Today, a teenager decides to do something
important. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Edwin Armstrong was born in
1890. When he was 15 he read The Boy's Book
of Inventions and straightaway declared he'd
be an inventor of radios. Radio was then younger
than he was, and he dove right in. Seldom is a
decision to do something worthwhile so clear-cut.
Eight years later, Armstrong demonstrated his new
regenerative feedback circuit. He massed the
engineers of the American Marconi Company in a room
at Columbia University. There he proved he could
pick up signals from Ireland by rewiring a standard
Armstrong was big and athletic. He played tennis
with hungry intensity. He raced automobiles. He
climbed mountains. And when he couldn't do that he
climbed radio towers. As a young major in the WW-I
Air Service, he developed aerial radio systems.
He thought he could track an airplane by reading
the electric signal of its ignition. That set the
stage for a major conceptual leap. He saw that he
could mix an incoming radio signal with an imposed
signal and produce a new signal with a frequency
that was easier to amplify.
He went on to spin that technology into FM radio.
By 1933 he was able to show a practical FM system
to his old friend, David Sarnoff, president of RCA.
Sarnoff experimented with the new technique but in
the end abandoned it because it meant too radical a
change in radio systems. Armstrong finally launched
his own FM system. He himself didn't fare as well
as FM radio did. After WW-II he fell into a
quicksand of lawsuits with RCA over FM patent
Armstrong met his wife-to-be, Marion MacInnis, in
1923. He wooed her in odd ways. He drove her about
in fast cars. He scaled the 450-foot RCA
transmitter tower for her. He gave her the first
portable superheterodyne radio for a wedding
present. Twenty years later, his youthful verve
caved in as he swam in losing legal battles. He
gave up. He wrote Marion a sad letter apologizing
for what he was about to do. Then he scaled his
last height and jumped ten stories to his death.
His wife had greater conviction than he did. She
stayed the course and won the final patent victory
for him in 1967. Today you're probably hearing me
on FM radio. Indeed, FM lets you hear far prettier
sounds than any I might make. And it all flows from
Edwin Armstrong's teenage certainty that he could
scale the mountain, win the prize, and give the
world something good and new.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds