legal fluke, won his final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. Much to the outrage of scientists and engineers from coast to coast, a Supreme Court judge misunderstood the case, and ended up siding with de Forest.
So did RCA. If de Forest won his suit against Armstrong, RCA would retain control of its patent for an extra ten years. So RCA gave no help to Armstrong, even though the company lawyers knew what the truth was. The truth was that Armstrong had helped create an industry which, in 1934, a depression year, was worth almost $2 billion. Everybody -- RCA, Zenith, Philco, Magnavox, Motorola and Crosley -- they were all turning fantastic profits, using Armstrong's inventions.
And Armstrong went on inventing. He started working on radio's static problem, experimenting with what would later become known as frequency modulation, something that other scientists had already decided wouldn't work. One of the experts, John Renshaw Carson, a researcher at Bell Laboratories, said, "I have proved, mathematically, that this type of modulation inherently distorts without any compensating advantages whatsoever. Static, like the poor, will always be with us."
Armstrong was undaunted. He said, "I could never accept findings based almost exclusively on mathematics. It ain't ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It's the things people know that ain't so."
But Carson had done Armstrong a favor. He'd persuaded other researchers to abandon their work on FM, leaving Armstrong a clear field. But it would not be an easy run. Armstrong worked for years, evolving new theories about radio transmission, turning past theory on its head, building new kinds of transmitters in his lab at Columbia, and radically more complex receivers. Armstrong completed his first field test on June 9, 1934 -- sending an organ recital, via both AM and FM, from an RCA tower on top of the Empire State Building to the home of a trusted old friend on Long Island. The FM organ came through loud and clear. The AM version had "hundreds of thousands times more static." He did other tests, at longer distances, during the "summer static" season. Not only did those experiments work. Armstrong proved that the signal did not fade at the perimeter as AMs did.
FM not only eliminated static. It also produced a better sound, three times better than AM. Listeners could distinguish the on-air differences between the whine of a rip saw and the huff of a cross cut. Furthermore, FM delivered sounds that spanned the full range of the human ear -- from the deep rumble of a kettle drum to the delicate keening of a flute, spanning a range between 50 cycles and 15,000 cycles. At best, AM delivered 5,000 cycles. Armstrong had discovered hi-fi. Armstrong also found that a single FM carrier wave could transmit two radio programs at once, a telegraph message and a facsimile of the front page of The New York Times. He'd discovered multiplexing.
During World War II, Armstrong did important research on long range radar for the War Department and gave his FM patents to the military for no fee, an important gift, once the U.S. commanders realized that the German army traveled on AM, which they could easily jam. FM was unjammable. By the end of the war, Armstrong had developed his continuous wave FM radar to the point where he was able to bounce a radio signal 238,000 miles -- to the moon and back again. He had proven that FM waves, unlike AM waves, could penetrate the ionosphere. That paved the way for radio communication in space, and it gave astronomers a new tool to measure distances from the earth to the ends of the universe.
By the end of World War II, FM had been proven. Much to the disgust of RCA's David Sarnoff. "I thought Armstrong would invent some kind of a filter to remove static from our AM radio. I didn't think he'd start a revolution -- start up a whole damn new industry to compete with RCA." Furthermore, FM was a distraction. Sarnoff wanted RCA to put its resources into the development of television, which was taking up huge chunks of RCA's working capital. "A new kind of radio," said Sarnoff, "is like a new kind of mouse trap. The world doesn't need another mousetrap."
Sarnoff stalled Armstrong by ordering RCA engineers to keep asking for more tests, and by lobbying the FCC to deny Armstrong an experimental license to test FM. He even made an unsuccessful attempt to steal Armstrong's FM patents by filing an interference with the U.S. Patent Office. Armstrong fought back on every front. Mainly, he plunged ahead with his own plans for FM, by selling a large block of his stock in RCA and building his own FM station on the New Jersey Palisades near New York City.
And he got General Electric to start working with him. GE made a discovery of its own. FM signals did not interfere with one another. An FM radio simply picked up the stronger signal. This meant that a number of low-power stations could operate in close proximity, and that more stations could use a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
And so, FM stations started to proliferate. There were already 40 of them in 1939. In May 1940, the FCC allotted the 42-50 megacycle band to FM radio; in two months, it received more than 500 FM applications, and still others continued to pour in. The National Television Standards Committee decided that FM should be the standard for the audio portion of the TV broadcast signal. Armstrong was sanguine. He predicted, "In three or four years, there will be more FM listeners than there are now for AM.
He was right. But Armstrong would see no personal rewards for all his work and all his genius. Now he found that RCA and all of America's big communication giants were teaming up to stifle FM, and take away all the rewards Armstrong had been waiting for. He'd expected royalties on the manufacture of FM receivers. He expected to negotiate contracts with FM broadcasters. He also expected royalties on every TV set sold -- in the U.S. and, eventually, abroad, for TV's sound system was his -- FM.
But that wasn't going to happen. RCA tried to circumvent Armstrong's patents, and began producing televisions with his sound system, but paying him nothing, and then, finally, offering him $1 million for a non-exclusionary license. It was something like a scene from the Old West, the rich rancher going to his upstart competitor next door and saying, "I'm going to give you $1 million for your spread. Do you want me to pay you, or do want me to pay your widow?"
Congress moved to an inquiry, with Sen Charles W. Tobey of New Hampshire taking the lead on Armstrong's side. Sen. Tobey said, "RCA has been doing everything it can to keep Armstrong down. They did their damnedest to ruin FM. At the same time, they were supplying free TV sets to commissioners of the FCC."
The Congressional inquiry went nowhere. In 1948, Armstrong turned to the courts -- charging open theft, infringement on five of his basic FM patents. RCA responded with an army of lawyers who tied him up for six years with trickery, truth-twisting, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, and botheration. RCA had time.
For Armstrong, time was running out. RCA could afford the legal fees. Armstrong had to sell many of his assets, including his stock in Zenith and RCA and Standard Oil, for $200,000. With all of his other expenses, including the expense of running his research facility at Columbia University, Armstrong could afford to pay only $22,000 to his lawyers. By 1954, he was ready to settle. He asked RCA for $2.4 million. RCA countered with $200,000, less than the outstanding bill for his legal fees. Armstrong appealed to his wife, Marion. Would she advance him some of the money he had given her years ago? She objected. That was the money for their retirement.
Exhausted and out of hope, frustrated by all the litigation, Armstrong exploded in a great rage. He swung a poker at Marion. The blow landed on her arm. She fled to her sister in Connecticut. Armstrong had shattered his happy marriage of nearly 30 years. He spent Christmas and New Year's alone in his New York apartment. Then, on January 31, 1954, he wrote a final letter to Marion.
Next morning, Edwin Howard Armstrong put on his hat and coat, wrapped a scarf around his neck and walked out the window of his apartment on the 13th floor.
David Sarnoff told the press, "I did not kill Armstrong."
A month later, Sarnoff announced at RCA's annual meeting that the company had reached an all-time high earnings of more than $850 million. At the end of that meeting, one man stood before his fellow stockholders and told them to "have faith and confidence in Uncle Sam of the United States of America and in Daddy David of RCA."
Armstrong's lawyers stuck with Armstrong's widow, working on contingency until they finaly squeezed a settlement out of RCA: Marion would get a little more than a million dollars, the same amount that Sarnoff had offered Armstrong in 1940. In effect, Sarnoff had finally gotten an answer to the question: "Do you want me to pay you, or your widow?"