Radio inventor's tale proves patent thievery not new
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- In reworking contract, Steelers WR Brown gets hefty pay raise
- Pirates make 6 September call-ups
- Tomlin: Steelers were prepared for Bryant suspension as far back as draft
- 2-year-old boy shot, killed in North Side
- Photo gallery: LST 325 arrives in Pittsburgh
- Pittsburgh developer proposes hotel, restaurant to ‘jump-start’ East Deutschtown
- Penn State notebook: TE Breneman missing from depth chart
- Casey, Coons become 32nd, 33rd senators to back nuclear deal with Iran
- Steelers’ Tomlin disappointed by Bryant suspension
- Judge allows conspiracy lawsuit against UPMC, Highmark to proceed
- Steelers notebook: LB Harrison believes Goodell will prevail in Brady ruling