Armstrong was the father of modern broadcasting Home electronics

December 16, 1990|By Hans Fantel | Hans Fantel,New York Times News Service

More perhaps than anyone else, Edwin Howard Armstrong made electronics the meeting place of art and science.

Fame came to him early. In 1912, barely beyond his teens, he made the first of his seminal inventions -- the feedback circuit.

This device raised the sensitivity of radio receivers hundreds of times over what it had been before and opened the way to reliable long-distance reception.

Shortly afterward, his continuous-wave oscillator made it practical to transmit sound as well as Morse code via radio.

Later, as television developed, Armstrong's circuits also facilitated the transmission of images, and today's satellite communications rest on his inventions.

The superheterodyne circuit he devised in 1917 remains the basis ofall radio communications to this day and gave the Allied armies in World War I a distinct edge in field communications.

By the late 1920s, radio had become a major factor in the dissemination of music.

But Armstrong -- a passionate music lover -- was dissatisfied with the sound. From that time on, the musical fidelity of radio became his enduring concern.

By 1933 he had devised a new method of transmission that could accommodate the full spectrum of musical sound and eliminated the static that plagued conventional broadcasts.

To achieve this, the audio signal representing the music was used to modulate the frequency of the transmitter, and this frequency modulation eventually became known by its initials as FM.

The newly formed national radio networks immediately realized thatFM, with its suitability for independent local broadcasting, posed a threat to their manner of operation.

The networks mobilized both their economic and political influence to hinder the development of the new medium.

Lacking the support of the radio industry, Armstrong spent much of his fortune to build his own station

His flair and his flamboyant personal style seemed discordant in the gray-flannel world of the postwar era.

Besides, Armstrong's persistent efforts to set up FM under independent auspices riled the networks.

Eventually they found a way to divert Armstrong's energies. RCA, the parent company of NBC, involved Armstrong in a ruinous lawsuit over his most crucial patents.

RCA kept Armstrong in court for nearly a year, confronted day afterday by fresh brigades of corporate lawyers until his strength and fortune were spent.

Some of the legal examiners were simply not competent to follow the technical arguments on which he based his case, and the court ultimately decided against him.

Soon after, the Institute of Radio Engineers, the foremost professional group in electronics, officially protested the verdict and passed a formal resolution recognizing Armstrong's claims in direct contradiction of the Supreme Court.

But that no longer mattered to him. Feeling that his work had been stolen from him, his mood darkened.

On a winter day in 1954, he dressed as if to go out: coat, hat, gloves and a scarf neatly tucked in.

From his skyscraper apartment his eyes swept once more over Manhattan in the dusk. He pulled up a chair. Then he stepped out of the window.

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