Edwin Armstrong’s Battle for FM Radio

Chances are you have at least one radio that can receive FM stations. Even though FM is becoming less used now with Internet and satellite options, it still is more popular than the older AM radio bands. FM was the brainchild of an inventor you may have heard of — Edwin Armstrong — but you probably don’t know the whole story. It could make a sort of radio-themed soap opera. It is a story of innovation, but also a story of personal vanity, corporate greed, stubbornness, marital problems, and even suicide. The only thing missing is a long-lost identical twin sibling to turn it into a full telenovela.

Early Days

Armstrong grew up in New York and because of an illness that gave him a tic and caused him to be homeschooled, he was somewhat of a loner. He threw himself into his interest in electric and mechanical devices. By 1909 he was enrolled in Columbia University where professors noted he was very focused on what interested him but indifferent to other studies. He was also known as someone more interested in practical results than theory. He received an electrical engineering degree in 1913.

Unlike a lot of college graduates, Armstrong didn’t go work for a big firm. Instead, he set up a self-financed independent lab at Columbia. This sounded good because it meant that he would own the patents on anything invented there. But it would turn out to be a two-edged sword.

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Françoise Barré-Sinoussi: Virus Hunter

It was early 1983 and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris was busy at the centrifuge trying to detect the presence of a retrovirus. The sample in the centrifuge came from an AIDS patient, though the disease wasn’t called AIDS yet.

Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier in 1983
Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier in 1983, Image source: Le Globserver

Just two years earlier in the US, a cluster of young men had been reported as suffering from unusual infections and forms of cancer normally experienced by the very old or by people using drugs designed to suppress the immune system. More cases were reported and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a task force to monitor the unusual outbreak. In December, the first scientific article about the outbreak was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

By May 1983, researchers Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute had isolated HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, and reported it in the journal Science. Both received the Nobel prize in 2008 for this work and the Nobel prize citation stated:

Never before have science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity.

It’s only fitting then that we take a closer look at one of these modern detectives of science, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, and what led to her discovery.

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Profiles in Science: Jack Kilby and the Integrated Circuit

Sixty years ago this month, an unassuming but gifted engineer sitting in a lonely lab at Texas Instruments penned a few lines in his notebook about his ideas for building complete circuits on a single slab of semiconductor. He had no way of knowing if his idea would even work; the idea that it would become one of the key technologies of the 20th century that would rapidly change everything about the world would have seemed like a fantasy to him.

We’ve covered the story of how the integrated circuit came to be, and the ensuing patent battle that would eventually award priority to someone else. But we’ve never taken a close look at the quiet man in the quiet lab who actually thought it up: Jack Kilby.

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Philo Farnsworth, RCA, and the Battle for Television

The parenthood of any invention of consequence is almost never cut and dried. The natural tendency to want a simple story that’s easy to tell — Edison invented the light bulb, Bell invented the telephone — often belies the more complex tale: that most inventions have uncertain origins, and their back stories are often far more interesting as a result.

Inventing is a rough business. It is said that a patent is just a license to get sued, and it’s true that the determination of priority of invention often falls to the courts. Such battles often pit the little guy against a corporate behemoth, the latter with buckets of money to spend in making the former’s life miserable for months or years. The odds are rarely in the favor of the little guy, but in few cases was the deck so stacked against someone as it was for a young man barely out of high school, Philo Farnsworth, when he went up against one of the largest companies in the United States to settle a simple but critical question: who invented television?

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LEGO: The Kristiansen Legocy

Whether you are young, old, or a time traveling Vulcan, something unites all of us globally: the innocent LEGO blocks that encourage creativity over spoon-fed entertainment. Have you noticed the excess of zombified children and adults alike drooling over their collective screens lately? Back in the ancient times, all a child needed to create hours of joy were plastic interlocking bricks and a place for their parents to trip over them. The LEGO Group harbored the inspiration of our childhood inventiveness, and none of it would have been possible without the founder, Ole Kirk Kristiansen (or Christiansen). The humble carpenter from Denmark forever made his mark on the little Scandinavian country, one brick at a time.

Well, maybe not at first. You see the plastic LEGO bricks we all know and love were initially made of wood. And they were also not actually bricks.

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The Flight of the Seagull: Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut

That the Cold War was a tense and perilous time in history cannot be denied, and is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The world stood on the edge of Armageddon for most of it, occasionally stepping slightly over the line, and thankfully stepping back before any damage was done.

As nerve-wracking as the Cold War was, it had one redeeming quality: it turned us into a spacefaring species. Propelled by national pride and the need to appear to be the biggest kid on the block, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently ratcheted up their programs, trying to be the first to make the next major milestone. The Soviets made most of the firsts, making Sputnik and Gagarin household names all over the world. But in 1962, they laid down a marker for a first of epic proportions, and one that would sadly stand alone for the next 19 years: they put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

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Ted Dabney, Atari, and the Video Game Revolution

It may be hard for those raised on cinematic video games to conceive of the wonder of watching a plain white dot tracing across a black screen, reflecting off walls and a bounced by a little paddle that responded instantly to the twist of a wrist. But there was a time when Pong was all we had, and it was fascinating. People lined up for hours for the privilege of exchanging a quarter for a few minutes of monochrome distraction. In an arcade stuffed with noisy pinball machines with garish artwork and flashing lights, Pong seemed like a calm oasis, and you could almost feel your brain doing the geometry to figure out where to place the paddle so as not to miss the shot.

As primitive as it now seems, Pong was at the forefront of the video game revolution, and that little game spawned an industry that raked in $108 billion last year alone. It also spawned one of the early success stories of the industry, Atari, a company founded in 1972. Just last week, Ted Dabney, one of the co-founders of Atari, died at the age of 81. It’s sad that we’re getting to the point where we’re losing some of the pioneers of the industry, but it’s the way of things. All we can do is reflect on Dabney’s life and legacy, and examine the improbable path that led him to be one of the fathers of the video game industry.

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