Edwin Howard Armstrong is one of America’s forgotten inventor geniuses. He came to the great American inventor scene just after the titans Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. But his work in the area of radio technology was perhaps the most important of any single inventor in the first fifty years of radio… on at least three occasions, Armstrong invented profoundly important technologies that advanced our understanding of radio.
On the day after Christmas, 1933, four patents were issued to Armstrong for his most significant invention — FM radio. Until then, consumer radio had been amplitude-modulated (AM) radio. The theorists of the day had said that frequency-modulated (FM) radio could never work. They were right about FM radio in a narrow band of spectrum. But Armstrong discovered that frequency-modulated radio in a wide band of spectrum would deliver an astonishing fidelity of sound, with much less transmitter power and static.
On November 5, 1935, he demonstrated the technology at a meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers at the Empire State Building in New York City. He tuned his radio dial across a range of AM stations, until the radio locked on a broadcast that he had arranged from seventeen miles away. The radio fell totally silent, as if dead, and then with a clarity no one else in that room had ever heard from an electrical device, it produced the sound of an announcer’s voice: “This is amateur station W2AG at Yonkers, New York, operating on frequency modulation at two and a half meters.”
The audience was hearing something no one had thought possible:
“A glass of water was poured before the microphone in Yonkers; it sounded like a glass of water being poured. … A paper was crumpled and torn; it sounded like paper and not like a crackling forest fire. … Sousa marches were played from records and a piano solo and guitar number were performed. … The music was projected with a live-ness rarely if ever heard before from a radio ‘music box.’ “
Armstrong had discovered a vastly superior radio technology. But at the time of his invention, Armstrong was working for RCA. RCA was the dominant player in the then dominant AM radio market. By 1935, there were a thousand radio stations across the United States, but the stations in large cities were all owned by a handful of networks.
RCA’s president, David Sarnoff, a friend of Armstrong’s, was eager that Armstrong discover a way to remove static from AM radio. So Sarnoff was quite excited when Armstrong told him he had a device that removed static from “radio.” But when Armstrong demonstrated his invention, Sarnoff was not pleased.
“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.”
Armstrong’s invention threatened RCA’s AM empire, so the company launched a campaign to smother FM radio. While FM may have been a superior technology, Sarnoff was a superior tactician. As one author described,
“The forces for FM, largely engineering, could not overcome the weight of strategy devised by the sales, patent, and legal offices to subdue this threat to corporate position. For FM, if allowed to develop unrestrained, posed … a complete reordering of radio power … and the eventual overthrow of the carefully restricted AM system on which RCA had grown to power.”
RCA at first kept the technology in house, insisting that further tests were needed. When, after two years of testing, Armstrong grew impatient, RCA began to use its power with the government to stall FM radio’s deployment generally. In 1936, RCA hired the former head of the FCC and assigned him the task of assuring that the FCC assign spectrum in a way that would castrate FM — principally by moving FM radio to a different band of spectrum. At first, these efforts failed. But when Armstrong and the nation were distracted by World War II, RCA’s work began to be more successful. Soon after the war ended, the FCC announced a set of policies that would have one clear effect: FM radio would be crippled…
To make room in the spectrum for RCA’s latest gamble, television, FM radio users were to be moved to a totally new spectrum band. The power of FM radio stations was also cut, meaning FM could no longer be used to beam programs from one part of the country to another. (This change was strongly supported by AT&T, because the loss of FM relaying stations would mean radio stations would have to buy wired links from AT&T.) The spread of FM radio was thus choked, at least temporarily.
Armstrong resisted RCA’s efforts. In response, RCA resisted Armstrong’s patents. After incorporating FM technology into the emerging standard for television, RCA declared the patents invalid — baselessly, and almost fifteen years after they were issued. It thus refused to pay him royalties. For six years, Armstrong fought an expensive war of litigation to defend the patents. Finally, just as the patents expired, RCA offered a settlement so low that it would not even cover Armstrong’s lawyers’ fees. Defeated, broken, and now broke, in 1954 Armstrong wrote a short note to his wife and then stepped out of a thirteenth-story window to his death.
Excerpt from Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity By Lawrence Lessig