Major Edwin Howard Armstrong

The Inventor of FM

If you head north on Route 9W to the Cresskill/Dumont line you'll see, rising 400 feet above the Palisades of Alpine, Major Edwin Howard Armstrong's grave marker. It is the antenna tower of the first-ever FM station, W2XMNF, erected in 1936 and now crowded with satellite dishes and aerials receiving and relaying all manner of television, cellular and microwave signals. And a lone FM station, WFDU, out of Fairleigh Dickinson University.

It was in the basement of another university, Columbia, that Maj. Armstrong (he served in the newly-formed Signal Corps in World War I) pioneered an entirely new form of broadcasting: static-free, crystal-clear, high-fidelity Frequency Modulation. It was the crowning achievement in a life devoted to radio and broadcasting. He single-handedly wrenched radio out of the crystal-set/headphone era with his discovery of regeneration and super-regeneration-- principles which utilize feedback to amplify and strengthen weak signals. He developed the superheterodyne-- an incredibly sensitive and selective type of receiver for the Army. He fought lengthy, expensive patent battles over most of his inventions against those hoping to discredit him and profit from his genius. And then there was FM.

It should have made him incredibly wealthy, it should have eradicated AM and become the broadcasting medium. It should have made him a household name like Edison. But Armstrong hadn't counted on corporate greed, the profit motive, and the Radio Corporation of America. RCA, a corporation engineered by the government for the purpose of developing the fledgling U.S. broadcast industry (then at the mercy of foreign concerns, like the British Marconi Company and others) by pooling the important broadcasting patents of AT&T, Westinghouse and General Electric, was not about to turn its attention away from its now infant-- television. David Sarnoff, a twenty-five year friend of Armstrong's and the president of RCA, cut Armstrong off from the only company large enough to give FM the send-up it needed. And then the real troubles began.

Plagued by endless patent suits, struggling to keep FM alive, Armstrong began pouring his own money into research, development, and refinement. He put the Alpine station on the air. He presented speeches and prepared papers for assorted engineering and broadcasting societies. He sat before numerous government hearings, bought many a lawyer's summer home and continued his obsessive quest to bring FM to the people, through a second World War and into the postwar years. He waited patiently for what should have been the explosion of FM, but for one thing-- the FCC. One of their engineers, an Alexander Ring, recommended a frequency shift for FM to "protect" it from interference. He incorrectly predicted it would become a problem every eleven years or so. On the flimsiest of pretexts the whole FM band was ordered to move "upstairs" from 42 to 50 MHz. This had the effect of nearly killing the new industry, making fifty or so transmitters and 500,000 radio sets obsolete overnight. It was just one more blow for the clear-thinking, logical and soon-to-be-destitute Armstrong.

Twenty-three years to the day after patenting FM, Maj. Armstrong put on his hat, coat, scarf, and gloves, and walked out his apartment window, 13 floors to his death.

-- Chris T.

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