Edwin Howard Armstrong gave us modern wireless communications.
Last month I mentioned Mr. Armstrong in an article about Edgar Villchur. Edwin Armstrong predated Villchur (he was born in 1890), but they shared a lack of awe for accepted wisdom. Both men, when solving problems, returned to first principles and found unique solutions.
Edwin Armstrong laid the foundation for radio communications. Every radio and television receiver and transmitter today employs his inventions.
- Regeneration A system of greatly increasing the gain of a vacuum tube amplifier by feeding back some of the amplifier’s output to its input.
- Superheterodyne principle An ingenious method of easily amplifying and filtering noise from radio signals by mixing the faint signal with a variable frequency signal to produce a fixed intermediate frequency signal.
- Frequency Modulation (FM)
Armstrong came to the notice of David Sarnoff, the megalomaniac chairman of communication technology giant RCA (Radio Corporation of America), who provided a laboratory for him. Armstrong married Sarnoff’s secretary. Eventually the two men became bitter enemies, and fought fierce patent battles in our courts. Armstrong owned fundamental patents for which Sarnoff didn’t want to pay license fees,.
Armstrong won some patent defense lawsuits, only to have them overturned on appeal. Decades of legal costs and marketplace maneuvering by RCA nearly bankrupted him. He jumped to his death on January 31, 1954.
The stories of radio pioneers Armstrong (1890-1954), Sarnoff (1891-1971), and Lee de Forest (1873-1961) were told brilliantly in a 1991 book titled Empire Of The Air. Ken Burns produced a film version for PBS.
Armstrong was a giant. 70 and 80 years afterward, we still depend upon his inventions. The irony of his suicide is that he always loved heights: he’d climb tall towers and perform acrobatics atop them. And he never fell from his perches, until January 31, 1954.