The astonishing story of America's airwaves, the two friends - one a media mogul, the other a famous inventor - who made them available to us, and the government that figured out how to put a price on air.
This is the origin story of the airwaves - the foundational technology of the communications age - as told through the 40-year friendship of an entrepreneurial industrialist and a brilliant inventor.
David Sarnoff, the head of RCA and equal parts Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, and William Randolph Hearst, was the greatest supporter of his friend, Edwin Armstrong, developer of the first amplifier, the modern radio transmitter, and FM radio. Sarnoff was convinced that Armstrong's inventions had the power to change the way societies communicated with each other forever. He would become a visionary captain of the media industry, even predicting the advent of the Internet.
In the mid-1930s, however, when Armstrong suspected Sarnoff of orchestrating a cadre of government officials to seize control of the FM airwaves, he committed suicide. Sarnoff had a very different view of who his friend's enemies were.
Many corrupt politicians and corporations saw in Armstrong's inventions the opportunity to commodify our most ubiquitous natural resource - the air. This early alliance between high tech and business set the precedent for countless legal and industrial battles over broadband and licensing bandwidth, many of which continue to influence policy and debate today.
©2016 Scott Woolley (P)2016 HarperCollins Publishers
I am an avid eclectic reader.
This book is about the development of communication technology. Woolley follows the development from the telegraph, telephone, radio, radar, television to the internet. The author used the history of two men and a company to tell the story. One man is David Sarnoff (1891-1971), the media mogul responsible for “Radio Corporation of American” (RCA). The other man is Edwin Armstrong (1890-1954) a prolific inventor. Among his many inventions was the amplifier to enable telegraph signal reception from greater distances and FM radio. This book opens with the dramatic scene of Armstrong’s suicide. Armstrong claimed that Sarnoff betrayed him.
Both these men were visionaries. Sarnoff led the charge on radio broadcasting, color television and articulating a vision of the internet. Both men were obstructed by corporate interest and government agencies that stifled innovation. Sarnoff was excellent at encouraging scientist and determining what technology will change mankind but terrible at business management particularly of NBC which RCA owned. He foresaw the popularity of color TV but had no interest in the programs on the TV.
The book is well written and by focusing on these two men Woolley avoided getting bogged down in excessive detail on technology. The plot driven narrative illuminates the genesis of innovation and is highly readable. Woolley reveals the classic struggle of the visionaries against the established interest. Stephen Hoye does a good job narrating the book.
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