1890, New York, NY
1954, New York, NY
To impress his future wife, Armstrong climbed to the top of two different New York City radio towers on the same day -- a tragic foreshadowing of his suicidal jump years later.
Photos: (right) Library of Congress
This brilliant engineer advanced both AM and FM radio, turning them into viable broadcast technologies, and innovated military radio uses in two World Wars.
Edwin Howard Armstrong is considered by many to be the father of modern radio. Born in New York City in 1890, young Armstrong was fascinated by journalist Ray Stannard Baker's The Boy's Book of Inventions and other stories of popular engineering. He became a "radio boy," one of many swept up in a ham radio craze just after the turn of the century. Armstrong's interest was more than a passing fad, however.
Viable AM Radio Technology
At Columbia University, Armstrong successfully built a feedback amplifier to improve a triode valve invented by Lee de Forest. After months of work, Armstrong designed a device that not only detected and amplified radio waves; it also generated them. His circuitry used a method called amplitude modulation (AM). "With this dual-purpose circuit," his biographer Lawrence Lessing would write, "modern radio was born." Armstrong's big paydays would come in the early 1920s, when he licensed his patents to Westinghouse and to the Radio Corporation of America (R.C.A.).
One innovation followed another through Armstrong's twenties and early thirties. He had volunteered for the Army when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, and worked equipping airplanes with radio capability. Challenged with the problem of how to locate the enemy by detecting radio activity, he created the super heterodyne receiver, a circuit still used in most radio and TV receivers. Back home, he advanced his original regeneration circuit with an improvement he called super-regeneration. And in 1923, he strove to impress his future bride, Marion McInnis, with the world's first "portable" radio -- a truly unwieldy device.
The Switch to FM
Armstrong's attempt to eliminate radio static led to another industry-creating breakthrough, a radio circuit that operated on broadband frequency modulation (FM). The radio industry had all but given up on this holy grail, but by the end of 1933, Armstrong unveiled the product of five years' toil. R.C.A. had first rights to the invention, but made a calculated decision to squash it, in order to focus on the installed base of AM radio households and on a new technology, television. Undeterred, Armstrong went into business himself, delivering a high fidelity sound that by 1940 would gain its own permanent airwave frequencies and become the standard for transmitting TV sound.
Destroyed by Work
An intense person, Armstrong was consumed by his work -- and ultimately, it destroyed him. Patent litigation and battles with government regulators operating in collusion with R.C.A. to derail FM radio sapped his energy. His wife, Marion, suffered psychiatric problems and ultimately left him. Armstrong committed suicide in 1954. But his inventions remain the core of radio technology today.