Conny Blom

Conny Blom

Conny Blom


Looking for Armstrong
30 minutes, stereo soundpiece

Edwin Howard Armstrong (December 18, 1890 – January 31, 1954) was an American electrical engineer and inventor. Among other things, Armstrong invented the modern wide band FM (frequency modulation) radio, an invention that would eventually lead to his death. His lifelong struggle for the rights for his inventions is a prime example of how the copyright and patent laws have never functioned to protect artists and inventors, but have instead always been a tool with which the dominant businesses can maintain the status quo. His legal battle with RCA (Radio Corporation of America), whom not only made it almost impossible for Armstrong to develop his invention by intense lobbying against the technique, but finally plainly stole it from him, lasted for years and in the end it left him financially broken and mentally exhausted. On the last day of January 1954 he wrote a letter to his wife, whom he had violently split up with some time before, put on an overcoat, hat, scarf and gloves, and transmitted himself out through the window of his 13th floor apartment, moving through the air one final time, towards his death below.

The standard before Armstrong's invention was AM (amplitude modulation), in which the strength of a radio signal is proportional to the strength of the audio signal that is being transmitted. Unfortunately, the natural world is full of similarly modulated signals which interfere with the reception and are heard as static. For example, AM transmissions are very sensitive to bad weather. In FM, instead of its amplitude the frequency of the main signal is varied. Since few natural sources vary in the same way as an FM signal, there is much less interference. When Armstrong demonstrated his invention the audience was baffled and amazed. Never before had music been broadcast with such fidelity and clarity. A journalist present at the occasion reported that "it was as if the orchestra was performing in the room".

Armstrong received a patent for his invention in 1933. RCA had by that point in time made huge investments in the AM technology and they basically had a monopoly on radio transmissions in the US. All of their transmitters and all of the millions of radios that they had sold used AM technology, so they set out to prevent Armstrong from developing his superior technique.
RCA began to lobby for FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulations that would prevent FM radios from becoming dominant. Consequentially FM-broadcasts was moved to the periphery of the transmission spectrum at 88-108 MHz, and the FCC also voted to severely limit FM's broadcasting power, and disallow radio relays from central stations to mountaintop antennas. This made it impossible to transmit further than locally unless sending the material over AT&T's coax cables at intentionally high rates. The shift also meant that all the equipment Armstrong and fellow enthusiasts had constructed for FM transmissions was rendered useless. Both these actions were quite obviously an economical attack against Armstrong. When weakened by them he would be less able to defend his patents in court.

Soon RCA started using the FM technology for Television transmissions, blatantly claiming that they had invented the technology. For six years Armstrong fought to defend his patents, ruining himself in the process. RCA intentionally delayed and prolonged the legal case, awaiting the date when Armstrong’s patent would expire. After Armstrong's death his widow finally won the lawsuit against RCA, and since the 60's FM has been the obvious way to transmit radio signal.

Today RCA Records (a subsidiary to RCA, now part of Sony Music Entertainment) is fighting technological development on Internet in a similar manner. New ways to distribute culture are threatening their stronghold over the music industry, so again copyright and patent rights are used to fight development, rather than to protect it.

"Looking for Armstrong" is a scan through unused FM frequencies recorded on the 31st January 2012, exactly 58 years after Edwin Howard Armstrong threw himself out of his window, making himself airborne, if only for a moment, before his brutal end. The piece is often shown as a diptych together with As Above, So Below.

Listen to sample (mp3)

Conny Blom