Sea Road resident Armstrong made major waves in radio

Inventor of FM, Major Armstrong gave boost to RCA, spent late years in litigation

M.E. Tuthill

When I was a little girl living in Rye Beach, my dad and I would drive by the big house at the corner of Sea Road and Central Road. Not the Allen house, the other house, the one with the expansive lawn. My dad would say “the fellow who lived in that house invented high fidelity.”

At some level dad’s observation stayed with me, and, while I cannot recall when I became interested in Major Edwin H. Armstrong, it may have been sparked by a trip to the Smithsonian where his photograph was displayed. I was in my twenties and have been interested in this great inventor ever since (a long time!).

Major Edwin H. Armstrong (Photo courtesy of Columbia University)
Where to begin? Major Edwin H. Armstrong was born on December 18, 1890, in New York City. His father was a salesman for Oxford University Press, later to become a vice president. His mother was a former teacher. Edwin grew up in a Victorian home overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers. And, as written in the exceptional book “Empire of the Air” by Skidmore Professor Tom Lewis, it was in these early years, the family relayed, his father gave him a book titled The Boy’s Book of Inventions. He became among the many during that era fascinated with the promise of “wireless” communications.

As a student at Columbia University’s Department of Electrical Engineering Armstrong’s ability to view problems in a unique way came to the fore, sometimes to his detriment. Often he would question his professor’s assertions, and this would lead to the mistaken impression that he was arrogant. Not further from the truth could this be. Armstrong was simply parsing out the facts as he saw them.

Yannis Tsividis is an electrical engineering professor at Columbia University. He recently published an article in Columbia Magazine titled, “Edwin Armstrong: Pioneer of the Airwaves.” In it he states, “Armstrong had a distinctly analytical mind. Instead of working by trial and error, he would proceed methodically toward identifying the root cause of a problem in order to find a path toward a solution. He placed his physical intuition above everything else and in fact mistrusted results based only on mathematics.”

Tsividis tells us how Armstrong arrived at his first invention. As a student, Armstrong was working on rectifying the faintness of radio signals. In order to convey an accurate description of what he accomplished, I defer to Professor Tsividis. He says the idea struck while Armstrong was on vacation. “As soon as he returned from vacation, Armstrong tried his idea in his attic. His sister recounts how Armstrong burst into her room late in the night, dancing around and screaming, ‘I’ve done it!’ Loud signals, clearly heard across the room, were emanating from the headphones left on his bench. Armstrong discovered that, when the positive feedback was sufficiently increased, the circuit became an "oscillator" and was able to transmit its own signal. Thus, in one master stroke, a sensitive, "regenerative" receiver and an effective electronic transmitter had been born.” The invention was called the regenerative circuit. The year was 1912. Armstrong was 22 years old.

Armstrong graduated with a degree in electrical engineering the following year and soon after Radio Corporation of America came calling.

RCA paid Armstrong $200,000 and 60,000 shares of corporate stock for the patent. The regenerative circuit turned out not to be adaptable to radio so was never implemented. Fortunately for RCA Armstrong also sold the corporation his superhetrodyne invention for an additional 20,000 shares of stock. “The superhet” turned out to be a gold mine for the corporation.

During World War I Armstrong was ranked a Major. For some reason the ranking carried over into civilian life. He was stationed in France where he discovered his second invention, the superheterodyne. Again, I defer to Professor Tsidivis, “He applied the concept of heterodyning (mixing the signals of two different frequencies to produce a signal of a third frequency, equal to the sum or difference of the first two) to the reception of high-frequency radio signals. The result, which he termed the ‘superheterodyne receiver,’ was of such high performance that it eventually superseded all previous approaches, including his own regenerative receiver.” Tsidivis concludes his paragraph, “Today, practically all modern radio and TV receivers, as well as many types of cellular phones and other communication devices, use the superheterodyne approach.” The year was 1917.

Armstrong was now a millionaire. He worked as a professor at Columbia’s Department of Electrical Engineering. He chose to forgo a salary in order to spend all his time on research unencumbered by teaching responsibilities. The basement in Philosophy Hall would be his domain for the entirety of his career.

Major Armstrong atop tower. (Photo courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)
One of my favorite anecdotes about the Major occurred in May of 1923 when accompanied by a photographer he climbed the 115-foot radio tower atop an RCA radio station located in the 21-story Aeolian Hall on 42nd Street in New York City. Photographs of the Major wearing a suit and hat hanging happily onto the tower were dispensed for all to see. He was reprimanded by the head of RCA, David Sarnoff, who wrote “In looking at these photographs I feel very much as did the old farmer who saw a horse standing on the railroad tracks while the Twentieth Century Limited was coming along at full speed toward the horse who did not seem to be perturbed in the slightest by the onrushing train. The farmer said, ‘I admire the horse’s courage, but I am damned if I admire his judgment.’"
Sarnoff was really angry, but their friendship forged a few years earlier withstood Armstrong’s “foolish trick”.

I tell this story in order convey the complexity of Major Armstrong. He could climb a radio tower without so much as a hiccup. In addition to being a genius in the scientific realm, he was also a man of letters, who could draw on great literature when needed to make a point. He was a man of terrific integrity who cared little about the social accouterments.

(An aside: During World War II he assigned all his patents, at no charge, to the U.S. Government for military use.)

Settled in at Columbia, Armstrong did afford himself an item of considerable expense. It was a 1922 Hispano Suiza imported from Europe at a cost of $11,000. It was in this car that he courted Marion MacInnis. Who just happened to be David Sarnoff’s secretary.

Marion and her sister, Marjorie, moved to New York from Merrimac, Mass.  While I don’t know, my presumption is that Marion was familiar with Rye Beach, because she was from Merrimac which is not too far from the New Hampshire shoreline.

The previously mentioned Empire of the Air is a must-read for anyone interested in the Major and the history of radio. In it Lewis describes Marion as “intelligent, emancipated, confident and at times headstrong.” She was also known to love “parties, dancing and bridge games, and was considered by all who know her to be lots of fun.”

They married in 1923. The newspaper stories about the marriage often were accompanied by a picture of Armstrong and Marion on their honeymoon in Palm Beach accompanied by a portable superheterodyne radio the inventor gave her as a wedding gift.

Famous photo of the major and wife Marion on their honeymoon.

In the interest of space and time I will tell you that the bane of the Major’s existence was litigation. Early on his regenerative circuit patent was challenged by Lee de Forest. De Forest was another radio pioneer who maintained that his invention laid the groundwork for the regenerative circuit and therefore the patent should be his. The case dragged on for several years with one court decision after another. Armstrong’s refusal to settle in this case where he once prevailed would ultimately cost him the patent when in 1934 the Supreme Court decided for de Forest.  Following the decision Armstrong sought to return a medal he had received from the Institute of Radio Engineers for the invention, they refused to accept it.

While an inordinate amount of time and money was expended on the cases the Major was involved in, the emotional capital was much greater. I think the reason the Major has a core following of loyalists is because it became apparent that the qualities which led to his great discoveries led to difficult times in the “real world.” For Armstrong, there were no blurred lines. Everything was right or wrong, black or white. The day-to-day wrangling of human interaction did not equate with the surety of the scientific world, and he had difficulty discerning the difference and navigating the choppy waters.

Static had always plagued radio, and in 1935 Armstrong found a way to eliminate it with the invention of FM. Professor Tsividis writes, “‘Static, like the poor, will always be with us,’ a well-known engineer had pronounced. But Armstrong was unfazed. He believed that if, instead, one varied not the amplitude but the frequency of the signal being transmitted, the receiver could be designed so that it would respond to frequency changes rather than to amplitude changes—and would be oblivious to static. This is FM, or frequency modulation.”

Contrary to the enthusiastic reception of his earlier inventions, this invention was met with a muted response from RCA, not for its effectiveness but for the impracticality of supplanting radios. Also, RCA had its sights on television. His friendship with Sarnoff was finished.

 Armstrong was devastated. His work was kept under wraps. According Tsividis, “Various reports on the state of the art in communications ignored FM completely, including the Federal Communications Commission’s annual report to Congress.”

He singlehandedly set out to let the world know of FM, building a series of sites throughout New England for transmission called the “Yankee Network.” He also had built a station accompanied by a 400-foot tower in Alpine, New Jersey, which stands today. According to Professor Tsividis, the tower was used on 9/11 to transmit broadcast signals after the transmitters were destroyed at the World Trade Center.

Several corporations began using FM in research and according to Tsividis, “selling FM radios, ignoring Armstrong’s patents.” He sued RCA and others for royalty payments and other actions related to the repression of FM.

I am unclear as to when the Armstrong’s initially bought what would be their second home in Rye Beach. I do know from Tom Lewis that for a time they lived in the Lea House, the white pillared North Hampton mansion that sits along Route 1A. I am unsure whether they owned or rented it. However, it wasn’t too long before they settled on Sea Road.

The toll these lawsuits took on Armstrong was incalculable. He was constantly called to testify, and the discovery process was never ending. He not only had corporations as his adversaries, but the FCC and lobbying groups. At one point he said, “They will stall this along until I am dead or broke.”

Finally, on the night of January 31, 1954, an exhausted and emotionally spent Armstrong, put on his coat, hat, scarf and gloves. He stepped out his 13th-floor window to his death.

Marion was visiting with her sister in Connecticut. The marriage had been under considerable strain. Armstrong wrote her a note which ended with, “God keep you and may the Lord have mercy on my soul.”

Professor Tsividis writes, “One month before his death, Armstrong filed 21 infringement suits. His wife, Marion, carried on the battle and by the mid-sixties had won two and settled others successfully.” One only has to peruse the New York Times archives to read the headlines chronicling the Armstrong legacy.

Rye Beach is mentioned occasionally in Empire of the Air. In truth, I didn’t have time to sift through, but there was a mention of Marion traveling to Europe with “a friend from Rye Beach.” Edwin rarely took time away for his work and pursuits, so often Marion spent time with friends.

Tom Lewis writes in his book of Marion, “Until her death on August 8, 1979, Marion Armstrong lived out her life in quiet luxury in her apartment on Park Avenue and at Shadowlawn, her large house at Rye Beach, New Hampshire. At her summer address she earned the reputation for her elegant parties. Often they included dining and dancing under a large white and yellow marquee she had erected on the lawn. On occasion she gave expensive party favors to each guest. One resident took to calling her, not uncharitably, ‘The Duchess of Rye Beach.’” Lewis continues that Marion had acquired her husband’s Hispano Suiza, restored and painted a “rich dark blue.” On summer afternoons Marion could be seen wearing a wide-brimmed hat driving along the ocean road in the huge four-door Hispano Suiza, the same car in which Edwin Howard Armstrong had courted her forty years before.”

If you want to learn more about the Major, I recommend Tom Lewis’ book, Empire of the Air  and an accompanying Ken Burns’ documentary by the same name.

Many years ago Lawrence Lessing wrote a wonderful biography called, Man of High Fidelity”.

Also, Columbia University recently raised $70,000 to pay an archivist to organize more than 600 boxes of the Major’s papers. Her name is Jennifer Comins, and she has a blog in which she is sharing all the hidden gems she finds (when she has time!):

Also, there is a lot of information on Major Armstrong online.

The Armstrong home on Sea Road with author M.E. Tuthill standing in front. (Ellen Hamil photo)


August, 2010