Throughout the coming months and as a regular part of the community outreach plan, the Museum of Information Explosion (MIE) is scheduling special presentations for visitors to learn about communication technologies displayed throughout the museum. Recently, MIE founder, Dr. Marc Bendickson, provided a presentation to the monthly gathering of the North Alabama DX Club (nadxc.org) retelling the story of Howard Armstrong, inventor of both the FM radio and superheterodyne radio receivers. Dr. Bendickson also showcased a particularly unique vintage superheterodyne (“Superhet”) radio from the MIE collection.
Although the first radio transmissions were being explored in the late 1800s, the full impact they would have on the world was not seen until much later. By the 1920s, radio was enhancing the daily lives of people across the U.S., bridging the communication divide between America’s two coasts. Partly, this was thanks to the invention of the Superheterodyne receiver by electrical engineer Edwin Howard Armstrong who graduated from Columbia in 1913 and applied for a Superhet patent in 1919. Superhet technology solved a lack of sensitivity and selectivity issues experienced in earlier radio receivers. The superhet radio made listening much more pleasant because it eliminated interference from other transmitters, among other benefits.
Armstrong then served in World War I, where he put his Superhet system to good use solving poor radio receiver performance supporting the American conflict in Europe. Yet, after the war, Armstrong had trouble getting his invention commercialized. The radios were too expensive and had high battery drainage. Fortunately, Ivan Sarnoff, CEO of RCA, saw value in Mr. Armstrong’s invention. Armstrong understood the hesitation to use bulky and expensive radio systems and decided to make a superhet that was portable. One day, Armstrong walked off an elevator into Sarnoff’s office with his portable radio playing. Sarnoff was so blown away by the quality of the sound, he canceled production contracts he already had with other vendors preparing for the next Christmas sales season. With a couple of delays in production, the Superhet radio was finally out on the market in February of ’24.
Armstrong’s technology breakthrough subsequently enabled development of additional mass-produced Superhet radios, and his contributions continue today in most modern day tuners for radios, TVs, and radar systems.