Monday, July 08, 2002
The Lone Inventor

I'm reluctantly commenting on this piece in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell on Philo Farnsworth and his relationship with RCA and "General" Sarnoff. I haven't read the two books referred to in his piece (The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan I. Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower).

Still, I don't see how you can comment on the relationship between Farnsworth, his inventions and their contribution to television, and RCA and not comment on how RCA behaved in its relationship with Howard Armstrong and his inventions regarding radio. It was Armstrong's invention of the feedback amplifier that made the vacuum tube a useful device; it was Armstrong's invention of superheterodyne modulation schemes that made broadcast radio technology possible; and it was Armstrong's invention of frequency modulation that made high-fidelity radio happen.

Armstrong's fights with RCA over his patents to two of those three -- if I remember correctly, the US Army was assigned his superhet patent, because he was in the Radio Corp (Colonel Armstrong led to "General" Sarnoff) at the time -- technologies is an important part of the context of Farnsworth's similar fights. And the outcome of the Armstrong situation -- Armstrong dead by suicide, but his wife's eventually seeing his ownership of the inventions rightfully restored -- supports the idea that the lone inventor could make advances in technology happen outside the corporate environment.

Of course, Armstrong wasn't quite as lone as Farnsworth: he had his connections with Columbia University. The differences and similarities in their talents and temperments is worth study. But the impression I got from Gladwell's piece is that RCA and Sarnoff shouldn't be considered to have acted too improperly regarding the matter of Farnsworth's intellectual property -- that any blame lies more with Farnsworth than with RCA -- and I think that, given the history of the Armstrong cases, that's a tough claim to support.

Still, like almost everything else that Gladwell writes, the piece is well-written and very readable. And I owe it to myself to read the sources mentioned there. Two sources on Armstrong and Sarnoff are Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, by Tom Lewis (Harper Collins, 1991), and Edwin Howard Armstrong: Man of High Fidelity (can't find the reference; it's older and likely out of print).