Chapter 1: The Attic Inventor

THE CAREER of Edwin Howard Armstrong began traditionally enough, about the turn of the century, in an attic. It was a large and comfortable room at the top of a big, gray Victorian house in Yonkers, New York, with turret and porches overlooking a wide sweep of the Hudson River and one of the better-class neighborhoods of the time, but an attic nevertheless.

By then it was deeply rooted in the American legend that all great inventors began thus. In just such a homely room a man alone might, with the aid of only his own two hands, luck and native intelligence, come upon a new idea that would not only make his fortune but move the World. Thomas Edison had begun his experiments in an unused corner of his family’s farm cellar. The young Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, were even then building a gliding machine in a room behind their small bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, from which they were to go on to make the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Everywhere in odd corners of the land, boys of a curious bent were tinkering over makeshift apparatus and Work tables, absorbed in pursuit of the American dream. The boy in the attic in Yonkers was spending most of his days and nights fiddling with a telegraph key and wireless contraptions.

Years later, when he had made his mark as the single most important inventor of modern radio, Howard Armstrong was persuaded to return to his attic to pose for a picture. The room had been kept intact by the family, locked and inviolate, as most of the things in his life were preserved. Indeed, the key to the room could not be found, and Armstrong, always a man of direct action, insisted on climbing out on the steep roof from an adjoining room and inching himself along a narrow, precarious gutter to force a window into his old sanctum. He had always liked to climb about high and dangerous places, and probably had been all over the roof as a boy. Except for the dust of years and fallen plaster, the attic room was as he had left it in his early manhood. An old cast-iron bed stood in the center. Old desks and tables lined the walls. A litter of dusty filing cases, chests, papers, old storage batteries and the crude “breadboard” circuits of his early experiments covered all the surfaces and the bed. No attempt was made to tidy the picture. Armstrong posed gently in the center of it, under the sloping ceiling, a tall man, bald and past his prime, glancing at a long-forgotten paper with a look of stoic pride and brooding intelligence on his mobile features.

It was in many ways a sad picture, for behind it moved a strange and turbulent life. The inventor had made his fortune, as the legend had foretold. He had won medals, honors and encomiums for his inventions that even then were filling the world with music, sound and the miraculously instantaneous transmission of human intelligence. His basic contributions to radio were three, and together they constituted the landmarks and the history of radio. The first was the regenerative or feedback circuit (1912), which took wireless telegraphy out of the spark-gap, crystal-detector stage into the radio era of amplified sound. The second was the superheterodyne circuit (1918), which underlies all modern radio and radar reception. The third and subtlest conception of all was wide-band frequency modulation or FM radio (1933), a nearly static-free system of high-fidelity broadcasting that revolutionized the reproduction of sound and opened a development in communications and the auditory arts that is not yet ended. A fourth invention, known as superregeneration, made in 1922 but not widely used, may yet prove as basic as these three.

But the inventor had wanted something more, something hard to define. A perfection, perhaps, not attainable in this life, or some non-material fulfillment only suggested in his early yearnings, or perhaps simply justice. Hardly any of his victories had been clear-cut or generously conceded. Long after they seemed safely won, they had been dogged by ill-luck and malicious detraction. Between the rather simple dreams of the boy in the attic and the long thoughts of the man who stood there for his portrait, something of a changed and wounding nature had happened to the American dream.

The world had grown exceedingly complex. More and more the individual inventor was being overshadowed by the mounting establishments of science and by large technical corporations pursuing organized research with teams of investigators and battalions of patent lawyers. The old American idea of a simpler day that all creativeness and ultimate power resides in the individual was being shuffled out of the way. Armstrong grew up just as the big industrial laboratories were spreading. Most of his life was spent in heroic defiance of their overweening claims. He fought hard and stubbornly to maintain his independence, with a sense of integrity sometimes painful in its extremes. At times his life appeared all fury and fractiousness. Nearly half of it was spent in the law courts in some of the longest, most notable and acrimonious patent suits of the era. Under these pressures, Armstrong became a complex man, shy yet aggressive, worldly yet never losing a certain original naivety, the charm and mystery of genius. At the end he knew that he was fighting an implacable turn of events. The day of the lone attic inventor was waning. He was among the last of the breed.

Armstrong's working life spanned a half-century of change more rapid and violent than almost any like period in history. Even those who have lived through it find that it requires a feat of memory to cast themselves back into the world of fifty years ago, so remote does it appear in time. Almost none of the now commonplace apparatus of modern life-the internal combustion engine, the airplane, the motion picture, the electric motor and dynamo, and all their appurtenances-had yet appeared in force to give the new century its peculiar shape and tempo. Within a few short years, however, the accumulated discoveries of the nineteenth century debouched a stream of inventions that suddenly contracted all time and distance and unleashed on the world an unprecedented range of new powers. New industries sprang up on these inventions and swiftly grew to giant size. Invariably, each new invention was hailed as a new instrument to draw the world closer together in trade and amity. This early optimism soon proved shallow and the hopes of a better, more rationally organized world mostly vain. No age suffered a more precipitous drop into disillusionment. But, in a sense never before experienced, the spate of physical change in the first half of the twentieth century more deeply transmuted the world and the possibilities of human life in it than any previous force in history.

Ironically, Howard Armstrong was one of the leading architects of this change, laying the groundwork for that system of mass communications and the control of large forces by a tiny flow of electrons that are characteristic of the age. Radio and electronic techniques came to be the impalpable nerve fibers of a century moving ever faster over the earth, in the water and through the air, complementing and accelerating this mechanization and influencing every aspect of life. Though he carried over some of the ideals and viewpoints of a previous era, Armstrong was almost wholly a man of this century and intimately embroiled in it.

Try as he might, Armstrong could not mold himself into the patriarchal image of an Alexander Graham Bell, an Eli Whitney, a Samuel F. B. Morse, a Thomas Edison, inventors of an earlier, individualistic age whose composed features stare at us equanimously from textbooks with the grave directness of trade marks or household gods. He was of a different stamp, modern, over-specialized, sensitive. The age was not conducive to either composure or security. Almost nothing in his manner or appearance suggested the popular, assured figure of a great inventor. With his smooth round head, bald almost from youth, and his powerful big frame, almost invariably clothed in conservative business suits, the uniform of the age, he might have been taken for a banker or any anonymous businessman. Only when his reserve was pierced was it possible to glimpse the driving force of his mind.

From time to time, Armstrong’s battles and exploits drew the attention of the press, but some quality in the man or in the times withheld from him that instant recognition that is fame, fleeting or enduring. He was not indifferent to fame, and that, in the end, was part of the hurt. Though his inventions were fully as great as those of his predecessors, no touch of folk myth came to make of him a hero. The loud floods of advertisement passed him by. His name and figure tended always to slip into the background, in the constant stream of new developments, most of them far less basic than his own. Probably no great American inventor of recent times is less popularly known or understood.

The times are not propitious for the recognition of great, rebellious or unorthodox talent. They are never too hospitable, but rarely have they been so bad as at present. Large impersonal forces are loose in the world, in this country as in more tyrannous parts of the globe, sweeping aside the individual of high merit in pursuit of some new corporate collective and conformist destiny. These forces, and other ills more personal, crushed Armstrong in the end, as they are crushing others. But not before he had lived a full life of great significance and poignancy for the times.