Saturday, May 28, 2016
VOLUME -24 NUMBER 6
Publication Date: 06/1/2009
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ARCHIVE >  June 2009 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

A Brilliant and Determined Genius
Walter Salm, Editor
A few centuries ago, when I had my very first job in a publishing house — specializing in electronics, of course — I was amused by the owner's office that sported a bust of Nicola Tesla on a column situated just inside his office door so you had to kind of sidestep to get around the Tesla pedestal. Today, there's an electric car that bears the great innovator's name; I drove past a Tesla showroom the other day in Menlo Park, California — especially ironic since Menlo Park, New Jersey was home to Thomas Edison's lab for many years, and Edison and Tesla were bitter enemies. Even more ironic: Edison based his work on direct current; Tesla was the proponent of AC, and the new Tesla auto runs on batteries which were still DC the last time I looked.

The man I worked for in those early days was Hugo Gernsback, known to some as the father of modern science fiction, and Tesla was his absolute personal hero. Gernsback published electronics magazines and books, and that's where I first learned my trade. There was certainly good reason for his hero worship; Tesla single-handedly brought the benefits of alternating current to the world, including transformers, distribution systems, and his famous lightning-generating machines. He wanted to transmit electric power through space with no wires; he was obviously way ahead of his time with that idea.

My own personal hero of technology came a few years later. His name was Edwin Howard Armstrong (aka "Major" Armstrong because of his WWI service in the U.S. Army Signal Corps) and it was as an undergraduate electrical engineering student at Columbia University (1909-1912) that he developed his electron theory — the same one we accept as gospel today. He did it using the scientific method — making carefully conceived lab observations, keeping meticulous notes, and drawing logical conclusions that were 100 percent borne out by the facts. Until that time, experimenters and inventors — particularly Guglielmo Marconi and Lee de Forest were only guessing at the nature of radio waves and what caused various phenomena to happen, and most of the time they were dead wrong and just got lucky once in a while.

Armstrong developed the first electronic oscillators; until then, radio waves were generated by brute force — electromechanical dynamos spinning as fast as they could without burning out their bearings. Lee de Forest had taken Fleming's valve and improved on it, inventing the audion, a somewhat modified Edison valve, but he had no idea of how it really worked, and everything he did was by guess and by gosh. It took the particular genius of Armstrong to develop the theory and then devise circuits that really worked because he knew what all those little electrons were really doing and had figured out how to control them — truly remarkable, and while still an undergraduate no less.

His invention of the regenerative oscillator and later of the superheterodyne circuit (during the Great War) and then the Superregenerative circuit (everything was "Super" in thoser days) were to have a lasting impact on the entire communications industry and are still widely used as the basis for all telecommunications today. Yet Armstrong is probably best known for his invention of FM radio broadcasting (and stereo broadcasting) in the 1930s. His FM radio concept was met by obstructionism at the Federal Communications Commission in 1933, and by broadcasters who felt they didn't need another kind of broadcasting technology; Amplitude Modulation (AM) worked just fine. The FCC finally relented and granted him an experimental license when he threatened to take his invention to another country.

Armstrong's work was belittled and stolen and battled in court by established industrial giants, and he was so beaten down and worn out by the endless legal battles for the rights to his own inventions, that in 1954 he finally walked out of a 13th floor window, properly and neatly dressed in hat, coat, scarf and gloves (it was January in New York), after writing a two-page letter of explanation to his wife. Okay, so he didn't invent the transistor or the IC or the computer; he left those inventions for others to claim. But he's still my personal hero, and for good reason — a determined and extraordinarily brilliant genius, to whom we own so much of today's technology.  

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