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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Everyone Should Build At Least One Regenerative Radio Receiver

When we build an electronic project in 2016, the chances are that the active components will be integrated circuits containing an extremely large amount of functionality in a small space. Where once we might have used an op-amp or two, a 555 timer, or a logic gate, it’s ever more common to use a microcontroller or even an IC that though it presents an analog face to the world does all its internal work in the digital domain.

Making A Transistor Radio, 2nd edition cover. Fair use, via Internet Archive.
Making A Transistor Radio, 2nd edition cover. Fair use, via Internet Archive.

There was a time when active components such as tubes or transistors were likely to be significantly expensive, and integrated circuits, if they even existed, were out of the reach of most constructors. In those days people still used electronics to do a lot of the same jobs we do today, but they relied on extremely clever circuitry rather than the brute force of a do-anything super-component. It was not uncommon to see circuits with only a few transistors or tubes that exploited all the capabilities of the devices to deliver something well beyond that which you might expect.

One of the first electronic projects I worked on was just such a circuit. It came courtesy of a children’s book, one of the Ladybird series that will be familiar to British people of a Certain Age: [George Dobbs, G3RJV]’s Making A Transistor Radio. This book built the reader up through a series of steps to a fully-functional 3-transistor Medium Wave (AM) radio with a small loudspeaker.

Two of the transistors formed the project’s audio amplifier, leaving the radio part to just one device. How on earth could a single transistor form the heart of a radio receiver with enough sensitivity and selectivity to be useful, you ask? The answer lies in an extremely clever circuit: the regenerative detector. A small amount of positive feedback is applied to an amplifier that has a tuned circuit in its path, and the effect is to both increase its gain and narrow its bandwidth. It’s still not the highest performance receiver in the world, but it’s astoundingly simple and in the early years of the 20th century it offered a huge improvement over the much simpler tuned radio frequency (TRF) receivers that were the order of the day.

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