Major Edwin Howard Armstrong

by Donna Halper

While his influence on radio has been profound, few people today know who Edwin Howard Armstrong was or how his inventions affected their lives.

Called "The Major" by his friends (and "Howard" by his relatives), he was one of early broadcasting's pioneers. Holder of 42 patents, a respected professor at Columbia University (which established a foundation in his memory in 1955), Howard Armstrong was passionately committed to the improvement of radio technology. And although we have all benefited greatly from his work, he is not remembered the way radio's other pioneers are-- for some odd reason, men like Guglielmo Marconi or David Sarnoff or even his hated rival Lee DeForest receive much more credit than Armstrong ever did. Perhaps in some small way this essay can correct that oversight.

If you looked him up in an encyclopaedia, you would find he was born in New York City on 18 December 1890. Growing up in Yonkers, NY, he was one of the many "boy engineers" bitten by the radio bug, and he became a great fan of ham radio. His first important invention occurred in 1912-- the regenerative circuit, which "revolutionized wireless radio communication because it could amplify weak radio signals without distortion far more effectively than other radio receivers of that time." (Microsoft Encarta, 1998 edition). But Howard Armstrong did not stop with making long distance radio communications feasible. In 1917, while serving his country during World War I as a captain in the US Signal Corps, he invented the superheterodyne circuit, which further improved the ability to receive radio signals-- this circuit allowed for greater selectivity and amplification. [We today take all of this for granted-- we turn on a radio and expect the station of our choice to come in clearly. But in radio's early days, fading and static were a constant problem, even with local stations. The idea of automatically tuning in your favourite station was the impossible dream-- if you were lucky, your favourite station came in that night, and if not, some other station did... maybe. Armstrong's technology-- developed when most wireless stations were still transmitting in Morse code-- was an important step that would allow future radio listeners to select a particular station and receive it loudly enough so that it could be enjoyed.]

Impressed with what Armstrong had achieved, the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) awarded him their Medal of Honor for 1917, and in the fall of 1919, the Radio Club of America recognised him as radio's most important person, and held a dinner and award ceremony for him at the Hotel Ansonia in New York. He had been promoted from Captain to Major in the military, he was a respected university lecturer on radio, and he was receiving recognition from his peers-- as well as attention from the print media. But some of Howard Armstrong's greatest achievements were still ahead.

If you saw the documentary "Empire of the Air" (or read the book by Tom Lewis), you know about his on-going battles (both verbal and legal) with Lee deForest, and you also know that he was at first befriended by David Sarnoff (who even introduced him to Marion MacInnis, the woman Armstrong married in late 1923), and ultimately betrayed by him. But rather than dwell on that, let me instead concentrate on Armstrong's many contributions to radio. Like most great inventors, Armstrong was not satisfied with some of his earliest inventions, and sought to improve them. As Tom Lewis states, this was especially true for Armstrong's invention of the regenerative circuit, because while it certainly had been an asset to early radio, it had one large drawback "...regeneration had created the problem of static, for [Armstrong's] circuit amplified both the radio signal and the interference... the problem grew more intense in the summers, when electrical storms produced what [radio] operators called the 'static season'." (Empire of the Air, p. 249) Armstrong became committed to eliminating static in radio reception, and worked on the problem for years.

It would not be until 1933 that his efforts brought success the technology for FM broadcasting. Again, for those of us today who are accustomed to radio having both AM and FM, this may not sound very important-- but the first two decades of commercial broadcasting involved mainly AM stations. If you were listening to radio in the summer of 1928, for example, your town had access to two radio networks (NBC and CBS), and you probably had a number of stations you could hear. But they were all on the AM band, which meant they were subject to various types of atmospheric interference. In fact, some newspapers of that era included a weather forecast on the radio page to help listeners predict how well stations would come in that day! Armstrong's invention of Frequency Modulation technology changed all that-- although unlike some of his earlier inventions, this one would not get the attention it deserved until many years later.

Unfortunately for Armstrong, most receiver companies (RCA among them) had heavily invested in AM. At that time, there were no plans to create AM/FM radio sets, and in the middle of the Great Depression, the idea of marketing radio sets that could receive only FM was not an idea most companies supported, especially with no regular FM stations on the air yet. Determined to prove that FM could work and was in fact superior in sound quality to AM, Armstrong put his own experimental FM station on the air; but it would not be until the late 1930s that other believers in his technology would follow his lead and make regular broadcasting on the FM band a reality (for more about one such FM proponent, read about John Shepard's FM Network. Supporters of this new technology began to put out a magazine called "FM", and its first issue in November of 1940 displayed Armstrong's picture on the cover; inside there was a glowing tribute to him, headlined "He Wins Again!" The magazine's optimism was premature however; it would take many more years before FM did in fact become more popular than AM.

By most accounts, Armstrong was a very private person, who allowed few people to get close to him. He loved his wife, but he was obsessed with radio, sometimes to the exclusion of everything and everyone around him. He became so totally consumed with his fight to prove he was right about FM that it finally caused the break-up of his marriage. In the end, worn down by money problems and frustrated by what he saw as the failure of radio (and people like Sarnoff) to recognise the importance of FM, he committed suicide in early 1954.

Ironically, although he died believing he was a failure, Armstrong's discoveries continue to affect radio technology decades later. In 1988, the Armstrong Memorial Research Foundation at Columbia University issued an informational booklet about his life and his many accomplishments, noting, "At least one of Armstrong's three key inventions-- the regenerative and superheterodyne circuits and wide band frequency modulation-- is a vital component of almost all current telecommunications equipment worldwide." While too few people today know his name, his inventions laid the foundation for much of our modern broadcast technology. The Armstrong Foundation is dedicated to making his achievements better known, and expanding upon his research it established an annual award in his name for excellence in broadcasting, and has given grants to support engineering and science students who are doing promising work in telecommunications. Edwin Howard Armstrong was definitely one of broadcasting's founding fathers, and he does not deserve to be forgotten.

--- Donna Halper is a famous lecturer and broadcast consultant based in Quincy, MA. Her love of radio history is evident in the way she captures the essence of her subjects.

* Copyright 1998 - reproduction in any form without permission is not only against the law, it is also inconsiderate.