The Death of Radio
"Oh, 'what price glory!' "
--Lee de Forest, on the Armstrong tragedy
By the spring of 1923, the Radio Corporation of America had put the finishing touches on a magnificent broadcasting tower on the roof of the Aeolian Hall, twenty-one stories above West 42nd Street in New York City. At the very top of the tower, above a cross-arm that stretched thirty-six feet across, stood a globe fashioned from strips of iron. It measured perhaps five feet in diameter, and the strips of iron were widely spaced in the manner of a hollow, loosely wound ball of yarn. The tower, along with a second broadcasting mast nearby, was intended as a statement of RCA's dominance of the radio industry, throwing a long shadow across Fifth Avenue.
On May 15 of that year, a tall, somewhat lanky man named Edwin Howard Armstrong could be seen climbing the tower's 115-foot access ladder. Armstrong wore a dark suit, a pair of glossy leather shoes, a silk tie, and a gray fedora pulled low against a stiff crosswind. Earlier, he had swung upside down by his legs from the tower's cross-arm. Now, scrambling to the top of the open sphere, he braced one foot under a strip of iron and kicked the other into the air, waving gleefully at a photographer on the roof below.
Armstrong had every reason to feel on top of the world. His innovative circuit designs had transformed the radio industry, and made him a wealthy man at the age of thirty-two. His high-wire posturing--an impulse he indulged whenever an opportunity presented itself--was simply a giddy expression of his status at the pinnacle of the broadcasting world. "Armstrong," asked an engineer who witnessed one such display, "why do you do these damned fool things?"
"Because," Armstrong replied, "the spirit moves me."
David Sarnoff, then the general manager of RCA, was not amused. "If you have made up your mind that this mundane world of ours is not a suitable place for you to be spending your time in, I don't want to quarrel with your decision," Sarnoff wrote in a letter to Armstrong, "but keep away from the Aeolian Hall towers or any other property of the Radio Corporation."
Sarnoff had good reason to be concerned, as his fortunes were largely entwined with those of Armstrong. Ten years earlier, on January 30, 1913, the twenty-two-year-old Armstrong had brought Sarnoff to a rickety transmitting station at Belmar, on the New Jersey coast. The station belonged to the American Marconi Company, and Sarnoff, at the age of twenty-one, was Marconi's chief inspector.
Sarnoff had come to this isolated station, which was little more than a crude shack, to evaluate a powerful radio receiver unit, invented by Armstrong, that employed a new type of regenerative feedback circuit that would become known as the oscillating audion. Then as now, the primary function of a radio was to convert radio waves into small electrical pulses which, when amplified, could be converted into recognizable sound. At the time, however, distant radio signals could seldom be heard above the ever-present crackle of background static from naturally occurring electromagnetic waves. Armstrong had discovered a means of cycling part of a received signal back and forth through the receiver and amplifier, magnifying the strength of the signal many times over. Armstrong's discovery, if it held up, would allow for radio communication over greater distances than ever before.
It proved to be a bitterly cold night, but Sarnoff soon forgot his discomfort. He watched with mounting excitement as Armstrong crouched over the receiving unit and, after a moment's tinkering, pulled in a remarkable message: "Lightning bad. Shall ground aerial wires." Sarnoff could scarcely believe what he was hearing; the message had originated in Honolulu.
The two young men would spend the entire night--thirteen hours in all--huddled over Armstrong's receiver, pulling in radio signals from around the world. Years later, Sarnoff's memory of the experience moved him to uncharacteristic raptures: "Well do I remember that memorable night at the Belmar station when, by means of your 'magic box,' I was able to copy the signals from Honolulu," Sarnoff wrote in a letter to his friend. "Whatever chills the air produced were more than extinguished by the warmth of the thrill which came to me at hearing for the first time signals from across the Atlantic and across the Pacific."
At first glance, the two men seemed unlikely allies. Armstrong, a native New Yorker from a well-to-do family, would remain a fiercely independent inventor in the mold of Edison and Marconi. Sarnoff, a Russian Jewish immigrant who had literally worked his way up from the mailroom, was poised to become the archetype of the American tycoon, a man who would devote his life to the goals and interests of his corporation. Even so, the alliance they forged at Belmar would not only shape the lives of both men, but also help to determine the future of mass communication in the United States. Armstrong's feedback circuit, together with a subsequent innovation called the superheterodyne, an elegant technique that could improve reception and tune a radio at the same time, would soon make him a millionaire. As the largest holder of RCA stock, Armstrong would become a fixture in Sarnoff's life--both in the office, where Armstrong courted and married Sarnoff's secretary, and at home, where Armstrong visited so frequently that Sarnoff's family dubbed him "the coffee man."
For a time, Armstrong reveled in his good fortune. He took a grand tour of Europe--"Arriving in England on Saturday" he cabled a friend, "with the contents of the Radio Corporation's safe"--and bought himself a lavish Hispano-Suiza automobile. Even as he surveyed his dominion from atop the RCA broadcasting mast, however, there remained one unconquered summit. For all of the accomplishments and refinements of Armstrong and fellow radio pioneers such as Lee de Forest and Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, radio communication was still hampered by the constant din of background static. The problem was so pervasive that it was the custom for newspapers to run weather forecasts alongside their radio listings, to give the home listener an idea of the likely effect of adverse conditions.
It was a subject that Sarnoff and Armstrong often discussed during their coffee chats. "Give me a little black box," Sarnoff said on one occasion, referring to Marconi's original "black box" radio apparatus, "but get rid of the static." Armstrong, believing this to be the sole remaining obstacle in radio broadcasting, calmly accepted the challenge.
With the confidence of youth, Armstrong initially expected a quick solution. In fact, more than ten years would pass before his labors brought results. In December of 1933, Armstrong once again summoned David Sarnoff to see his latest miracle. Sarnoff, now the president of RCA, appeared at Armstrong's laboratory, in the basement of Philosophy Hall at Columbia University, expecting to see some new gadget or tube that would filter out bothersome background noise from radio carrier waves. Instead, Armstrong had found a way to alter the waves themselves, creating a fundamentally new form of radio communication. Instead of modulating the amplitude, or intensity, of a radio carrier wave, Armstrong had developed a means of modifying its frequency, or interval. If one imagined radio signals as ocean waves, Armstrong had found a way to control the rate at which they washed up on the beach--changing the frequency, rather than the size. In time, this form of transmission would be known as frequency modulation, or FM.
The implications of Armstrong's breakthrough were stunning. "This is not an ordinary invention," Sarnoff declared. "This is a revolution." Determined to claim this latest innovation for RCA, Sarnoff immediately placed the company's new experimental laboratories atop the Empire State Building at Armstrong's disposal--in effect putting Armstrong at the peak of the world's tallest broadcasting mast. To all outward appearances, it seemed that Armstrong had scored another technical triumph.
All was not as it seemed. Much had changed in the world of broadcast communications while Armstrong had been locked away in the basement of Philosophy Hall. The emerging technology of television, which had been only a faint crackle of static when Armstrong started his work, now threatened to drown him out. Up to this point, Sarnoff had been cautious in his approach to television, fearing that a premature commitment would undermine RCA's hugely profitable radio operations. Initially, the laboratory atop the Empire State Building had been dedicated to television experiments. By canceling the television operations and turning the facility over to Armstrong, Sarnoff was sending a clear and carefully modulated signal to the business community--radio was here to stay. This strategy promised not only to preserve RCA's dominance of the industry, but also to give Sarnoff's research scientists more time to perfect a commercially viable television system.
It soon became apparent, however, that Sarnoff couldn't afford to drag his feet any longer. Armstrong's FM system, if adopted, would carry a staggering price. In order to take up FM as the new standard of radio, the entire industry would have to be overhauled, and existing radio sets would have to be scrapped. At a time when huge amounts of money were needed for television research, RCA could not afford to sacrifice its radio revenues. At the same time, Sarnoff realized that his television initiative was no longer the only game in town. Others were working to perfect television technology, and if some other company got there first, RCA might find itself required to buy licensing rights and equipment from a rival.
Accordingly, Sarnoff took a new line. The work on FM radio would be shelved while RCA renewed its commitment to television. Sarnoff assured Armstrong that this would only be a temporary interruption, and even offered to employ FM technology in the television initiative. For the moment, however, RCA had to tend to the bottom line. Armstrong was told to remove his equipment from the Empire State Building. It was not the first time Armstrong had been ordered off an RCA broadcast mast, and he had reason to hope that all would end well.
Matters came to a head at the annual RCA stockholders' meeting in May 1935. While Armstrong waited expectantly for some mention of the FM revolution, Sarnoff instead made a dramatic announcement that the company would commit $1 million to its television research program. Treading a fine line so as to avoid upsetting the radio partisans, Sarnoff indicated that "while television promises to supplement the present service of broadcasting by adding sight to sound, it will not supplant or diminish the importance and usefulness of sound broadcasting." As objections were raised, Armstrong rose to his feet. Sarnoff, he reminded them, had guided the company through the dark days of the depression. "I think you would have been wiped out if it hadn't been for him," Armstrong declared. "I tell you, I wouldn't have his job for five hundred thousand dollars a year. I don't agree with everything, for I have a row on with him now. I am going to fight it through to the last ditch. I just wanted to tell you what you owe to Sarnoff."
In the end, Sarnoff got his way, and the following day he sent a letter of thanks to Armstrong. "Doubtless I have made many mistakes in my life," he wrote, "but I am glad to say they have not been in the quality of the friends I selected for reposing my faith."
For all of that, it soon became clear that Sarnoff would give no further support to the development of FM. Undeterred, Armstrong resolved to proceed on his own. Only six months later, on November 5, 1935, he arranged a lecture before the New York chapter of the Institute of Radio Engineers. After addressing his audience for some little while, Armstrong quietly played his trump card: "Now, suppose we have a little demonstration." The curtains parted to show what appeared to be an ordinary radio receiver. As Armstrong switched the unit on, the audience heard the usual sound of broadcast static. Then, as Armstrong turned a knob, the unit fell strangely silent. For a moment it seemed as if the radio had gone dead, but then the sound of an announcer's voice issued from the speaker: "This is amateur station WQAG at Yonkers, New York, operating on frequency modulation at two and a half meters." A collective gasp could be heard from the audience of engineers; the announcer's voice had come through so clearly that he could easily have been present in the room. Armstrong gestured for silence as the demonstration continued. The sound of a glass of water being poured came over the radio's speaker, followed by the crumpling of a piece of paper. Armstrong had made his point--these sounds could not possibly have been distinguished against a background of AM static.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception, Armstrong went ahead with plans to build his own FM transmitting station in Alpine, New Jersey. When completed, the station's 425-foot broadcast tower would be visible across the Hudson River in New York City--even from David Sarnoff's palatial suite of offices on the fifty-third floor of the RCA building.
The project would require much of Armstrong's energy and resources, and he liquidated most of his personal fortune--including a huge block of RCA stock--to make the funds available. Unfortunately, an even greater portion of his energies would soon be absorbed in litigation with RCA over the use of his patents. In time the case wound up in court, where the question of FM became a decisive issue. For some time, RCA had been claiming to have developed its own system of frequency modulation without any help from Armstrong. Now, speaking before a judge, Sarnoff insisted that his engineers had "done more to develop FM than anybody in this country, including Armstrong." Seated with his lawyers, Armstrong regarded his former friend with an expression of undisguised contempt.
The suit would drag on for years. "They will stall on this thing until I am dead or broke," Armstrong would often say. His wife and many of his friends urged him to accept a settlement, but for Armstrong it had become a matter of honor--one that required a clear legal victory. By 1953, Armstrong's patents and licenses had expired, and his legal bills and research expenses had drained his fortune. His health began to suffer and his behavior grew erratic. On one occasion he came to believe that someone had poisoned his food and insisted on having his stomach pumped. On another, his wife fled the house as Armstrong lashed out with a fireplace poker.
On January 31, 1954, two months after the incident with the fireplace poker, Armstrong sat down and jotted a note to his wife. "I am heartbroken because I cannot see you once again," he wrote. "I deeply regret what has happened between us. I cannot understand how I could hurt the dearest thing in the whole world to me. I would give my life to turn back to the time when we were so happy and free." He added a few lines about the state of his finances, then closed: "God keep you and may the Lord have mercy on my soul."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Boy Genius and the Mogul by Daniel Stashower. Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Stashower. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.