Man of High Fidelity


Man of High Fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong, by Lawrence Lessing, New York: Bantam, Pp. 272, $1.00 pb.

Howard Armstrong was one of the greatest of American inventors, the man who discovered the basic circuits on which modern electronics is based. Lawrence Lessing's biography describes Armstrong's struggle to get his inventions developed for use—and to retain his credit for making them. It is the story of brilliant ideas, careful scientific tests, the creation of new products and new industries—and, simultaneously, the story of corporate negotiations, courtroom battles, and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

In 1912 radio was little more than a curiosity. Its development was stopped for lack of two things: a sufficiently powerful amplifier for reception, and a stable oscillator for transmission. The solution to both problems lay in the triode vacuum tube, invented by Lee de Forest. But de Forest, hampered by his erroneous theory of the triode's functioning, could not find out how to use it effectively. It was Armstrong, then an undergraduate at Columbia, who discarded de Forest's theory, developed his own, proved it with a brilliant series of experiments, and was thereby led to the feedback or "regenerative" circuit—a device which still lies at the heart of modern radio circuitry.

The result was a monumental battle in the patent courts, with de Forest claiming invention of the feedback circuit himself. Armstrong prepared for legal argument by tutoring his attorney in electronics; the more astute de Forest realized that the issue would be decided by judges who knew nothing of science and did not care to learn. After fourteen years of litigation, the patent was awarded to de Forest by the Supreme Court—a decision which shocked the scientific world.

Armstrong was not stopped. In the meantime he had invented the "superheterodyne" receiver, which made high-frequency broadcasting possible and earned him millions of dollars. But the feedback patent decision was a heavy blow to him, and he fought back in the only way he I knew how: with a new invention, perhaps his greatest, broad-band frequency modulation (FM). But FM—superior to AM because it was static-free, more powerful, and gave higher fidelity—was a threat to the AM network monopolies. Having gained control of the industry with government help, they now saw competition arising again in the independent FM stations. Once more government intervention was called in, and FM was strangled by FCC regulations.

It was the end for Howard Armstrong. His fortune had been exhausted by legal fees and by the cost of developing FM; his income was cut off as the corporations which controlled the radio industry refused to pay royalties and challenged his patents in court. Armstrong, now an old man, had fought too many battles, and no longer had the strength to fight this new one; in 1954 he committed suicide.

In the end, he won. His attorney and his widow carried on the lawsuits, and his patents were finally upheld. And FM, its superiority eventually too obvious to be ignored, made a fantastic comeback in the Sixties.

MAN OF HIGH FIDELITY is not just a tribute to a great man, but a fascinating and informative account of the development of the American radio and electronics industries. It provides a valuable description of the use of government power to create the communications monopolies, and a devastating if unintentioned indictment of American patent laws. Finally, it is a story of a sort one too seldom finds—a story of human achievement.

Ronald E. Merrill is a graduate of M.I.T. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at the University of Oregon.