The Death of Radio
"Oh, 'what price glory!' "
--Lee de Forest, on the Armstrong tragedy
By the spring of 1923, the Radio Corporation of America had put the finishing
touches on a magnificent broadcasting tower on the roof of the Aeolian Hall,
twenty-one stories above West 42nd Street in New York City. At the very top of
the tower, above a cross-arm that stretched thirty-six feet across, stood a
globe fashioned from strips of iron. It measured perhaps five feet in diameter,
and the strips of iron were widely spaced in the manner of a hollow, loosely
wound ball of yarn. The tower, along with a second broadcasting mast nearby, was
intended as a statement of RCA's dominance of the radio industry, throwing a
long shadow across Fifth Avenue.
On May 15 of that year, a tall, somewhat lanky man named Edwin Howard Armstrong could be seen climbing the tower's 115-foot access ladder. Armstrong wore a dark suit, a pair of glossy leather shoes, a silk tie, and a gray fedora pulled low against a stiff crosswind. Earlier, he had swung upside down by his legs from the tower's cross-arm. Now, scrambling to the top of the open sphere, he braced one foot under a strip of iron and kicked the other into the air, waving gleefully at a photographer on the roof below.
Armstrong had every reason to feel on top of the world. His innovative circuit designs had transformed the radio industry, and made him a wealthy man at the age of thirty-two. His high-wire posturing--an impulse he indulged whenever an opportunity presented itself--was simply a giddy expression of his status at the pinnacle of the broadcasting world. "Armstrong," asked an engineer who witnessed one such display, "why do you do these damned fool things?"
"Because," Armstrong replied, "the spirit moves me."
David Sarnoff, then the general manager of RCA, was not amused. "If you have made up your mind that this mundane world of ours is not a suitable place for you to be spending your time in, I don't want to quarrel with your decision," Sarnoff wrote in a letter to Armstrong, "but keep away from the Aeolian Hall towers or any other property of the Radio Corporation."
Sarnoff had good reason to be concerned, as his fortunes were largely entwined with those of Armstrong. Ten years earlier, on January 30, 1913, the twenty-two-year-old Armstrong had brought Sarnoff to a rickety transmitting station at Belmar, on the New Jersey coast. The station belonged to the American Marconi Company, and Sarnoff, at the age of twenty-one, was Marconi's chief inspector.
Sarnoff had come to this isolated station, which was little more than a crude shack, to evaluate a powerful radio receiver unit, invented by Armstrong, that employed a new type of regenerative feedback circuit that would become known as the oscillating audion. Then as now, the primary function of a radio was to convert radio waves into small electrical pulses which, when amplified, could be converted into recognizable sound. At the time, however, distant radio signals could seldom be heard above the ever-present crackle of background static from naturally occurring electromagnetic waves. Armstrong had discovered a means of cycling part of a received signal back and forth through the receiver and amplifier, magnifying the strength of the signal many times over. Armstrong's discovery, if it held up, would allow for radio communication over greater distances than ever before.
It proved to be a bitterly cold night, but Sarnoff soon forgot his discomfort. He watched with mounting excitement as Armstrong crouched over the receiving unit and, after a moment's tinkering, pulled in a remarkable message: "Lightning bad. Shall ground aerial wires." Sarnoff could scarcely believe what he was hearing; the message had originated in Honolulu.
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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