(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Many corporate titans have had the opportunity to ruin the lives of intrepid young inventors and entrepreneurs whose innovations would have upset the apple cart of corporate profits. Few, however, have the unusual distinction of ruining the life of a really world-class inventor whose product revolutionizes an industry. World-tranforming inventions don’t just fall off the tree every day. A greedy fat cat is amazingly lucky if fate grants him the golden opportunity to crush such an extraordinary upstart.
David Sarnoff did it twice.
If you remember that Everclear song from a while back, you know that today, AM radio is remembered as a joke. But there was a time when it was all anyone had. The days of broadcast radio may be coming to close thanks to satellite, but for a long time we were blessed to have the superior-in-every-way technology of FM.
But not long enough a time. Commercialization of FM was delayed by two or three decades, and its inventor driven to suicide, thanks to our illustrious Higgy nominee.
FM radio broadcasting technology was invented by Edwin Armstrong. In the 1910s, Armstrong figured out how to reduce interference between bandwidths. In the 1920s he invented Frequency Modulation (FM), which delivered far superior sound. FM technology is so awesome that it is still the industry standard, almost a century after it was invented. We had to go to outer space to find something better.
In 1937, using his own money, Armstrong built the first ever FM radio station. And then another, and another. By the mid-40s he had a national network of stations, the Yankee Network. Remember, he built the whole thing from scratch to nationwide rollout over more than 30 years, with his own technology, his own work, and risking his own money.
David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America, wasn’t having any of that! RCA made its fortune from AM stations – a big enough fortune to buy influence in Washington. So Sarnoff talked the FCC into moving the FM band from 42 to 50 MHz to 88 to 108 MHz.
Armstrong’s stations were all obsolete, overnight. Ruined, he committed suicide in 1954. FM didn’t become industry standard for another 30 years.
Now, one could argue that if FM was such great stuff, why didn’t more investors back Armstrong and keep him going? The answer seems pretty obvious to me. If the FCC is in Sarnoff’s pocket, nobody’s going to invest in technology that Sarnoff doesn’t want to permit.
Seems like this would make Sarnoff eminently qualified for The Higgy. But you know what? Ruining the inventor of FM radio was small potatoes for Sarnoff. By the time he was shutting down Armstrong, he had already ruined the inventor of television.
Philo Farnsworth came up with the basic idea for television at age 14 and demonstrated it at age 21. That was in 1927. Now, if something as revolutionary as TV technology was first demonsrated in 1927, why did it take until the 1950s to spread into homes across America?
Ask David Sarnoff! When Farnsworth filed for a patent in 1926, Sarnoff saw that TV was the future and sprang into action to defend RCA’s broadcasting dominance. At first he signed up another inventor to work for RCA and claimed this other guy had invented the TV, but the Patent Office ruled in Farnsworth’s favor in 1930. So Sarnoff had to make peace with Farnsworth if he wanted to make TVs, right?
Ha ha. Sarnoff went ahead and made TVs without paying Farnsworth. Long after it was too late, the courts forced Sarnoff to pay Farnsworth a measly $1 million. Compare that to the revenue RCA made by positioning itself as a dominant TV provider. The impact of Sarnoff’s theft is even greater because the growth of the TV industry was suddenly put on hold with the advent of WWII; by the time the war was over and the floodgates were open for TV to take over the world, Farnsworth’s patent had expired.
Celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting David Sarnoff for William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year.