The invention of the radio allowed information and music to be broadcast across long distances. The radio was first used to communicate between ships and land bases. Edwin Howard Armstrong’s patent of FM radio came through as he was concurrently battling another inventor for the rights to the invention of superheterodyne radio. Armstrong invented wide-band frequency modulation (FM) radio in a laboratory at Columbia University. His FM radio invention was different because it varied the frequency rather than varying the amplitude of a radio wave. This new technology eliminated “static,” which is a common problem with AM radio.
Edwin Howard Armstrong was born in 1890 in New York City. He studied electrical engineering at Columbia University inventing the Regenerative Circuit while a junior there. Also the Super-regenerative circuit (patented 1922), and the Super Heterodyne receiver (patented 1918). The superheterodyne receiver makes Am and FM radio as we know them possible, and is probably the single greatest invention affecting radio of all time. It makes tuning a radio possible. Each radio station has a different carrier frequency, and the superheterodyne receiver allows the information riding on the carrier to be stripped off when the radio is tuned to a particular station.
Armstrong didn’t invent radio. Lee DeForest, among others, with his invention of the triode got the credit for that. Armstrong’s inventions made radio feasible, practical and listenable. Regeneration was a form of positive feedback that allowed the production of radio waves. Such a circuit is called a transmitter. Similarly it allowed for the reception of radio waves by a circuit known as a receiver.
Armstrong patented the Regenerative circuit in 1914 and licensed it to the Marconi company. He then went to Europe to fight in WW I. When he came back he found himself embroiled in a patent fight.
In particular, the regenerative circuit, which Armstrong patented in 1914, was subsequently patented by Lee De Forest in 1916; De Forest then sold the rights to his patent to AT&T. Between 1922 and 1934, Armstrong found himself embroiled in a patent war, between himself, RCA, and Westinghouse on one side, and De Forest and AT&T on the other. This patent lawsuit was the longest ever litigated to its date, at 12 years. Armstrong won the first round of the lawsuit, lost the second, and stalemated in a third. Before the United States Supreme Court, De Forest was granted the regeneration patent in what is today widely believed to be a misunderstanding of the technical facts by the Supreme Court.
In 1920 Westinghouse bought Armstrong’s patent for the superheterodyne receiver and started the nation’s first radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Marconi’s company RCA started buying up the patents of Westinghouse and AT&T including Armstrong’s and DeForest’s patents. RCA was content to let DeForest win the patent fight because it meant that they got the use of the patent for another 10 years even though they knew Armstrong should have won.
During the patent fight Armstrong started working on the invention of FM radio which was far superior to AM because it was static free and much higher fidelity. It was patented in 1933. Armstrong lobbied the FCC to create a frequency band for FM which it did – between 42 and 50 MHz. Armstong then helped to market a small number of high powered FM radio stations in the New England states, known as the Yankee Network. Armstrong had begun on a journey to convince America that FM radio was superior to AM, and, he hoped, to collect patent royalties on every radio sold with FM technology. FM was also chosen by the FCC to provide the sound for the fledgling television industry. Armstrong should have collected royalties for that as well.
However, RCA CEO David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant, conspired to have Armstrong’s FM radio put out of business partly because RCA was so heavily invested in AM and partly because it would interfere with the launch of television by RCA after WW II. RCA lobbied the FCC to change the frequency allotment for FM which it did thus making all of Armstrong’s radios and radio stations obsolete overnight. Most experts believe that FM technology was set back decades by the FCC decision.
Furthermore, RCA also claimed invention of FM radio and won its own patent on the technology. A patent fight between RCA and Armstrong ensued. RCA’s momentous victory in the courts left Armstrong unable to claim royalties on any FM radios sold in the United States. The undermining of Yankee Network and Patent Court battle brought ruin to Armstrong, by then, almost penniless and emotionally distraught.
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.”
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?”
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.
“I am heartbroken because I cannot see you once again. 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. God keep you and may the Lord have mercy on my soul.”
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.”
The moral of this sad story is that a single solitary individual no matter how meritorious, no matter how ingenious, no matter how deserving of recognition and reward is no match for a corporation with large capital assets and a team of well-paid corporate lawyers. This poor man, Edwin Armstrong, having contributed so much to society was driven to despair simply because Sarnoff and RCA had the power to do it. They squashed him like a bug, and they didn’t care.
Postscript: After his death, Armstrong’s widow, Marion, renewed the patent fight against RCA and finally prevailed in 1967. 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?”