Edwin Howard Armstrong

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Edwin Howard Armstrong : biography

18 December 1890 – 31 January 1954
A June 17, 1936, presentation at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) headquarters made headlines nationwide. He played a jazz record over conventional AM radio, then switched to an FM broadcast. "[I]f the audience of 50 engineers had shut their eyes they would have believed the jazz band was in the same room. There were no extraneous sounds," noted one reporter. He added that several engineers described the invention "as one of the most important radio developments since the first earphone crystal sets were introduced."United Press report, "Radio Set-up Eliminates All Noise," Ogden Standard-Examiner, June 18, 1936, p1 

In 1937, Armstrong financed construction of the first FM radio station, W2XMN, a 40 kilowatt broadcaster in Alpine, New Jersey. The signal (at 42.8 MHz) could be heard clearly 100 miles (160 km) away, despite the use of less power than an AM radio station.

RCA began to lobby for a change in the law or FCC regulations that would prevent FM radios from becoming dominant. By June 1945, the RCA had pushed the FCC hard on the allocation of electromagnetic frequencies for the fledgling television industry. Although they denied wrongdoing, David Sarnoff and RCA managed to get the FCC to move the FM radio spectrum from 42-50 MHz, to 88-108 MHz, while getting new low-powered community television stations allocated to a new Channel 1 in the 44-50 MHz range. In fairness to the FCC, the 42-50 MHz band was plagued by frequent tropospheric and E-layer stratospheric propagation which caused distant high powered stations to interfere with each other. The problem becomes even more severe on a cyclical basis when sunspot levels reach a maximum every 11 years and lower VHF band signals below 50 MHz can travel across the Atlantic Ocean or from coast to coast within North America on occasion. Sunspot levels were near their cyclical peak when the FCC reallocated FM in 1945. The 88-108 MHz range is a technically better location for FM broadcast because it is less susceptible to this kind of frequent interference. (Channel 1 eventually had to be deleted as well, with all TV broadcasts licensed at frequencies 54 MHz or higher, and the band is no longer widely used for emergency first responders either, those services having moved mostly to UHF.)

But the immediate economic impact of the shift, whatever its technical merit, was devastating to early FM broadcasters. This single FCC action would render all Armstrong-era FM receivers useless within a short time as stations were moved to the new band, while it also protected both RCA’s AM-radio stronghold and that of the other major competing networks, CBS, ABC and Mutual. Armstrong’s radio network did not survive the shift into the high frequencies and was set back by the FCC decision. This change was strongly supported by AT&T, because loss of FM relaying stations forced radio stations to buy wired links from AT&T.

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 receivers, including televisions, which were sold in the United States. The undermining of the Yankee Network and his costly legal battles brought ruin to Armstrong, by then almost penniless and emotionally distraught. Eventually, after Armstrong’s death, many of the lawsuits were decided or settled in his favor, greatly enriching his estate and heirs. But the decisions came too late for Armstrong himself to enjoy his legal vindication.

Suicide

Financially broken and mentally beaten after years of legal tussles with RCA and others, Armstrong lashed out at his wife one day with a fireplace poker, striking her on the arm.Ken Burns’ documentary film, "Empire of the Air" MacInnis left their apartment to stay with her sister, Marjorie Tuttle, in Granby, Connecticut.