Edwin H. Armstrong

Edwin Howard Armstrong was a giant in many respects. That picture was given to us by the gentleman on the left, who was Mr. Charles R. Underhill. He started Armstrong on his distinguished career because Armstrong lived in the neighborhood of Mount Vernon, in New York. And Underhill lived a couple houses away… and very quickly, young Armstrong found out that Underhill was the man to go to find the answers to questions that bothered him.

So, as Underhill’s son has told it to me, that’s the fellow, the younger guy on the right we knew…Armstrong would come over and sit in Underhill’s office while Underhill was at the drafting board pushing his sliderule, and he would ask him questions, and Underhill would answer the questions.  This would go on for hours.  Underhill was very impressed with the staying power of the young fellow, because he was just a kid.  He would ride over on his bike.  Anyway, that’s how we happen to have that picture.

The other interesting thing is that Underhill was a friend of Massie…Walter Massie.  And we have the Massie Wireless Station next door, the world’s oldest surviving, fully-equipped wireless station. (National Register)

Fred – “What was Armstrong’s achievement?”

Armstrong’s first major achievement gave him the nickname of “Feedback Armstrong”.  He’s the guy that suggested using a tickler coil in the plate circuit of a radio receiver, so that a little of the output energy would be coupled back into the input, to cause the circuit to oscillate.  And this would elevate the sensitivity of the circuit tremendously.  It is called regeneration.

Fred – “Is that a drawing of the circuit there?”

Armstrong got involved in many patent disputes with Lee de Forest, and that is a coil that Armstrong had made when he was a younger fellow, but it was an exhibit in the federal patent dispute.  So, that’s the real McCoy from Armstrong’s patent dispute…and Harry Houck worked with Armstrong in France as a soldier…Armstrong was a Major in the Signal Corps in World War I, and Harry Houck worked with him…and we were honored to have Harry come up here and bring one of Armstrong’s early feedback radios with him and talk about it.

The windows behind Harry Houck (in the photo) are actually this building.  We’re standing in the same building.

The four major inventions of Armstrong are there, listed, Regenerative, Super-Regenerative, Super-Heterodyne, and FM…Frequency Modulation.  And those are the fundamental radio circuits to this day.

Fred – “Nancy mentioned that Armstrong gave some of these patents to the government?”

Oh, yes.  In World War II…this comes to me because I was in the Signal Corps and used an awful lot of stuff based on his patents.

Our equipment for short-range field radios by the infantry, the tank people…everybody…was Frequency Modulation.  And Frequency Modulation is immune to static interference, unlike AM, where static can drive the signal to pieces.  Armstrong recognized the value of this patent, and he gave to the United States government the free use of his patent, which was worth literally billions of dollars in World War II, and then the poor fellow died broke.

Fred – “Really!”


Fred – “Because of a fight with…”

…Because of RCA, which cheated him.  His estate won the patent back again.  Sarnoff…David Sarnoff was the rogue.

But while I’m talking about Armstrong, the Columbia University…he had his own laboratory at Columbia University for years, and Columbia, thank goodness, thought about us when they cleaned out his laboratory, and they gave this woofer-tweeter speaker…of course, Armstrong is known as the man of high-fidelity, and the woofer-tweeter was one of the earliest hi-fi speaker systems.  And supposedly… I have no proof of this… Armstrong, himself, built this particular enclosure.  He had it in his office at Columbia.

Text from the transcript of a tour of New England Wireless & Steam Museum’s Wireless Building given by Robert W. Merriam on a winter day in 2012. Transcription by Craig H. Moody, K1CHM. Edited by Fred Jaggi.