The Trials of Howard Armstrong

Wait, how can a good invention lead to the inventor’s destruction? 

However, at the same time, Armstrong was dealing with several lawsuits.  The longest of which was with Lee de Forest.  De Forest had invented the vacuum triode in the first place (as a way to get around another person’s patented the light bulb) but had never figured out how to make it “sing” with positive feedback.  In 19__ de Forest sued Armstrong and the lawsuit raged for years.  He won in 1921 but then required de Forest to pay the back fees and limited his licensing.  This allowed de Forest to retry the case through the patent office[i].  In a move that shocked the scientific world to its core, de Forest won his lawsuit!  Armstrong fought it to the supreme court, but he lost there too.  See, de Forest had sold “his” patent to AT&T which was intertwined with RCA so both large companies wanted de Forest to win and used their lawyers to help de Forest (RCA had both patents but de Forest’s would last longer).  In monetary terms, Armstrong did not lose very much with the loss of the lawsuit.  But he felt personally affronted to lose to a man who he considered a complete charlatan. Armstrong tried again with his lawsuit with de Forest.  This time, he waited until RCA and AT&T sued someone for patent infringement.  In 1931, the behemoth companies sued a tiny company called Radio Engineering Laboratories (REL) for selling a radio kit with a regenerative circuit without paying royalties.  Armstrong bought 51% of the small company and went back to court.  In 1928 Armstrong won in the federal court.  He received a flood of congratulatory letters including a private telegram from Sarnoff wishing him, “heartiest personal congratulations [and] warm regards.[ii]”  In public, however, RCA published that they were upset about the decision and would take it to the Supreme Court.  In May of 1934, they went back to the Supreme Court and Armstrong lost again.  Thirteen court decisions, thirty judges, and twenty-one years, not to mention literally hundreds of thousands of dollars all ended in defeat for Armstrong[iii].

Howard Armstrong
Howard Armstrong

Meanwhile, Armstrong was working on his latest discovery – FM radio.  Actually, he worked on this one for a very long time.  In fact, unlike his other discoveries that either showed up unexpectedly or fully formed in his mind, FM radio was the work of years of contemplation and many months of exhaustive research.  Sarnoff had repeatedly said that he wished he had a “little black box[iv]” to put in his radio receivers to get rid of static.  By 1933, Armstrong thought he had found it.

Recall that before this time all radio broadcasts were AM – or amplitude modulated.  What that meant was they would take a radio signal that oscillated in a continuous wave and change the height (or the amplitude) by the electrical signal from the sound wave.  However, there are other features of the wave you could change or modulate.  Howard Armstrong studied changing the frequency of the wave.  If the wave was more squished together then it had a higher frequency and if the wave was more spread out then it had a lower frequency.  The amount it deviated from the original corresponding to the sound wave produced in the microphone. 

Actually, many different scientists were interested in using FM radio starting in the late teens and early twenties.  However, in February of 1922 the chief mathematical theoretician at Bell Laboratories, a man named John Carson, wrote a paper that said it wouldn’t work.  Well, to be more technically accurate he said it would work but it, “inherently distorts without any compensating advantages whatsoever.[v]”  Carson decided that, “static, like the poor, will always be with us.[vi]”  Now Armstrong was even more determined saying that he, “could never accept findings based almost exclusively on mathematics.  It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in the world.  It’s the things people know that ain’t so.[vii]

In October of 1928, Armstrong focused exclusively on this problem six days a week.  He even drove one of his assistants to regularly go to church just to get a break from him.  Three years later, he still seemed no closer to a solution when he had a radical notion.  When you use FM or frequency modulation you by necessity change the frequency.  Scientists thought that you needed to keep that fluctuation to a minimum, or as they put it narrow bandwidth.  However, it just didn’t work (as Carson mathematically proved).  What if, he thought, you made the frequency changes larger?  This was not an easy task and it took until the end of 1933 for him to get it right.  But when he did, it worked even better than he had hoped.  The static was gone.  You could transmit the entire range of human hearing instead of a limited range like AM.  It needed less power to transmit.  It could even be made to contain more than one signal at a time to transmit surround sound.  It wasn’t an improvement, it was a revelation.  And Sarnoff hated it.

FM

So, if the FM signal was so much better than the AM one, why wasn’t Sarnoff happy?  It had to do with two things: television and the depression.  The first is television.  Sarnoff was fascinated with television as soon as he heard of it, in the 1910s!  By 1929 he had hired an engineer named Vladimir Zworykin who promised he could produce a working television for $100,000.  Four years and over five million dollars later, they still did not have a working model[viii].  But Sarnoff was committed both emotionally and financially to this new technology.  Sarnoff had hoped that Armstrong would invent something to improve the signal, not something that would supplant his entire system.  And that brings us to his other issue, the depression.  In 1934 there were not a lot of people who had disposable income.  Now, luckily for Sarnoff the Radio industry survived better than almost any other – people loved their radios.  However, Sarnoff worried that the few who had money would not both purchase an FM radio AND a television.  What to do?  Sarnoff decided to crush his friend’s new invention. 

Actually, Sarnoff wasn’t initially displeased.  In fact, at first, he let Armstrong work in the RCAs laboratory at the top of the Empire State Building.  However, once Sarnoff realized that Armstrong’s device might interfere with his dream of television, he kicked Armstrong out of the tower.  He also encouraged all of his engineers to find fault with the system.  He was careful to not directly insult Armstrong but to use others to insult his system.  I think that David Sarnoff thought he could remain friends with Armstrong – he thought that his friend would understand the dictates of business.  In January of 1934, they exchanged telegrams marking the twentieth anniversary of their first meeting.  Sarnoff wrote Armstrong that he was pleased that his friend was, “still gripped by the mystery of the air, still challenged by the secrets of space, and still in the forefront of advanced thinkers and workers in the art.” And that he should, “fix your gaze and energies on the next twenty years.[ix]”  The next year Armstrong even defended Sarnoff at a contentious corporate meeting an act of true friendship that touched him deeply.  But, not deeply enough.

Sarnoff couldn’t understand why Armstrong kept on pushing FM radio.  When he finally confronted him, Armstrong said that he thought FM would revitalize radio.  Sarnoff replied, “But this is not an ordinary invention.  This is a revolution.”  Armstrong answered, “That is all the more reason to get into use as fast as we can.[x]”  Sarnoff couldn’t see why Armstrong, who was the single biggest stockholder in RCA, wouldn’t want maximum profits and Armstrong couldn’t see why someone would ignore a breakthrough in science. 

By 1936, Howard Armstrong decided to do FM on his own.  He sold his stock in RCA and spent $300,000 to make an FM station in Alpine, New York, and a new “Yankee Network”[xi].   He even built the 410-foot tower himself.  Slowly, and against the wishes of RCA, FM was growing.  

Meanwhile, the researchers at RCA had finally gotten a working model of television and in 1939 they displayed the first one at the Worlds Fair.  However, by this time Sarnoff had finally realized his mistake.  FM was better than AM and would be useful for the audio portion of television broadcasts as well.  Sarnoff realized that he had to try to “sweeten up” his old friend.  He sent a mutual friend named Gano Dunn to try to make a deal.  After months of reminiscing, he offered Armstrong $1 million dollars for a nonexclusionary license.   Armstrong basically told them to go to hell.  He said that they could take the same deal he had given the other companies, 2% of the profits.  Armstrong’s lawyer said, “That’s the first time I ever heard of an inventor turning down a million for a nonexclusionary license.[xii]”   Sarnoff was incensed.  He started a personal war with his former friend.  A war that was delayed for another war, World War II.

Armstrong once again declined all patent profit with the United States during the war, and FM was used widely by the Americans.  An American lieutenant in the signal corps said, “I know the war in Europe would have lasted longer if we hadn’t had FM on our side.[xiii]”  On the other hand, RCA shared its licenses for $4 million annually not to mention gaining hundreds of millions of dollars a year in government contracts.  Not to say that Sarnoff wasn’t invested in the war effort.  At the start, he sent Roosevelt a telegraph, “All our facilities are ready and at your instant service, we await your commands.[xiv]”  Sarnoff became a brigadier general and communication consultant to Eisenhower.  From then on he required everyone to call him “General”[xv].   

After the war was over, Sarnoff had money and contacts and Armstrong was far poorer than he was during the depression.  To make matters worse, on June 27, 1945, Sarnoff talked the FCC into changing the radio frequencies available for FM.  In 1940, they had decided on 42 MHz to 50 MHz, now five years later they made it 88 MHz to 108 MHz[xvi].  Therefore, all of the fifty FM radio stations and the 500,000 radio receivers were made useless[1][xvii].  To make matters worse, RCA decided to not pay Armstrong for their FM broadcasts on their televisions.  Pretty soon, most of the other companies were following suit.

In July of 1948, Armstrong sued.  RCA decided to win by just making the fight as long and as arduous as possible, or as Armstrong correctly wrote to a friend, “it is clear they have no defense other than a rearguard action to make it as costly as possible[xviii]”.  Armstrong thought that was a losing tactic.  He was wrong.  His lawyer fees were up to $200,000 a year while his income from patents was dwindling from more and more companies simply not paying him for his devices while they waited for the lawsuit to end.  And this lawsuit dragged on and on.  Armstrong’s deposition alone lasted over a year.  By 1952 Armstrong was out of money and was getting loans to pay his lawyers[xix].  Finally, on February 20, 1953, Sarnoff went on the stand.  This was to be the last time the two men were to see each other.  When Sarnoff was asked about his relationship with Armstrong he said: “We were close friends.  I hope we still are.”  However, when he was asked about FM radio Sarnoff shamelessly claimed, “that the RCA and the NBC have done more to develop FM than anybody in this country, including Armstrong. [xx]” 

By July Armstrong’s lawyer had convinced him to try to settle after telling him it would take until at least 1961 to finish the lawsuit and a further 1.2 million dollars unless, by that time, “we have been wiped out by an atomic bomb[xxi]”.  They asked for $3.4 million dollars.  RCA dithered about responding to him for months. 

In November after a Thanksgiving party Armstrong admitted the state of his finances to his wife.  They had a horrible fight and Armstrong hit her arm with a poker.  Marion fled the house, never to see her husband again.

On December 15, 1953, RCA finally agreed to a settlement amount: $200,000, about what he owed in legal fees for the previous year.  Armstrong refused.  Armstrong used to joke to friends that “they will stall this thing until I am dead or broke.[xxii]”  On January 31, 1954, exactly forty years after Armstrong stayed up all night with Sarnoff demonstrating his regenerative circuit, Armstrong wrote an apology to his wife, removed the air conditioner from his apartment window, and jumped 13 floors to his death[xxiii].   Armstrong was 63 years old.

De Forrest was gleeful to hear of the death of his formal rival.  He repulsively wrote a friend, “I have always taken the keenest delight in having beaten him so thoroughly on the feedback question… after all, Armstrong has gone and I am alive, well, and happy, and hope to live for many years more.  What a contrast![xxiv]”   Despite this prediction, de Forest mostly lived in near poverty, “still convinced of his essential genius[xxv]” for four more years until 1958 when he had a heart attack which left him bedridden.  He died three years later.

When David Sarnoff learned about Armstrong’s suicide he was immediately shocked, “I did not kill Armstrong[xxvi]” he immediately told a friend.  Despite this protestation, Sarnoff must have known he had a strong hand in his friend’s desperate act and wept openly at his funeral.

 Marion Armstrong continued all of her husband’s lawsuits.  Eventually, she would have twenty-one patent lawsuits and would win all of them.  She won over $10 million in damages over the next eleven years.  However, Marion was mostly interested in the reputation of her husband, which is only recently starting to be recognized over sixty years after his death[xxvii].   


[1] This is why FM took until the 70s and 80s to become popular over AM.


[i] p 197 “Empire of the Air”

[ii] p 211 “Empire of the Air”

[iii] p 218 “Empire of the Air”

[iv] p 126 “The Master Switch” Wu

[v] p 251 “Empire of the Air”

[vi] p 84 “Communications and Broadcasting: From Wired Words to Wireless Web” Henderson

[vii] p 84 “Communications and Broadcasting: From Wired Words to Wireless Web” Henderson

[viii] p 261 “Empire of the Air”

[ix] p 262 “Empire of the Air”

[x] p 263 “Empire of the Air”

[xi] The Tragic Birth of FM Radio

[xii] p 277 “Empire of the Air”

[xiii] p 284 “Empire of the Air”

[xiv] p 171 “Zworykin, Pioneer of Television” Albert Abramson

[xv] The Museum of Broadcast Communications – Encyclopedia of Television, Sarnoff, David

[xvi] The tragic Birth of FM Radio

[xvii] p 12 “Biographical Dictionary of Radio” Edwin Howard Armstrong

[xviii] p 318 “Empire of the Air”

[xix] p 319 “Empire of the Air”

[xx] p 134 “The Master Switch”

[xxi] p 322 “Empire of the Air”

[xxii] p 325 “Empire of the Air”

[xxiii] p 9 “The Boy Genius and the Mogul” Stashower

[xxiv] p 334 “Empire of the Air”

[xxv] p 334 “Empire of the Air”

[xxvi] p 9 “The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television” Stashower

[xxvii] The Tragic Birth of FM Radio

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