Who invented the light bulb; answer, Edison. Who invented the cotton gin; answer Eli Whitney. Who invented radio; answer, Marconi. Who invented television; mystère.
By television, we mean the black-and-white “boob tube” of the late 1940’s and 1950’s – the medium Marshall McLuhan wrote about – not the color-rich flat screen marvel of today. In those early days, one struggled with test-patterns and shaky images, oriented antennas on roof tops, tuned the vertical hold and horizontal hold knobs with surgical precision; but one never had the problems with the sound that one had with AM radio, which often fell victim to static and interference. The reason the TV sound was so good is that it used FM radio technology. So who invented FM radio, another mystère. And why were we all listening to Superman and the Hit Parade on AM radio if FM was the better medium – that too is a mystère.
It is strange that something as pervasive as TV or FM doesn’t have a heroic story of some determined young engineer struggling against all odds to go where only he or she thinks they can go – an origin myth. Even relatively recent Silicon Valley innovations such as the Hewlett Packard oscillator and the Apple personal computer have that “started in a garage” story. It turns out that for TV and FM, each does have its story, but these stories are complicated by patent battles, international competition, corporate intrigue and in the end personal tragedy – no happy endings, which is probably why there has never been a Hollywood bio-pic for either hero inventor.
In the 20’s and 30’s television systems were being developed in the US, the UK, Germany, and elsewhere. In the UK, the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird developed an electro-magnetic system. In Germany, Manfred von Ardenne pioneered a system based on the cathode-ray tube (the picture tube, a key element in electronic television) and the 1936 Olympics were broadcast on TV to sites all over Germany; however, this system did not have a modern TV camera but used a more primitive scanning technique.
Meanwhile back in the USA, Philo Farnsworth, a young Mormon engineer who was born in a log cabin in Beaver, Utah and who grew up on a ranch in Rigby, Idaho, was tackling the subatomic physics underlying television. From his lab in San Francisco, Farnsworth filed patents as early as 1927. He gave the first public demonstration of an all-electronic TV system with live camera at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on August 25, 1934; this is our TV of 1950. So television does have a classical origin story with Philo Farnsworth the hero of the piece. However, from the time of his earliest patents, Farnsworth encountered fierce opposition from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). This company, originally known as American Marconi, was founded in 1899 as a subsidiary of British Marconi; after World War I, at the behest of the military, company ownership was transferred to American firms and the company was rechristened. By this time, RCA had launched NBC, the first AM radio network, and was keen to control the development of radio and the emerging technology of television. Vladimir Zworykin was a Russian émigré who had studied in St. Petersburg with Prof. Boris Rosing, an early television visionary. Zworykin filed a patent in 1923 while working at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and this patent had a certain overlap with Farnsworth’s work; Zworykin then moved to RCA and RCA used this patent, its financial clout and powerful legal teams to bludgeon Farnsworth for years, tying him up in endless court battles.
Finally though, RCA was forced to recognize Farnsworth’s rights and peace of a sort was made when RCA licensed Farnsworth’s technology and later demonstrated television at the 1939 World’s Fair to great acclaim. However, War World II intervened and commercial television was put on a back burner until after the war. But by then, Farnsworth’s patents were about to expire and RCA simply waited them out. Although he continued working on challenging projects, in the end Farnsworth was depressed and drinking heavily and died in debt in 1971.
The story of FM radio and its inventor, Edwin Howard Armstrong, has a similar arc to it. Armstrong was born in 1890 in New York City and grew up in suburban Yonkers. He graduated with an engineering degree from Columbia University and eventually had his own lab there – but with an arrangement that left him ownership of his patents. Armstrong did important work on vacuum tube technology that eliminated the need to wear headphones to listen to a radio – this work also led to ferocious patent battles with Lee De Forest, the inventor of the original vacuum tube. Continuing to work to improve radio, Armstrong was granted patents for FM radio in 1933.
Working with RCA, Armstrong demonstrated the viability of this new technology by broadcasting from the Empire State Building. However RCA had its existing network of AM stations and this new technology was not compatible with RCA’s AM radios and would require that the listeners have a new kind of receiver. So, although Armstrong did set up an FM broadcasting operation, RCA let commercial FM radio just sit here; then WWII came and everything new that did not contribute directly to the war effort was delayed. After the war, legal skirmishes with RCA continued until Armstrong’s patents expired in 1950 – this has an eerily familiar ring to it. In fact, it gets worse: RCA convinced the FCC to re-standardize its FM frequency allocations which had the planned effect of disrupting the successful FM network that Armstrong had established on the old band, further delaying the spread of the FM medium. Tragically, with growing financial problems and exhausted by legal battles, Armstrong committed suicide in 1954.
RCA went on to play a role in color television and to enjoy a reign as a leading television manufacturer. But it did have its comeuppance and it self-destructed in the 1970’s – thrashing around trying to find new ways to increase revenue and even cooking the books. The company as such was ultimately disbanded in 1986, though the brand name is still used by Sony, Voxx and others.
Even with FM receivers becoming more widespread, something which continued to keep listeners tuned to AM radio was the fact that AM and FM programming were not decoupled until the 1960s. Wealthier stations would buy FM licenses and simply simulcast the same programming on AM and FM. There were station identifications such as this one
“This is Bob Hope; you are tuned to the call letters of the stars – WMGM, AM
and FM in New York”
and WMGM would broadcast the same shows on both media. In the 1960’s the FCC limited this practice and it was the newly liberated FM that introduced the nation to the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, … .