For all of that, it soon became clear that Sarnoff would give no further support to the development of FM. Undeterred, Armstrong resolved to proceed on his own. Only six months later, on November 5, 1935, he arranged a lecture before the New York chapter of the Institute of Radio Engineers. After addressing his audience for some little while, Armstrong quietly played his trump card: "Now, suppose we have a little demonstration." The curtains parted to show what appeared to be an ordinary radio receiver. As Armstrong switched the unit on, the audience heard the usual sound of broadcast static. Then, as Armstrong turned a knob, the unit fell strangely silent. For a moment it seemed as if the radio had gone dead, but then the sound of an announcer's voice issued from the speaker: "This is amateur station WQAG at Yonkers, New York, operating on frequency modulation at two and a half meters." A collective gasp could be heard from the audience of engineers; the announcer's voice had come through so clearly that he could easily have been present in the room. Armstrong gestured for silence as the demonstration continued. The sound of a glass of water being poured came over the radio's speaker, followed by the crumpling of a piece of paper. Armstrong had made his point--these sounds could not possibly have been distinguished against a background of AM static.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception, Armstrong went ahead with plans to build his own FM transmitting station in Alpine, New Jersey. When completed, the station's 425-foot broadcast tower would be visible across the Hudson River in New York City--even from David Sarnoff's palatial suite of offices on the fifty-third floor of the RCA building.
The project would require much of Armstrong's energy and resources, and he liquidated most of his personal fortune--including a huge block of RCA stock--to make the funds available. Unfortunately, an even greater portion of his energies would soon be absorbed in litigation with RCA over the use of his patents. In time the case wound up in court, where the question of FM became a decisive issue. For some time, RCA had been claiming to have developed its own system of frequency modulation without any help from Armstrong. Now, speaking before a judge, Sarnoff insisted that his engineers had "done more to develop FM than anybody in this country, including Armstrong." Seated with his lawyers, Armstrong regarded his former friend with an expression of undisguised contempt.
The suit would drag on for years. "They will stall on this thing until I am dead or broke," Armstrong would often say. His wife and many of his friends urged him to accept a settlement, but for Armstrong it had become a matter of honor--one that required a clear legal victory. By 1953, Armstrong's patents and licenses had expired, and his legal bills and research expenses had drained his fortune. His health began to suffer and his behavior grew erratic. On one occasion he came to believe that someone had poisoned his food and insisted on having his stomach pumped. On another, his wife fled the house as Armstrong lashed out with a fireplace poker.
On January 31, 1954, two months after the incident with the fireplace poker, Armstrong sat down and jotted a note to his wife. "I am heartbroken because I cannot see you once again," he wrote. "I deeply regret what has happened between us. I cannot understand how I could hurt the dearest thing in the whole world to me. I would give my life to turn back to the time when we were so happy and free." He added a few lines about the state of his finances, then closed: "God keep you and may the Lord have mercy on my soul."
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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