Invention History: The Father of FM
Edwin Howard Armstrong:
The High Cost of Vindication
Curious about who invented FM Radio?
The tragic story of E. Howard Armstrong is an updating of the classic David and Goliath tale, as well as a cautionary account about individual creativity suppressed by corporate power misused.
Unless you're an engineer or a techie-type, you've probably never heard of Armstrong. He wasn't adept at self-promotion as were Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates, or any of the inspirations for the endless number of eponymous products and services out there. Still, he was the real deal.
Armstrong is best known as the father of frequency modulation, or FM. Because of his work, FM radio is the preferred format for broadcast music, while the AM band has largely been relegated to the realm of news and talk. Because of pioneering work performed by Armstrong we also have access to other commonly used technologies like television, radar, and cellular telephony.
That previous paragraph should have stressed that today, more than a half-century after his death, Armstrong is given credit for creating frequency modulation and a host of other developments that made possible those other commonly used technologies. That wasn't true during his lifetime. While he lived, Armstrong struggled for recognition as the legitimate author of the technological innovations that derived from his creative genius.
It was a struggle that impoverished him, drove him to desperation, and finally suicide.
Edwin Howard Armstrong was born to John and Emily Armstrong on December 18, 1890 in New York City, and raised in the borough of Yonkers.
Armstrong the adolescent was an intelligent, serious, and shy child, who often played alone. His solitude may have resulted from an encounter with rheumatic fever that left him with a facial tic, and kept him out of school for two years.
When he was 14, his father gave him a copy of The Boy's Book of Inventions: Stories of the Wonders of Modern Science by Ran Stannard Baker, a popular, muckraking journalist of the time, who published several things that targeted a youthful crowd.
Armstrong was fascinated by Baker's account of Guglielmo Marconi's adventures in wireless telegraphy, and was determined to make his own contribution to this new field. "He was dogged," said his niece, Jeanne Hammond, "and developed at this early age a capacity for infinite patience in his experiments which was to mark his life's work."
He built crystal radio receivers, and developed a focus not unlike that shared by many ham radio operators in his single-minded pursuit of goals. He set up antennas on the roof above the third floor cupola of his parents house at 1032 Warburton Avenue, then flew "antenna kites" to increase the range of his reception, while working to boost the strength of the signals received. He eventually constructed a 125-foot-tall antenna with the help of his sister, Edith, and a neighborhood friend.
Following High School, the aspiring inventor/entrepreneur entered nearby Columbia University to study electrical engineering. In his junior year he was taken under the wing of Michael Idvorsky Pupin (1854-1935), a Serbian-born physicist, who was an influential faculty member, as well as a successful inventor.
Pupin was responsible for a number of advances in the fields of telephony, telegraphy, and radio. The "Pupin coil" in the 1890s helped to make long-distance telephone calling practical.