Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.
I can still see it when I close my eyes. Between the neighbors’ houses, over the treetops that lined the streets winding down my hill. If I stood in just the right place, in the middle of the grass, a few feet off the stone path, there it was a mile or so stretch of the Hudson River, and the Palisades that bulwark its western bank, rising sharply, jaggedly to the clouds. These cliffs, the river, the houses and trees, are painted into the landscapes of my childhood memories. And always, off in the distance, that metal antenna...thing.
I knew what it was, basically, without really knowing what it was. Growing up in a city built on 7 steep hills, “Like Rome,” my Aunt Kathi used to tell me, I was familiar with the radio signal antennae that perched atop our highest geographical points. Thin, steel claws, scratching at the sky, Glowing, pulsating, from dusk until dawn. To me, this tower was no different. It looked a little different, more like a big “T” crossed three times than the little Eiffel Towers that stuck out of our city like stalagmites. But it was a part of so many memories. Looking up and seeing it, far off, while hunting Easter Eggs with my cousins. Catching the first few blinks of it’s beacon light, while watching the sunset from hood of my first car in our driveway, hearing the unfamiliar sound of fighter jets flying over over it while visiting home from college that one September.
Edwin Armstrong had lived his entire life in New York City. He was born in 1890 into the neighborhood of Chelsea. A few years later his family moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Now, at 8 years old, it was time to move North again, to the City of Yonkers. There was plenty of open space and fresh air to be had in this new city on the banks of the Hudson River.
This was the entire reason for the family’s sudden relocation, as Edwin had contracted St Vitus’ Dance, a complication of rheumatic fever that caused uncoordinated and uncontrollable jerking motions of the hands, feet, and face. Thinking the fresh air would do him some good, the Armstrongs moved into a beautiful Victorian home on Warburton Avenue, at the base of a hill overlooking the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades on its Western bank.
Edwin was homeschooled due to this illness, and spent most of his time in his family’s new house, withdrawn from the outside world. He toyed and tinkered with mechanical and electrical devices. He would look out to those cliffs and that river every day, fascinated by the trains that ran along it’s banks. Showing a strange fascination with heights, he constructed a rickety antenna tower, complete with a harness seat to reach the top, in his backyard. His life was small for now, his illness made sure of that, but he was developing the curious nature and the idiosyncrasies that would allow him to eventually change the entire world. --------------------------------------
1933, manhattan, the height of the great depression. Edwin Armstrong is toiling away in secret, in a laboratory beneath Columbia’s Philosophy Hall.
His previous work, developing the regenerative circuit, the superheterodyne receiver, and the super regenerative circuit had already drastically improved radio broadcasting, earned him a slew of valuable patents, and placed him as the largest shareholder in radio giant RCA. He understood the equipment used in radio better than pretty much anyone, in no small part to his helping develop a large portion of it.
His newest project, to see if he could eliminate the static interference present in radio broadcasts of the time, was the holy grail of the industry. These broadcasts used Amplitude Modulation, or variances in the height of a radio wave, in order to produce a signal. Armstrong had been experimenting with using Frequency Modulation, or variances in how many waves pass through the receiver in a given amount of time, as a replacement for the old, staticy AM systems. Many engineers and scientists before him had traversed this route to solve the clarity issues with broadcasts and deemed it ineffective. Edwin, however, had developed a method of using a “wide band” FM signal which held many advantages over the older, narrow band FM, and even the popular AM signal.
He was granted 5 patents and set out to pitch the system to RCA, which, by agreement, had the right to first refusal of any of his patents. The company had hoped there would be a simple, easy-to-implement system to reduce the static. Armstrong’s wide band FM equipment was anything but. Still, he refused to give up. Knowing his methods were far superior, and could save the radio industry during these uncertain economic times, he set up an experiment using the antenna atop the Empire State Building.
Armstrong simultaneously broadcast an organ recital in both AM and FM. The AM broadcast was garbled and static-ridden while the FM was incredibly clear and robust. Though listeners were in awe of his new technology, RCA declined to invest and ordered that he remove his equipment from their antenna, citing their new focus on television broadcast as the reason.
As determined as ever, and fully confident that his technology was the best, and would replace AM broadcasts within 5 years, Edwin decided to fund development himself, and sought to promote his invention to other broadcasting companies and the federal government. He met with industry engineers, representatives from Zenith and General Electric, as well as the FCC. His demonstrations clearly showed that FM provided the best results, but it would also be expensive to implement and requires all new equipment. Everyone suffered the same misgivings that RCA had, and Armstrong was through trying to convince someone else to help build out the necessary infrastructure. He had to do it himself. People need to know. Edwin needed a tower, an antenna with which to broadcast his signal. It needed to be elevated, to give it clear line of sight for miles around. It also needed to be within range of New York City, where any potential partners would be headquartered, and where there were plenty of ears to reach. His mind drifted back to thoughts of his childhood home. The vast river, and those magnificent, soaring cliffs on it’s far banks. It was perfect.
In 1938, the tower was constructed in the woods of Alpine, New Jersey, on the cliffs directly across the river from his old house on Warburton Avenue in Yonkers. Rising 410 feet out above the palisades, and at a cost of $300,000, he could easily reach New York City and a large chunk of New England with his signal. From that spot, he built a network of radio stations around the area called The Yankee Network. Manufacturing receivers himself, Armstrong sold them to customers directly, astounding them with the depth and clarity of his system’s sound. He was convincing people of the superiority of wide band FM one at a time. For them, listening was believing.
September 11th, 2001 Manhattan. 10:27 in the morning. There is panic on the ground. 101 minutes ago, the North Tower of the World Trade center was hit by a commercial airliner. Shortly after, the South Tower was hit by another. People are running, crying, screaming. People are choking, falling and dying. 28 minutes ago the South tower collapsed. The destruction is unfathomable. The confusion and terror in the air is as thick as the dust and the smoke. The President said we are under attack. People everywhere, the ones not burning or running or falling or flying, are watching. Everyone everywhere is watching, wondering, “who is next?”
“Is it me?”
The North Tower Collapses. Down with the tower, and the people, and the plane, came most of the broadcasting equipment for New York’s major television and radio networks. The signal was cut from New York to New Jersey, Connecticut to Pennsylvania. While most customers received their signal via underground cable networks, large portions of the population still relied on the airwaves, and now those airwaves were silent. The networks scrambled to get emergency antennas set up on their roofs, and transmit their signal, ad-hoc, for the time being. They still weren’t reaching enough people. A more stable solution was needed. There it stood, as it had for 63 years, above the trees and cliffs, along the Hudson River. Armstrong Tower, largely dormant since being turned off in 1954, was the best candidate to carry their signal up from the city and out to the people. Those people who still had so many questions, the people who needed to know.
The field house at the base of the antenna, where Edwin used to conduct his experiments, was now a museum. The staff, more curators now than anything. But all were ready for the challenge, and soon the networks were back up. WPIX, WABC, WNET, WNJU, and WNBC, the descendant of RCA’s television station that had cost Armstrong his future at the company, forcing him to build the tower in the first place, were all back on the air, the beneficiaries of Armstrong’s grit and determination, all those years ago.
It’s 2018. Im sitting, haphazardly slumped in my beat up, old orange armchair. Eyes bleary, the last few charges of caffeine wearing off. My searches for the evening have been all over the map. Nothing much has struck my interest, though i’ve bookmarked more information by this point than was lost at Alexandria. I remember wanting to look up inventions from Yonkers, NY the where I grew up. There are more than a few, and I’m remembering that many of them are not insignificant. I take a deep dive. I learn about elevators, plastics, and radio. FM Radio. It’s hours later. I start reading about Armstrong. I read about his life, his successes, and his legacy. I read about his tower. I read the words Alpine, New Jersey. A lightning bolt flashes through my brain. I remember that town. That’s the place that was across the river from where I grew up. Directly across the river. I could see it from my front yard. The tower was there? But it couldn’t be...THAT thing. No way. I run an image search for Armstrong Tower A..L..P.. the autocomplete fills in the rest. Pictures of a big antenna, yeah. Theyre close up though, all taken from directly below or from nearby, except for this… I click. I freeze. Im staring through my computer screen and into my childhood. Right there, is the tower, perched atop the palisades. The Hudson, green and broad, flowing beneath. The memory hits like the sound of your grandparents’ screen door, or the way the gym used to smell at your school. Its obvious that I’ll be writing about this one, I shake it off and get to work, but not before making a facebook post about this insane coincidence. I mean, people need to know.
Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.