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Early FM Radio

Incremental Technology in Twentieth-Century America

Gary L. Frost

Publication Year: 2010

The commonly accepted history of FM radio is one of the twentieth century’s iconic sagas of invention, heroism, and tragedy. Edwin Howard Armstrong created a system of wideband frequency-modulation radio in 1933. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), convinced that Armstrong’s system threatened its AM empire, failed to develop the new technology and refused to pay Armstrong royalties. Armstrong sued the company at great personal cost. He died despondent, exhausted, and broke. But this account, according to Gary L. Frost, ignores the contributions of scores of other individuals who were involved in the decades-long struggle to realize the potential of FM radio. The first scholar to fully examine recently uncovered evidence from the Armstrong v. RCA lawsuit, Frost offers a thorough revision of the FM story. Frost’s balanced, contextualized approach provides a much-needed corrective to previous accounts. Navigating deftly through the details of a complicated story, he examines the motivations and interactions of the three communities most intimately involved in the development of the technology—Progressive-era amateur radio operators, RCA and Westinghouse engineers, and early FM broadcasters. In the process, Frost demonstrates the tension between competition and collaboration that goes hand in hand with the emergence and refinement of new technologies. Frost's study reconsiders both the social construction of FM radio and the process of technological evolution. Historians of technology, communication, and media will welcome this important reexamination of the canonic story of early FM radio.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

The author wishes sincerely to thank the many individuals who kindly assisted him in researching, writing, and critiquing this book. They include Alex Roland, Michael McVaugh, Sy Mauskopf, John Kasson, Peter Filene, William Trimble, Steven Niven, William E. Leuchtenberg, Dana Raymond, John Hepp IV, Stephen Pemberton, Molly Rozum, Larry Wright, Michele Strong, Patrick Sayre, Mary ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi

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Introduction: What Do We Know about FM Radio?

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pp. 1-11

This book presents a clean break from the traditional history of frequency-modulation radio. Some readers will open this volume because they already know the canonical story of FM radio’s origins, one of the twentieth century’s iconic sagas of invention, heroism, and tragedy. Possibly they learned it from Ken Burns’s 1992 ...

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1. AM and FM Radio before 1920

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pp. 12-36

To understand why frequency-modulation radio first appeared in 1902, one must know something about the technological context of the radio at that time. Two devices—the spark gap, used in transmitters, and the coherer, the basis of almost all early wireless receivers (figs. 5 and 6)—had defined the possibilities and the limitations of the art since Guglielmo Marconi invented radio...

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2. Congestion and Frequency-Modulation Research, 1913–1933

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pp. 37-60

For nearly twenty years after Cornelius Ehret and Valdemar Poulsen filed their patent applications in 1902, frequency-modulation radiotelephony languished in the backwaters of radio engineering as something to ponder from time to time, but ultimately dismissed as impractical or unneeded, or both...

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3. RCA, Armstrong, and the Acceleration of FM Research, 1926–1933

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pp. 61-76

The traditional history of FM radio implies that Edwin Howard Armstrong’s revolutionary wideband FM patents caught RCA off guard. Lessing, for example, writes that “the saga [of FM radio] began shortly before Christmas, 1933, when Armstrong invited [RCA president] David Sarnoff up to the Columbia University laboratories to witness his latest wonder.” Lessing says also that Armstrong ...

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4. The Serendipitous Discovery of Staticless Radio, 1915–1935

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pp. 77-115

To explain how Armstrong invented something resembling modern broadcast FM radio, I have examined how Armstrong profited both indirectly and directly from the results of thirty years of work by other men. He relied on his insider’s knowledge of RCAC’s research, and that firm had earlier learned much from the previous efforts of KDKA engineers and from the extensive...

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5. FM Pioneers, RCA, and the Reshaping of Wideband FM Radio, 1935–1940

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pp. 116-134

In October 1935, more than five months after Howard Armstrong began leaking information about wideband FM to the press, RCA was still promising only more tests, which prompted him to escalate his offensive with a series of public demonstrations. This was an old strategy among radio practitioners. Guglielmo Marconi had taken...

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pp. 135-142

This book has situated the history of FM between two complementary questions: Was frequency-modulation radio socially constructed? Or was it determined by natural law? The answer to both questions is yes, but the social origins of the technology exerted far more influence than did nature. Nature constrained what was technologically possible, ruling out narrowband FM...

Appendix. FM-Related Patents, 1902–1953

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pp. 143-154


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pp. 155-177


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pp. 179-181

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 183-186

Almost all literature about the history of frequency modulation before World War II echoes the narrative of Lawrence Lessing’s hagiographic biography, Man of High Fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1956; 2d ed., New York: Bantam Books, 1969). Lessing’s book exhibits a number of glaring errors and distortions, though. By focusing almost exclusively on Armstrong, it all but ignores ...


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pp. 187-191

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899133
E-ISBN-10: 0801899133
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894404
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894409

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 23 halftones
Publication Year: 2010