The two young men would spend the entire night--thirteen hours in all--huddled over Armstrong's receiver, pulling in radio signals from around the world. Years later, Sarnoff's memory of the experience moved him to uncharacteristic raptures: "Well do I remember that memorable night at the Belmar station when, by means of your 'magic box,' I was able to copy the signals from Honolulu," Sarnoff wrote in a letter to his friend. "Whatever chills the air produced were more than extinguished by the warmth of the thrill which came to me at hearing for the first time signals from across the Atlantic and across the Pacific."
At first glance, the two men seemed unlikely allies. Armstrong, a native New Yorker from a well-to-do family, would remain a fiercely independent inventor in the mold of Edison and Marconi. Sarnoff, a Russian Jewish immigrant who had literally worked his way up from the mailroom, was poised to become the archetype of the American tycoon, a man who would devote his life to the goals and interests of his corporation. Even so, the alliance they forged at Belmar would not only shape the lives of both men, but also help to determine the future of mass communication in the United States. Armstrong's feedback circuit, together with a subsequent innovation called the superheterodyne, an elegant technique that could improve reception and tune a radio at the same time, would soon make him a millionaire. As the largest holder of RCA stock, Armstrong would become a fixture in Sarnoff's life--both in the office, where Armstrong courted and married Sarnoff's secretary, and at home, where Armstrong visited so frequently that Sarnoff's family dubbed him "the coffee man."
For a time, Armstrong reveled in his good fortune. He took a grand tour of Europe--"Arriving in England on Saturday" he cabled a friend, "with the contents of the Radio Corporation's safe"--and bought himself a lavish Hispano-Suiza automobile. Even as he surveyed his dominion from atop the RCA broadcasting mast, however, there remained one unconquered summit. For all of the accomplishments and refinements of Armstrong and fellow radio pioneers such as Lee de Forest and Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, radio communication was still hampered by the constant din of background static. The problem was so pervasive that it was the custom for newspapers to run weather forecasts alongside their radio listings, to give the home listener an idea of the likely effect of adverse conditions.
It was a subject that Sarnoff and Armstrong often discussed during their coffee chats. "Give me a little black box," Sarnoff said on one occasion, referring to Marconi's original "black box" radio apparatus, "but get rid of the static." Armstrong, believing this to be the sole remaining obstacle in radio broadcasting, calmly accepted the challenge.
With the confidence of youth, Armstrong initially expected a quick solution. In fact, more than ten years would pass before his labors brought results. In December of 1933, Armstrong once again summoned David Sarnoff to see his latest miracle. Sarnoff, now the president of RCA, appeared at Armstrong's laboratory, in the basement of Philosophy Hall at Columbia University, expecting to see some new gadget or tube that would filter out bothersome background noise from radio carrier waves. Instead, Armstrong had found a way to alter the waves themselves, creating a fundamentally new form of radio communication. Instead of modulating the amplitude, or intensity, of a radio carrier wave, Armstrong had developed a means of modifying its frequency, or interval. If one imagined radio signals as ocean waves, Armstrong had found a way to control the rate at which they washed up on the beach--changing the frequency, rather than the size. In time, this form of transmission would be known as frequency modulation, or FM.
Excerpted from The Boy Genius and the Mogul by Daniel StashowerCopyright 2002 by Daniel Stashower. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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