Armstrong Memorial Lectures

This series of lectures offered by the Department of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University in New York is named in honor of Edwin Howard Armstrong, 1890-1954, to remind our students of the landmark contributions of his inventive genius, and of the fact that he spent his entire career in the department.

Born in New York on December 18, 1890, Edwin Howard Armstrong entered Columbia in 1909. While still an undergraduate in Electrical Engineering, he discovered the regenerative detector circuit whereby the feeble radio impulses received through the air could be “fed back” and built up manyfold in strength. By replacing the crude crystal detector of earlier days, he vastly extended the range of radio reception. This regenerative circuit was universally used throughout the field of electrical communications and electronics.

Graduating in 1913 with a degree in E.E., the young engineer began under the guidance of another outstanding Columbia scientist, inventor and engineer – Professor Michael Idvorsky Pupin – the fundamental studies and investigations on which his later inventions were based. It was during his service with the United States Army Signal Corps in World War I that he developed the superheterodyne receiver (1917), providing not only further amplification but also resulting in greater selectivity of radio reception.

Major Armstrong, as he was most widely known, carried out his work from 1914 on in the Marcellus Hartley Research Laboratory, which was located in the Philosophy Building on the Columbia campus. From 1934 to the end of his life, he was Professor of Electrical Engineering at Columbia.

In the late twenties, he undertook to solve the problem of eliminating the static disturbances that were the plague of radio communication when employing amplitude modulation (AM); that is, by then standard method in which the audio signal is carried by radio waves. By 1933, he had perfected the new technique of wide-band frequency modulation (FM), eliminating static and giving the world high fidelity radio reception. Just a few months before his death he published his fifth important contribution to the art to which he devoted his life: multiple transmission and reception of radio waves by frequency modulation, which makes possible the simultaneous use of a single FM radio channel for more than one message. Thus, his entire career from undergraduate to pre-eminence in his field was marked by continued progress and successive improvements in his beloved specialty.

The gift of a single outstanding invention has been granted to few men, but seldom has one man successively made five such advances. Armstrong is considered by many to be America’s greatest electronics genius. Yet he was one of the most modest of men. In discussing improvements in the field of his endeavor, he always emphasized what others had done to further these developments and said very little of his own work. The many honors, although deeply appreciated, never influenced his bearing or disturbed his equilibrium.

But, to his more intimate friends, there was another, a less recognized, heroic element of his life. His late years were unfortunately clouded with a battle to secure for his inventions the full opportunity to serve mankind. Frequency modulation, in particular, involved a fundamental change in radio broadcasting, and its introduction was resisted by the older, already established “amplitude” interests.

Few men in making their inventions available to their fellow men have ever been called upon to exercise the patience, and determination exerted by Major Armstrong. Long and exhausting labor was unhappily diverted to a struggle to secure a chance to live for the products of his ever-active mind. He met this challenge with unflagging determination.

The lecture series is co-sponsored by the Armstrong Memorial Research Foundation.