Edwin Howard Armstrong

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Edwin Howard Armstrong : biography

18 December 1890 – 31 January 1954

Honors

In 1917 Armstrong was the first recipient of the IRE’s, now IEEE Medal of Honor. For his wartime work on radio the French government gave him the Legion of Honor in 1919. He was awarded the 1941 Franklin Medal. He received in 1942 the AIEEs Edison Medal "for distinguished contributions to the art of electric communication, notably the regenerative circuit, the superheterodyne, and frequency modulation". The ITU added him to its roster of great inventors of electricity in 1955. In 1980 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and was on a U.S. postage stamp in 1983. The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame inducted him in 2000, "in recognition of his contributions and pioneering spirit that have laid the foundation for consumer electronics."

Philosophy Hall, the Columbia building where Armstrong developed FM, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003 in recognition of that fact. Armstrong’s home in Yonkers also received designation in both the NHL and the National Register of Historic Places, but both were withdrawn when the house was later demolished. (includes 1 photo)

Armstrong Hall at Columbia is also named in his honor. The building, at the northeast corner of Broadway and 112th Street, was originally an apartment house but was converted to research space after Columbia bought it. It is now home to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a research institute jointly operated by Columbia and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration dedicated to atmospheric and climate science. A storefront in the corner of the building houses Tom’s Restaurant, a longtime neighborhood fixture that was featured as the fictional diner "Monk’s" for establishing shots in the television series "Seinfeld". The same restaurant also inspired Susanne Vega’s song "Tom’s Diner".

In addition, Columbia established the Edwin Howard Armstrong Professorship in Computer Science in Armstrong’s memory.

Also, the United States Army Communications and Electronics Life Cycle Management Command (CECOM-LCMC) Headquarters at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland is named Armstrong Hall in his honor.

Personal life

Armstrong married Sarnoff’s secretary, Marion McInnis, in December 1922. He gave Marion the world’s first portable radio as a wedding gift. Armstrong bought a Hispano-Suiza motor car before the wedding, which they drove to Palm Beach, Florida for their honeymoon. He kept the car until his death. McInnis, who was born in 1898, was survived by two nephews and a niece after her death in 1979.

He was an avid tennis player until an injury in 1940, and drank an Old Fashioned with dinner.

Early life

Armstrong was born in the Chelsea district of New York City to John and Emily Armstrong. His father was the American representative of the Oxford University Press, which published Bibles and standard classical works. John Armstrong, who was also a native of New York, began working at the Oxford University Press at a young age and eventually reached the position of Vice President of the American branch. Emily Smith first met John Armstrong in the North Presbyterian Church, which was located at 31st Street and Ninth Avenue. Emily Smith had strong family ties to Chelsea, which centered around the church, in which her family took an active role.

When the church moved further North the Smith and Armstrong families followed it. In 1895 the Armstrong family moved from their brownstone row house at 347 West 29th Street to another similar house at 26 West 97th Street in the Upper West Side. At the age of eight Armstrong contracted a disease that was known as St. Vitus’ Dance, which left him with a lifelong tic when excited or under stress. Because of the illness Armstrong was withdrawn from school for two years. In order to improve his health the Armstrong family moved in 1902 from the Upper West Side into a house at 1032 Warburton Avenue in Yonkers, which overlooked the Hudson river. The Smith family moved into a house next door.

Armstrong’s physical tic and the years he was removed from school led him to become withdrawn. Armstrong showed an interest in electrical and mechanical devices, particularly trains, from an early age.

He loved heights and constructed a makeshift radio antenna tower in his back yard. Swinging on a bosun’s chair, he would hoist himself up and down the tower to the concern of his neighbors.

In late 1917, Armstrong was invited to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps with the rank of captain and was sent to Paris to help set up a wireless communication system for the Army. He returned to the United States in the fall of 1919.

During his service in both world wars, Armstrong gave the U.S. military free use of his patents. Use of these was critical to the Allied victories.

Unlike many engineers, Armstrong was never a corporate employee. He performed research and development by himself and owned his patents outright. He did not subscribe to conventional wisdom and was quick to question the opinions of his professors and his peers.