Vintage Radio & TV: Repairing and Building Things…Yourself!

Telefixit_ARummaging through some old files from my father, I came across this gem from 1953 and immediately recognized a great blog-post opportunity! Yes, there once was a time when any sufficiently motivated (and clever/handy) individual could actually troubleshoot things like radios and televisions. Those WERE the days – a time when life was simpler and technology was not totally beyond the grasp of 99 per-cent of the general population.

Today, auto repair is the identical twin to radio/TV repair – well beyond our reach, and residing only in the realm of trained, technical specialists. There is one glaring difference between the two twins, however: Can you guess what that is? The time/money aspect of specialized, technical know-how today renders electronic repair largely pointless. In today’s world, replacing electronic “somethings” is almost always cheaper (and more convenient) than repairing them. The same cannot be said of the automobile – for sure.

The universal image of a greasy pair of overalls protruding from the underbelly of a vintage car being repaired on one’s driveway is long-gone from the auto scene, along with the image of smiling, uniformed Texaco service station attendants swooping in to offer full service on your car as you pull-in for a fill-up.

Repairing Your TV Set Could Kill You!

Really? Even if you first unplug the set before working on it? Yes, especially back then when TV screens were of the high voltage, cathode-ray tube variety. In those days, large electronic capacitors were used to store electrical energy for powering these picture tubes. They could retain thousands of volts of electric charge even though the set was turned off or unplugged. Do-it-yourself manuals took great pains to point out the dangers and to explain how these devices could be safely discharged before working on the set!

Radio – TV Repair Shops: Extinct Dinosaurs;
Today’s Throw-away Society

Radio & TV Repair ShopThese shops, with their signs out front, were once ubiquitous. Today, they are gone because repairing any but the more valuable vintage electronics is largely a fool’s errand today – it just does not make economic sense. The reality is that today’s consumer electronics is a huge factor in our “throw-away” society. Not only is repair not economically feasible, the aggressive “newer/better” syndrome which characterizes today’s electronic devices (especially phones and computers) obsoletes most devices long before they ever need repair!

A Related Point: Why Jobs are Lost
 and the Labor Force Transformed

Although my post has a sentimental ring to it, it serves to showcase a serious aspect of societal change – specifically, the shift from manual labor in manufacturing to high-tech know-how. Here is how the chassis-guts of a television set looked some sixty years ago:

GE_RF_Chassis_New[1]

This tangle of electronic components – primarily vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, and inductors – was hand-soldered together on an assembly line comprised of a small army (mainly women) who sequentially added each piece until the whole assembly was complete. This approach was both time consuming and very labor-intensive (semi-skilled labor). Today, that long assembly line is completely replaced by robotic assemblers which pick, place, and solder components to a so-called “surface-mount” printed circuit board with designated pad positions for every part connection to the board. All wire connections between parts are replaced by thin metallic traces on the board which connect the components. Fabrication/assembly costs are much less than the old hand-wired approach while quality/reliability is exponentially better with the new technology. Individual components known as “integrated circuits” are highly dense groupings of microscopic components (multiple thousands of transistors, resistors, and capacitors) all on one single semiconductor “chip.” These circuits are identifiable by the multiple “leads” on the package. No wonder the radio – TV repairman could not keep up with the burgeoning technology!

circuit-board[1]

The money formerly paid to those armies of semi-skilled assemblers is now funneled to the relatively few highly educated, skilled and gifted engineers who designed the process and its robotic equipment. This money/job transfer away from lots of manual (often union) labor is inevitable in manufacturing facilities – a key reason for the unemployment and the sinking fortunes of the semi-skilled middle class, today.

The Heathkit Era: Build Your
Own Electronic Equipment

Heathkit VTVM_CROPI still have two pieces of electronic equipment that I built myself from the Heath Company’s famous electronic kits. All parts and detailed, step-by-step assembly instructions were provided. “Heathkits” were lab-quality and were very popular from the nineteen-fifties through the eighties. When I was working on my Masters Degree in electrical engineering in the late sixties, I built one of their biggest kits – a full-blown, vacuum tube, lab-quality oscilloscope. I sold that long ago, but I still have the vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM) and the small solid-state (transistorized) power supply that I built long ago.

When you built a Heathkit and could read an electrical schematic, you pretty-well understood the guts of your equipment and how it worked. Not so much in today’s world, however, thanks to the miracle of integrated circuits, etc. It was a wonderful time, in a way, because it was a simpler time – a time when technology was still within the reach of a determined grasp. Whenever we visit our good friends, Dave and Patti, down in Santa Barbara, Dave inevitably offers me my coffee in his well-used mug with the simple brown “Heathkit” lettering. He, too, recalls those old days, and we reminisce a bit.

Heathkit VTVM Manual  Heathkit VTVM Instr

Radio and Radio Repair – A Family Heritage

My father and his family had an early relationship with radio. My grandfather, Elmer, operated a small radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago in the nineteen forties and the early fifties.

Elmer & Martha Kubitz, 1947 _A

Elmer’s wife, Martha, had a small toy and candy store in the adjacent, connected space to the repair shop. The picture is a rare family photo (circa 1948 – the year my dad was transferred to California) of the two of them at Elmer’s front counter. In the background is a small selection of boxed vacuum tubes. A large shop would have had a much bigger stock/selection. Their joint radio/candy enterprise barely paid the bills for them, and I recall that they lived in rather dark surroundings behind the curtains visible in Elmer’s storefront, here. Theirs was a “mom and pop” business venture if ever there was one! I am very sad that we have so few pictures of my grandparents.

My father got his feet wet in radio as a young man by dropping by to help his dad in the shop on occasion. My dad was particularly good at restringing troublesome “dial cords” which connected the radio’s guts with the station tuning dial. In 1942, Dad left Schwinn bicycles and went to work in the Radio Lab at United Air Lines. A heart murmur kept him out of wartime service, but he completed an extensive radio course at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1944.

Dad's IIT Radio Diploma

I still have several of his early radio textbooks – one with a gift inscription from his young wife, my mother:

“To the finest husband in the world, and may he reach every goal he strives for.”

                         “Alice”

Leland and Jane Stanford: Beyond Their Wildest Dreams

Today, as I write this, Linda and I visited the local Los Altos History Museum to see an exhibit titled “Silicon Valley: The Lure and the Legends.” The theme of the exhibit centered on the technology explosion which has taken place over the last one hundred years in this former valley of orchards. As a retired electrical engineer involved in and intrigued by this colorful history, I know the stories well – the people and the technology companies, many of which have come and gone and changed our lives forever. The institution most responsible for all of this is still here and thriving like never before: The Leland Stanford Junior University.

Stanford Campus_1

Founded in 1891 by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to Leland Stanford Junior, their only child who died suddenly and early at the age of sixteen years, the university in nearby Palo Alto, California, was the seed-stock from which Silicon Valley took root. It continues to influence the region in a major way, to this day.

MrandMrsLelandStanford1850[1]The eastern academics who the Stanfords initially consulted ridiculed their proposal to erect a first-tier university out in the “intellectual wastelands” of frontier California, but the Stanfords had the foresight, the will, and the money to brush aside discouraging nay-sayers and proceed with their dream. The echoes of Horace Greeley’s well-publicized advice to “Go west, young man, go west!” must have resonated with them. The Leland Stanford Junior University was to be a memorial to their only child… and a gift to the “children of California.”

Seldom in history has a personal vision played-out so well. The university not only fulfilled its original, stated purposes, it has played a major role in transforming life as we know it through the technology companies it has spawned over the last several decades. Besides educating generations of engineers, like myself, the school provided the impetus for its graduates to stay in California and start new companies to pioneer new technologies. Prior to the nineteen-thirties, newly-minted engineers from west of the Mississippi would head to the east coast where companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and IBM were the established industrial players….with ready jobs.

Stanford soon had something else besides fine weather and elbow-room that none of the old, established schools in the east, including the Ivies, could match – and that was professor Frederick Terman in the electrical engineering department – later longtime Dean of Engineering at Stanford.

Like Leland and Jane Stanford, Fred Terman foresaw the potential of the young university and its western environs. It was Terman who, as early as the nineteen-thirties when orchards still covered the land around here, envisioned Stanford University as a technology center surrounded by vast numbers of research and development companies which derived their mother’s milk from Stanford’s presence. Fred Terman was dead-center with his vision, and what he visualized is precisely what we have today in Silicon Valley – thanks largely to his efforts.

To ponder the changes in this valley over the last sixty years as the result of Stanford University’s  influence is to marvel at the enormous gamble of Leland and  Jane Stanford in the eighteen-eighties and how marvelously prescient they were!

Leland_Stanford_p1070023[1]As perhaps one of the earliest examples of the university’s role in this valley, I am able to show you an early founder’s stock certificate dated 1910 from the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company located in Palo Alto, near the campus. It is for over one million shares of the company, assigned to the president and founder of the company, Cyril Elwell. Elwell was a 1907 engineering graduate of Stanford whose company pioneered early wireless (radio) in the area and quickly became the Federal Telegraph Company. To initially finance his company, Elwell borrowed $500 from 4.0.4David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president. Additional funding came from other faculty members thus heralding the beginning of the huge venture capital tradition which has always played a key role in this valley’s dynamic growth.

 

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The scope of Stanford’s influence is not confined to just the local region, or even to California; the university and its influence have significantly determined the way many of us live our lives, today. I can cite many specific reasons for the truth of that statement, but that would not be appropriate, here. Suffice it to say that technology has changed the world, and Stanford has played a major role in its pervasiveness within society. The companies spawned by Stanford and the research which takes place on campus have revolutionized all aspects of human existence – from our understanding of nuclear physics to state-of-the-art cancer research at the Stanford Medical Center.

For those young students interested in studying the liberal arts, business, the law, or medicine, Stanford also offers a top-tier education that is second to none. My advice to young students: Keep those grades up; you’ll find it very tough to be admitted. If you don’t make it here, try the Ivy League schools!

A visit to Wikipedia on the internet will yield many of the pertinent facts about Stanford which support the above contentions. The school’s large array of Nobel laureates is but one indicator of Stanford’s world-role.

Yes, I knew all of this before, but I had to pause and reflect on it all yet again after seeing the Silicon Valley exhibit and film, today. Periodically refreshing one’s perspective (I love that word!) is so important. The story of Stanford University and its role in Silicon Valley is unique; what a fine gift to the “children of California,” and what a timeless memorial to young Leland Stanford Junior.

Michael Pupin: From Immigrant to Inventor

I love a success story built on hunger, determination, and hard work. There are few immigrant stories more evocative than that of a young Serbian sheepherder who arrived in New York in March of 1874. To afford a steerage ticket aboard the ship Westphalia sailing from Hamburg, young Mihajlo Idvorsky Pupin had to sell “my books, my watch, my clothes, including the yellow sheepskin coat and the black sheepskin cap.” He arrived alone at Castle Garden, New York, with the clothes on his back, a red fez cap, a few changes of underwear, and five cents in his pocket. There was no money left to purchase a blanket and mattress for his steerage bunk, and, based on  images he had seen of half-naked Indians in New York State, he counted on being warm enough there even without his prized sheepskin coat. He almost froze to death crossing the Atlantic; hugging a warm smokestack on Westphalia’s deck during cold sleepless nights on the ocean was all that saved him.

Michael  Idvorsky Pupin    IMG_1464

His autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, was published by Scribners in 1924 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, the book has had multiple editions and many printings. My first copy of the book was the 1930 ninth printing of the second (popular) edition. A number of years ago, I purchased the 1924 third reprint of the first edition – a nicer copy, one signed by the author at Princeton (most certainly at the University) in Jan.,1926.

Pupin Signature         IMG_1448

That Princeton signature in my copy of the book evokes vivid images in my mind for the reasons which I now relate. In 1914, forty years after arriving penniless in America, Pupin was invited to Princeton to deliver a talk on the subject of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia – an important topic bearing on the outbreak of World War One. While there, Pupin pointed out to his host at Princeton the campus elm tree in front of venerable Nassau Hall under which, almost forty years prior, a wandering, road-weary immigrant paused for a sun-dappled nap after spending his last coins on a small loaf of bread. He recalled in his autobiography: “After finishing the loaf, I basked in the warm rays of the mellow April sun, and fell asleep and dreamed that in the building where the students went there was a large assembly of people who had gathered there for the purpose of conferring some academic honor upon me.”

Nassau_Hall_Princeton[1]

Nassau Hall (1756) – Princeton University

The dream was eerily prescient; by 1914, Pupin was on the faculty of Columbia University in New York, having graduated from there on an academic/athletic scholarship with honors in 1883, nine years after arriving in America. He subsequently earned a PhD  in physics at the University of Berlin, studying under Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the finest minds of nineteenth-century physics. Pupin returned to Columbia University in 1899, lecturing in mathematical physics. He was instrumental in forming Columbia’s new department of electrical engineering – a portent of things to come in applied science.

In addition to joining the faculty at Columbia University in 1899, Pupin won fame and fortune at the turn of the century by incorporating into telegraph transmission lines what were then called “Pupin coils.” Long transmission lines suffer signal loss and distortion, and Pupin’s implementation of a new idea, originally proposed by Oliver Heaviside, minimized the deleterious effects thus making long-distance lines feasible. This was mother’s milk for the infant technology of telecommunications. The purchase of Pupin’s patent by AT&T insured his fame…and, indeed, his fortune.

Michael Pupin was a scientific man of extraordinary character, vision, and energy – a romantic poet, too. I read From Immigrant to Inventor  a number of years ago, and now, as I thumb through the book to refresh my memory for this post, I see I shall need to read it again. Many pearls of wisdom and insight greet my eyes as I scan the book. His thoughts and observations resonate so completely with me. For example, he also maintains that a major catalyst behind any serious study of science and mathematics is humanity’s desire to grasp the eternal “truths” inherent in nature – those natural laws which apply everywhere and always. Their true essence never changes – never becomes “obsolete;” only our incomplete, most recent interpretations of natural law change while being honed to an ever- sharper edge as we cut our way closer and closer to the bone of nature’s ultimate secrets. To know and understand nature’s laws is to grasp a subset of the greater body of eternal “Truth” which so motivates religious endeavors.

Pupin rubbed elbows with Presidents Harding and Wilson and accumulated many significant honors during his lifetime. But his story is not defined by the “end game.” His real story is the road traveled, his elevation from penniless immigrant to a man who led such a productive life while influencing so much in twentieth-century America.

One of his star pupils at Columbia in the electrical engineering department was radio’s greatest engineer/inventor, Edwin Howard Armstrong. In 1912, as a senior at Columbia, Armstrong made one of the most important discoveries in radio’s long history – the usefulness of signal “regeneration” in radio receivers and in radio transmitters. He undoubtedly was guided somewhat by Pupin’s recent revelations regarding electric “tuning circuits.” The account of Armstrong’s discovery of regeneration – written in his own hand – mentions explaining his new, vastly improved radio receiver to Professor Pupin. For me, this document is a dramatic linkage between two of the most influential people in the history of radio and communications… with Columbia University as the stage-setting.

Armstrong_Regen_6Near the bottom of the page:

“18. Sept. 1913. Explained operation of receiver to Prof. Pupin.
19. Oct. 1913. Demonstrated reception of signals from arc station at San Francisco to
Prof. Morecroft.”

I wonder if that elm tree is still there, in front of Princeton’s Nassau Hall!

Postscript: For more on Edwin Howard Armstrong and the history of radio, see the blog archives for my post of Nov. 24, 2013, Radio! The “World In a Box”; How It Came to Be  (click on link). 

Radio! The “World In a Box”; How It Came to Be

Imagine what life was like before there was a radio in every home! Society was accustomed to quiet evenings and self-entertainment – not all bad! News from the outside world was slow in coming. The advent of radio changed everything.

SI Exif

The Crosley “Pup,” is a one-tube radio introduced by the Crosley Corporation in 1925. Battery-powered and designed for earphone listening, the Pup retailed for $9.75! Its Armstrong regenerative circuit was manufactured under patent license from Edwin Howard Armstrong, radio’s greatest inventor/engineer. The particular working example, pictured here, came from my wife’s aunt and uncle after a major garage-sweep. Her aunt’s father brought this very radio home one evening in the mid nineteen-twenties; it brought the “world” and the magic of radio into the family household when “wireless” was still new.

Well before radio’s debut, Samuel Morse’s telegraph sent that famous first code message: “What hath God wrought,” over the Baltimore to Washington DC telegraph line in 1844 – using the dots and dashes of his own “Morse code.” Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention was first demonstrated in 1876 by Bell transmitting his spoken message to a nearby assistant over a telephone line: “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.”

Those technologies were important steps in what was yet to come, but it was “wireless” radio that left giant footprints on America’s social fabric; radio was the great leap forward that led to the age of communication and life as we know it today.

Music, News, Entertainment! Radio Changed the Way We Live
The Beginnings of Mass Communication

Whereas radio’s inventor, the Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, visualized his brainchild as a point-to-point communications channel – much like the telegraph line or a pair of walkie-talkies in the hands of two individuals, others quickly saw radio’s real potential in “broadcasting.” The term derives from the farmer’s field during planting season where seeds for the year’s crops were “broadly cast” far and wide from a point-source…the farmer as he walked through the field. The concept of a point-source (radio transmitter) broadcasting far and wide to a large receiving audience was quickly adopted as radio stations rapidly came on the air. This application of radio soon morphed into a huge commercial enterprise which would see such icons as RCA, Philco, ABC, CBS, and NBC become household names. Other names like Edgar Bergin and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Lone Ranger, and Jack Armstrong also became part of the national consciousness, joined later by the great big-band leaders, Goodman, Miller, Dorsey, and Shaw. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt used the airwaves and his fire-side chats to mobilize America’s resolve through the depression years.

Marconi first demonstrated wireless radio (Morse-code telegraphy) in 1896. The first wireless transmission of music and the human voice was heard on Christmas Eve, 1906, courtesy of an important radio pioneer, Reginald Fessenden. It took ten more years for technology developments in “wireless” to reach the critical mass necessary to birth the broadcasting industry. Two major technical developments occurred within those ten years which spurred radio’s meteoric rise and changed society forever. 

The “Audion” Vacuum Tube Amplifier/Oscillator

audion_1[1]

Most people have heard of “crystal set” radios. These were early receivers of radio signals which were “passive” in nature (no external power source), and very popular with young boys in radio’s early days. These receivers relied on unique electrical properties of natural crystal materials such as Galena to rectify and detect weak radio waves, rendering them suitable for earphone listening in the process. There was no amplification available in crystal sets to boost the weak signals from the receiving antenna, hence their performance was very poor.

Enter Lee De Forest and his Audion vacuum tube in 1906. De Forest is familiar to anyone knowledgeable about early radio. Although he was a central figure in early “wireless,” he is also regarded as somewhat of a “wheeler-dealer” and a charlatan by many who know the complete history. The short version of the story centers on his introduction of the Audion vacuum tube in 1906, an “active” (battery-powered) device which, after subsequent design improvements, provided the signal amplification/detection qualities necessary for radio to become practical. In the view of many, De Forest did not understand the workings, from an engineering point of view, of his own invention!

Edwin Howard Armstrong, “Explainer” of the Audion Tube and  Inventor of “Regeneration,” the Second Great Advance in Radio.
Howard Armstrong: The Tragic Victim of a Passing Age

For radio and electrical engineers who know the history, Edwin Howard Armstrong is the tragic hero of early “wireless” and a victim of the radio empire which he helped to create. He was the quintessential radio engineer’s engineer – bright, motivated, creative…and stubbornly persistent. He exuded personal integrity. The very qualities which made him the greatest inventor/engineer in the history of radio, led to his downfall and suicide in 1954.

Howard Armstrong surfaced in 1912 as a senior electrical engineering major at Columbia University with an obsessive interest in the infant science of “wireless” radio. He was a fine student with a probing, independent mind that suffered no fools. In 1912, while living at home in nearby Yonkers, New York, and commuting daily to Columbia on an Indian-brand motorcycle, he invented a way to greatly increase signal amplification using a single De Forest Audion tube by feeding part of the tube’s marginally amplified output back to the input of the device where it was amplified over and over again. This technique is now known in the trade as “regeneration,” or positive feedback. Along the way, young Armstrong had made great strides in understanding the technology behind De Forest’s Audion tube, insights far beyond those De Forest himself had offered. While tinkering with the idea of signal regeneration in his bedroom laboratory early on the morning of September 22, 1912, he achieved much greater signal amplification from the Audion than was possible without using regeneration. The entire household was abruptly awakened by young Armstrong’s unrestrained excitement over his discovery.

Regeneration was patented by Armstrong in 1913/14 and was used, under license from him, in countless radios during the early years when radio sets with more than one tube were very expensive to produce, due to the high cost of tubes. By 1914, De Forest stepped forward to challenge Armstrong in court over Armstrong’s patent, claiming that he, De Forest, was the legitimate inventor of regeneration. The litigation in the court system over regeneration lasted twenty years, finally ending in the United States Supreme Court. Shockingly, De Forest was handed the final decision by the court, but the substantial body of radio engineers across the nation in 1934, who were well aware of the “radio art” and its history, were not buying De Forest’s claim. They fully supported Armstrong as the legitimate inventor. The twenty-year patent litigation battle over regeneration was the longest in U.S. patent court history.

Here is the historic account of his invention, written in Armstrong’s own hand around 1920, the first page of an eight-page account of his discovery of regeneration – undoubtedly used to document his court-case.

 Armstrong_Regen_1

At the bottom of the page, Armstrong sums up his triumph that morning:
“Great amplification obtained at once.”

Armstrong went on to make several major contributions to the radio art. The super-heterodyne receiver he designed in 1918 became the universal radio configuration for decades to come due to its superior performance. Through patent licenses with Armstrong, the super-het made RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, the biggest manufacturer in that highly profitable market, and it made Armstrong the largest stockholder of RCA during its early days of corporate glory and immense profitability in the mid-to-late nineteen-twenties.

Developing the System of FM (Frequency Modulation) Broadcasting

Incredibly, twenty-one years after harnessing regeneration, Armstrong went on to make yet another giant contribution to the radio art: FM (frequency modulation) broadcasting. In 1933, in the true tradition of the independent, lone-inventor, which he was, Armstrong introduced the entirely new system of FM broadcasting. Most radio engineers had said for years: “Radio static, like the poor, will always be with us.” The traditional AM (amplitude modulation) system of broadcasting suffered mightily in those early days of low transmitter power and poor reception from the annoying effects of static. Engineers had worked for years on the problem, to no avail. Armstrong took a very different and unlikely approach using wideband frequency modulation. In his revolutionary FM system, static was very greatly reduced. He, virtually by himself, designed and built the wideband FM system which was successfully demonstrated from the top of the Empire State Building in 1935 – essentially the same FM system we use today – a most remarkable achievement.

The Tragedy of Edwin Howard Armstrong

Armstrong's Suicide    004

Howard Armstrong was one of the last, great, lone-inventor/engineers. He was long affiliated with his alma-mater, Columbia University, and had extensive business/patent dealings with giant corporations, such as RCA and Philco, which drew their life-blood from his inventions and the industry which he helped to create.  Despite such wide-spread affiliations, he was, by temperament, an independent thinker in the lone-inventor mold. As radio entered the late nineteen thirties, men-of-action like Armstrong were becoming obsolete, increasingly overrun by corporate beauracracies and their in-house armies of engineers. Radio was now out of the hands of the lone-inventor, becoming the exclusive domain of the moneyed corporations with influence at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in Washington.

Armstrong increasingly found himself defending his legitimate patent rights against large corporations, battling their great financial resources and their legions of corporate lawyers. As he continued to lose rightful patent royalties due to corporate violations of his patents, he stubbornly fought back, dissipating his once-great financial security to fund the necessary lawyer’s fees. Armstrong was a man of principled integrity; he could have capitulated, retreated, retired comfortably, and lived out his life, but he chose to fight.

Ultimately, those ceaseless legal battles wore him down, bankrupted him, and destroyed his long marriage. On May 5, 1954, he stepped from his New York apartment window to his death thirteen stories below. In an ironic sense, he fell victim to the industry and the changing times he helped to create. He also was victimized by the very qualities which made him great: Intellectual independence, principled integrity, and the stubborn will to persevere. There are many lessons to be learned from Howard Armstrong’s life-story. The lone crusader was crushed by the corporate “Goliaths”  he helped create. 

Postscript and Recommendation: Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air

If you would like to know more about the early history of radio, De Forest, Armstrong, and David Sarnoff of RCA, the Ken Burns DVD documentary feature, Empire of the Air, is outstanding. The history of early radio unfolds as a back-drop to the fascinating stories of the three cited individuals – all of this presented with an historical emphasis on radio’s influence on America. The film is illuminating and highly entertaining, not merely as the history of radio, but as a commentary on life in early twentieth-century America. The DVD is based on the book of the same name by Tom Lewis – also highly recommended.

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In the Burns documentary, Armstrong’s niece is interviewed in her middle-age. As a young girl in 1912, she was awakened that night in the Armstrong household, the night he made his discovery of regeneration, and she describes the excitement. She added, “It makes me sad that his name isn’t better known. When I tell people my uncle invented radio….they ask, ‘Who was your uncle?’ When I say, Edwin Howard Armstrong, they say, ‘Who?’”

That makes me sad, too, motivating me to write this post – not just to benefit his memory, but to share his poignant story with you; there are so many life-lessons to digest. He was instrumental, through his genius and perseverance, in changing the way we live our lives today… big-time. Now you know.

A modern-day “wireless” fan (me) tuning-up the Crosley Pup!

Alan & Pup_2