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Edwin H. Armstrong: The Rest of the Story
Kirt's Cogitations™ #294

RF Cafe University"Factoids," "Kirt's Cogitations," and "Tech Topics Smorgasbord" are all manifestations of my ranting on various subjects relevant (usually) to the overall RF Cafe theme. All may be accessed on these pages:

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Edwin H. Armstrong (wikipedia photo) - RF CafePaul Harvey's the Rest of the Story - RF CafeOne of my favorite old-time radio personalities, Paul Harvey, had a trademarked feature titled The Rest of the Story. For those of you not familiar with the format, Mr. Harvey would begin his story talking about particular life aspects of a person that, while remarkable, usually had no connection with the person's eventual claim to fame. The listener's challenge was to guess who the person was before it was revealed at the very end, followed by, "... and now you know --- the rest [emphasis] of the story." As far as I know the story of FM radio inventor Edwin H. Armstrong was never a subject, although it certainly met the criterion. I've already let the figurative cat out of the bag, so you already know my subject. However, that probably will not diminish the surprise at the end (for most people).

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age - RF CafeYou likely are familiar with the epic struggle that Nikola Tesla had with Thomas Edison in the contest between adoption of alternating current (Tesla) versus direct current (Edison) as the dominant electrical distribution system in America. It was a take-no-prisoners battle that, as we know, had AC as the victor (see War of the Currents). In the process, even with (eventually) the powerful George Westinghouse as an advocate, poor Mr. Tesla was roundly abused with character assassinations, lawsuits, publicity stunts, and financial trickery. He spent the final years of his life in seclusion.

Lee de Forest: King of Radio, Television, and Film - RF CafeEdwin Armstrong's fate proved to be more tragic. Mr. Armstrong's notoriety was gained in 1914 the as a result of his invention of the regenerative receiver circuit (patent 1,113,149). In 1922 he improved the basic function with a superregenerative circuit design. Those two techniques allowed higher quality reception for listeners already within reach of broadcast towers, and they allowed people who had never been able to receive those signals to tune in for the first time. This sold radio sets and provided a larger base of advertisers (who pay for everything we enjoy for 'free') willing to underwrite expenses. Lee de Forest, whose name you probably recognize as the inventor of the Audion amplifier vacuum tube, was awarded a patent for his own version of a regenerative circuit in 1916, two years after Armstrong's. de Forest sold his patent rights to AT&T and Armstrong spent decades and a lot of money trying to regain control over his patent. Undaunted, he attacked the annoying susceptibility of amplitude modulation (AM) to static electrical noise (lightning, motor brush arcing, etc.) by developing frequency modulation (FM), which was patented in 1933 (patent 1,941,068). RCA Corporation, having worked with Armstrong on FM radio broadcasting and reception, ended up in a legal use rights fight with Armstrong, who wanted to license the technology rather than sell his patents.

As with Nikola Tesla's predicament, a lifetime of legal battles and endless rounds of defamation, deception, and other tactics finally broke the man. On January 31, 1954, Edwin Armstrong committed suicide by climbing out the window of his New York City apartment and falling ten stories to his death. He was as meticulously attired - suit, overcoat, scarf, gloves, and hat - for his death as he was known for being in his life. "God keep you and the Lord have mercy on my soul," closed out the note he left for his wife.

Now you know ...

See also "Major Edwin Armstrong Receives Award from Army Signal Corps" in the August 1944 issue of Radio-Craft.



Posted November 3, 2014

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