The Tragic Life Story of the Invention of FM

For the most part, it can be fun to read and writev about the history of radio and some of the interestingvfacts about how radio works. Sometimes, however, the darker side of radio's past looms large. Such is the case of the story of Edwin Howard Armstrong. Armstrong's innovative mind led him to three of the most significant inventions in the history of radio and electronics. It also led him into a fight he just couldnt win. Here's a brief account of his story.

While Lee De Forest was working on his Audion at AT&T, Armstrong, then a young undergraduate at Columbia University in New York, was just about to make his first impact on the future of electronics. In 1912, during his third year at Columbia, Armstrong discovered a way to improve the reception qualities of De Forest's Audion: a regenerative circuit. By feeding a radio transmission's waves back through the Audion tube, Armstrong boosted his radio's reception, and in so doing, created the first radio amplifier. Armstrong also noticed that if he repeatedly cycled the electromagnetic waves (of the radio signal) through the tube, the tube itself would begin to act as a transmitter. With this breakthrough, radio stations would no longer have to rely on large, expensive generators for their transmitters. Armstrong had entered the annals of radio history.

The success of young Armstrong's regenerative circuit prompted De Forest to claim that he had invented it himself. De Forest pushed his case through the U.S. Patent Office, and lost. But he was persistent, and eventually maneuvered his case against Armstrong through federal courts and finally to the U. S. Supreme Court. There, in a decision that still upsets historians, scientists and radio engineers alike, a U.S. Supreme Court Judge apparently misunderstood the case before him, and actually ruled in favor of De Forest.

Undeterred by the Court's decision, Armstrong kept working and inventing. During World War I, Armstrong followed up his discovery of the regenerative circuit, with the superheterodyne receiver. That's quite a mouthful. In simple terms, the superheterodyne receiver is the mechanism in a radio that lets you choose between stations –– the radio tuner. Another success for Armstrong, and another entry into the annals of radio history. His third significant invention, however, would ultimately lead to his demise –– as it pit a single man against a very determined corporation, RCA.

In 1934, Armstrong succeeded in something his contemporary scientists had dismissed as outright impossible. He'd managed to send a static-free signal on the Frequency Modulation –– Armstrong had invented FM radio. RCA was not happy. In the years before Armstrong's invention of FM, RCA had gone out of its way to become the major force in U.S. radio. They'd bought the radio patents from Westinghouse and AT&T, and were about to make a serious commitment to Television. The advent of a new, static-free form of radio with higher fidelity signaled a technology RCA just wasn't interested in grooming for the future. RCA would rather have stuck to TV and AM.

For the next several years, and into Armstrong's untimely, and sad demise, RCA put up obstacles to his invention of FM and his ability to reap any financial rewards from it. RCA encouraged the FCC to block Armstrong's experiments with FM; they contested his patents with the U.S. Patent Office, and they refused to work with him on expanding FM technology. All the while, RCA started putting FM receivers into their television sets –– using Armstrong's invention, but refusing to acknowledge his role.

The attorney fees of fighting RCA and the cost of maintaining his own lab at Columbia eventually bankrupted Armstrong. Finally, overwhelmed by the shadows cast over his own life as an inventor and as a troubled husband, Armstrong walked out of his thirteenth story window in February, 1954. By then, FM had surpassed AM, and RCA had become an ultimate powerhouse in the electronics industry. RCA eventually paid Armstrong's wife, Marion, a settlement of just over a million dollars. And so one of the more somber threads of radio history came to an end.

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