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The Tragic Birth of FM Radio

ineedasername
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DAMNINTERESTING.COM

Comments

LeoPanthera 12d
A slightly comical animated look at Edwin Armstrong's invention of FM radio can be seen as part of Tim Hunkin's "The Secret Life of the Radio": https://youtu.be/LMxate9gegg?t=779

It's split into two parts, with the second part later in the same video, here: https://youtu.be/LMxate9gegg?t=1350

johnthuss 12d
“He built an experimental station and 410-foot tower at a cost of $300,000 in Alpine, New Jersey.”

Assuming this was done in 1938, this would cost the equivalent of $5.6 million today. And it was made obsolete by the frequency change just 7 years later.

UIUC_06 12d
> Through the years Armstrong’s widow would bring twenty-one patent infringement suits against many companies, including RCA. She eventually won a little over $10 million in damages.

Insert "(nearly a third of a billion in today's dollars)" there.

I don't know the actual figure.

geerlingguy 12d
While reading through the comments on that article, I was reminded of my Dad's own journey through the years as a radio engineer.

When I was growing up, he was the market engineering director for one of the two or three local FM conglomerates, and through the past 30 years or so, they kept getting gobbled up by larger corporations until probably 90% of the AM/FM radio audience was owned by either Clear Channel or CBS-then-Entercom-now-Audacy.

These groups also cut back substantially not only on local radio talent (there used to be shows through the day run by local DJs, now you're lucky to get a morning show and maybe an afternoon drive show), but also on the radio engineers deployed to the stations.

A lot is due to automation and ease of IP audio (and popularity of alternative formats like YouTube and Podcasts), but it's a bit of a sad, slow death of something I remember more fondly as a kid.

I recently had my Dad take me on a tour of a 'megawatt' (ERP) FM tower site in St. Louis (we posted a YouTube video of it) and it's incredible the engineering that goes into getting a signal (in the case of this site, 10 signals) into an FM antenna system 300m above the earth!

hilbert42 12d
I once worked for RCA and I briefly met David Sarnoff during the opening of a new RCA plant in Australia. I liked working for company and I found the electronics work I was doing there interesting—in fact it was one of the best jobs I've ever had. I was later involved with the introduction of FM into Australia but that's a separate story.

That said, David Sarnoff was a nasty opportunistic litigious man and frankly the way he treated Armstrong, Philo Farnsworth and others was despicable.

DamnInteresting 12d
This article was written by a friend of mine, he passed away unexpectedly back in 2011. It's a shame, he was a swell fellow and had so many more stories to tell. We miss him.
Jun8 12d
FCC’s move of FM frequencies influenced by Sarnoff really messed up with Armstrong, making his stations obsolete. This is also why there is no Channel 1 on TV in the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel_1_(North_American_TV)

Another inventor Sarnoff stole from was Philo Farnsworth (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo_Farnsworth). He didn’t kill himself like Armstrong but was broke and forgotten when he died in 1971.

throwaway892238 12d
21 years before the invention of FM radio, the electric car had peaked in production. By 1933 they had gone out of fashion, and 2 years later effectively disappeared from roads.
russdill 12d
Something that could have been spelled out more clearly is they NTSC uses FM for audio.
NKosmatos 12d
This would make a very good film for cinema/TV. It’s got many things from the checklist: technology, legal battles, pre-war era style, authenticity, personal struggle and so many that would make for a good scenario and paired with a couple of good actors, for sure it would be great.
feintruled 12d
FM radio really is very good quality even still, it must have been spectacular back in the 30s. In fact, it's so good it's stymied the uptake of DAB radio, at least in the UK. Digital radio in fact is often worse as it is so compressed. Funny, they are trying the same 'stealing the frequency allocation' trick again, but delayed for now.

https://www.theregister.com/2020/07/03/analogue_commercial_r...

louwrentius 12d
The Damn Interesting podcast is amazing please subscribe. They release not often and the long-form stories are super interesting and well-produced.

Also I like Damn Interesting Week podcast that discusses fun news articles, they have so much fun with them.

niepiekm 12d
This article reminded me about current changes related to EU's Unified Patent Court (UPC), discussed at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=33630823.

An article at the UPC website [1] seems to trivialize the conflict of interests raised by the community: https://www.juve-patent.com/news-and-stories/people-and-busi...

Aloha 12d
There are some technical inaccuracies in this article.

While Sarnoff did try to kill FM as a threat (more NIH than The move to 88-108 had some other good technical reasons - the higher frequency is less prone to skip, multipath, and tropospheric ducting. When the band opens on 6m (where the original band was) stations hundreds of miles away can swamp local traffic. Because Television isnt subject to the capture effect, there are less issues with it with analog TV. The interference of remote stations at the frequency it happens on low band VHF, would have sunk FM in the long term.

AM Radio Bandwidth. The original allocated channel bandwidth for AM allowed closer to 11-12kc of audio bandpass, with 8-10 being pretty common - the quality was more a function of how the lines feeding the network traffic to the station and the station to transmitter link were conditioned, and often well into the 70's the STL link was a leased conditioned line from the telco.

I do not disagree that RCA used its market position as holder of most of the radio related patents to shut out Armstrong, and it was/is despicable - but not all of the bad thind that happened were just malicious to be malicious.

simonpure 12d
I just finished reading The Master Switch by Tim Wu. It includes the history of broadcasting including why it took so long for FM radio to succeed.

According to him, Sarnoff and Armstrong were friends at some point and RCA financed the development of FM radio initially although they just wanted a more efficient AM network.

mastax 12d
Remember HD radio? I'm amazed how little adoption that still has. They got the radio stations to buy in which should've been the hard part. If it was like any other technology it should be built into the FM tuner chips for basically no cost by this point. Maybe the patent licensing is really expensive? The patents can expire just in time for nobody to care.
JKCalhoun 12d
Edwin Howard Armstrong, like "The Man Who Fell to Earth", is one of those people who not only presented the world with an idea seemingly ahead of its time, but did so repeatedly.

Perhaps after he traveled back in time our future government(s) outlawed that sort of thing.

justanother 12d
Ken Burns retells this story masterfully in "Empire Of The Air" which should be considered mandatory watching for anyone with an interest in this stuff.
nuker 11d
Someone need to add this to Sarnoff wikipedia page. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sarnoff