The implications of Armstrong's breakthrough were stunning. "This is not an
ordinary invention," Sarnoff declared. "This is a revolution."
Determined to claim this latest innovation for RCA, Sarnoff immediately placed
the company's new experimental laboratories atop the Empire State Building at
Armstrong's disposal--in effect putting Armstrong at the peak of the world's
tallest broadcasting mast. To all outward appearances, it seemed that Armstrong
had scored another technical triumph.
All was not as it seemed. Much had changed in the world of broadcast communications while Armstrong had been locked away in the basement of Philosophy Hall. The emerging technology of television, which had been only a faint crackle of static when Armstrong started his work, now threatened to drown him out. Up to this point, Sarnoff had been cautious in his approach to television, fearing that a premature commitment would undermine RCA's hugely profitable radio operations. Initially, the laboratory atop the Empire State Building had been dedicated to television experiments. By canceling the television operations and turning the facility over to Armstrong, Sarnoff was sending a clear and carefully modulated signal to the business community--radio was here to stay. This strategy promised not only to preserve RCA's dominance of the industry, but also to give Sarnoff's research scientists more time to perfect a commercially viable television system.
It soon became apparent, however, that Sarnoff couldn't afford to drag his feet any longer. Armstrong's FM system, if adopted, would carry a staggering price. In order to take up FM as the new standard of radio, the entire industry would have to be overhauled, and existing radio sets would have to be scrapped. At a time when huge amounts of money were needed for television research, RCA could not afford to sacrifice its radio revenues. At the same time, Sarnoff realized that his television initiative was no longer the only game in town. Others were working to perfect television technology, and if some other company got there first, RCA might find itself required to buy licensing rights and equipment from a rival.
Accordingly, Sarnoff took a new line. The work on FM radio would be shelved while RCA renewed its commitment to television. Sarnoff assured Armstrong that this would only be a temporary interruption, and even offered to employ FM technology in the television initiative. For the moment, however, RCA had to tend to the bottom line. Armstrong was told to remove his equipment from the Empire State Building. It was not the first time Armstrong had been ordered off an RCA broadcast mast, and he had reason to hope that all would end well.
Matters came to a head at the annual RCA stockholders' meeting in May 1935. While Armstrong waited expectantly for some mention of the FM revolution, Sarnoff instead made a dramatic announcement that the company would commit $1 million to its television research program. Treading a fine line so as to avoid upsetting the radio partisans, Sarnoff indicated that "while television promises to supplement the present service of broadcasting by adding sight to sound, it will not supplant or diminish the importance and usefulness of sound broadcasting." As objections were raised, Armstrong rose to his feet. Sarnoff, he reminded them, had guided the company through the dark days of the depression. "I think you would have been wiped out if it hadn't been for him," Armstrong declared. "I tell you, I wouldn't have his job for five hundred thousand dollars a year. I don't agree with everything, for I have a row on with him now. I am going to fight it through to the last ditch. I just wanted to tell you what you owe to Sarnoff."
In the end, Sarnoff got his way, and the following day he sent a letter of thanks to Armstrong. "Doubtless I have made many mistakes in my life," he wrote, "but I am glad to say they have not been in the quality of the friends I selected for reposing my faith."
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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