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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Book Review: "Man of High Fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong" (Free Download)

Dave W2DAB sent me this wonderful book.  He picked up a copy at a recent Columbia University lecture on E. Howard Armstrong.  Written by the notable science writer Lawrence Lessing, the book was first published in 1956.  The paperback copy that Dave sent me came out in 1969; while 50 years old, my copy is in remarkably good shape. 

I really liked the book.  The author captures the technical achievements of  Armstrong, while also describing vividly the world in which Armstrong lived.  Being from the area, I especially liked Lessing's description of New York City and the Hudson Valley in the early years of the 20th century. This was the world of my grandparents; Lessing's book helped me understand it better. 

For the radio amateur, I think the most gripping part of the book is the way Lessing describes  the excitement of early radio.  Armstrong was a true enthusiast for the new technology, and he was -- even as a teenager -- at the cutting edge.  He was constantly striving to improve the technology, especially the receivers.  Like us, he often became obsessed with his radio work, often forgoing sleep and missing family meals as he toiled away in his workshop. Lessing tells us of Armstrong's astonishment and joy, when, upon inventing the regenerative receiver, he was suddenly able to clearly receive signals from distant stations that previously had been barely discernible.  Realize that when he was doing that, he was the only person on the planet who was doing it.  He was the inventor. He was the first. 

Lessing gives us a lot of great information about Armstrong's work as an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Paris during World War I.  We learn more about how his desire to be able to detect noise from the electrical systems of enemy airplanes led him to the invention of our beloved superhet receivers.   But my favorite Armstrong in WWI story involves his visit to the radio shack of the ship that was carrying him to the war.   In the radio shack he found a conventional station.  But he asked the operator if he happened to have one of the then new audion tubes.  On the spot, Armstrong took the tube and rigged up a regenerative receiver.  He and the ship's radioman then delighted in hearing stations that had never before been audible.   Amazing.     

I was less interested in the sad tale of Armstrong's legal patent battles, so I kind of skimmed through that.  I'm also not much of an FM guy, so I'll save those portions of the book for a later date.  

I think this is an important book about a significant part of radio history.  It is well written.  It gets almost all of the technical details right (but sorry Mr. Lessing,  radio waves are not composed of electrons).  The book deserves a place on the shelf of all radio history libraries.   If you can't get a print copy, an online version can be downloaded here: 

 https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.189098

Thanks again to Dave W2DAB.   

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this Bill. I have carried a desire to know more about what Armstrong actually did in the first world war, and what propelled him to make the discoveries he did. I think this book will answer exactly these questions which would have remained unanswered for me without your connection to this book. I expect it will be as compelling a story as that of Edison and his life.
    Many thanks to Dave,W2DAB and yourself there Bill. 73's.

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  2. Bill and Pete, thanks a million for the linkage. Armstrong was a hero in more ways than one. He had a hard life with the pressures of business and subsequent litigation that eventually took its' toll. It is a wonderful paradox that his namesake Neil used Mr. Edwin's great invention to send those famous words back to Earth in 1969 on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

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