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Radio inventor's tale proves patent thievery not new

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Thursday, March 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Clashes between men and men (or women), and men and corporations are a fixture of business life. Facts may change, but human strengths and frailties seem constant.

Here's a matter that goes back well over a half-century, yet seems awfully familiar today.

Shake hands if you've never heard of Edwin Howard Armstrong.

Without Armstrong (1890-1954) we wouldn't have had the superheterodyne nor something called “superregeneration.” Let's skip the technicalities here and just say that these made possible FM radio — the airwaves carried lots of static earlier — and also long-distance radar and television. Blessings all.

Armstrong should have made billionaire. But being a lone-wolf type with eccentric ways — he liked to climb signal towers — it wasn't easy for him to settle a Big Business patent fight. Unable to bend, he broke.

Lee de Forest is more of a household name: “the father of radio,” as he called himself. He gave us the audion — the vacuum tube, which made broadcasting commercially feasible.

In time transistors and microchips left his achievements far behind.

De Forest (1873-1961) peaked early as a pioneer and never got the Nobel Prize he craved. The highly publicized Guglielmo Marconi did, by giving the world long-distance wireless — but voiceless — communication.

David Sarnoff's creation was RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. More than any other business leader, he brought radio — both the broadcasting and the boxes — into millions of homes. And followed up even more relentlessly by piling research and marketing dollars into television.

Sarnoff (1891-1971), once an immigrant boy, lived to see TV hailed as an enrichment to the human mind and spirit, and then all too soon a culture-cheapening “wasteland.” As ample in ego as in waistline, Sarnoff insisted on being called “general” after an administrative stint in World War II.

RCA was his dynasty, and he had his son Robert installed as CEO after him. But Robert fell for the 1970s corporate fad of “conglomerating” unmatched companies, and mighty RCA in time tumbled into a merger with rival General Electric.

It's told well in the 1991 book “Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio.”

Inventor Armstrong was clearly author Tom Lewis's favorite. He became RCA's largest shareholder in the 1920s, thanks to his patents in FM (frequency modulation) and others.

Miraculously, he sold every share of stock just before the 1929 market crash. But his timing deserted him in patents battles with RCA that stretched from the late 1940s into the '50s. The trouble was Sarnoff thought radio had had its day and so had Armstrong's claims. It was TV that looked unlimited.

At one point Armstrong might have settled for $1 million. But he insisted on an apology and confession of patent thievery. No way could he get that from the general. The battle and its legal costs dragged on, and the inventor never lived to see vindication.

One January night in 1954, a virtually forgotten Armstrong removed the air conditioner from a window of his New York apartment, put on a business suit, overcoat, scarf and gloves, and leaped out 13 floors to his death. He's worth remembering.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email him at

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