The National September 11 Memorial Museum opened this week on the old World Trade Center site in New York City. Part of the emotional museum exhibit is the demolished television broadcast antenna mast that was used to transmit many of New York City’s broadcast signals before the terrorist attack.
A new antenna mast atop One World Trade Center is now trying to recruit broadcast clients who are willing to move their antennas back to the World Trade Center site. Only time will tell if that effort is successful.
This week — with photos of the tower wreckage dominating the news — it’s a good time to recall some amazing World Trade Center antenna history that connects back to the earliest days of broadcasting in the late 1930s.
The story begins with FM radio and its inventor, Edwin Howard Armstrong. His legacy in New York City came full circle on Sept 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center collapsed. It was the moment that a new generation of broadcasters realized that a tower that Armstrong had built in 1937 could save over-the-air television transmission in the shaken city.
When the massive antenna mast atop the north tower of the trade center crumbled into rubble, the signals of most major New York City broadcasters went off-the-air. Unable to quickly relocate to the crowded spar at the peak of the Empire State Building, the broadcasters turned to what has become a broadcast landmark—Armstrong’s tower on the Palisades Interstate Parkway in Alpine, New Jersey.
Among the stations installing antennas on the Alpine tower in the wake of the disaster were WNBC, Ch. 4; WABC, Ch.7, WPIX, Ch. 11 and WNET, Ch. 13. However, in the scurry to get back on the air, few realized the irony of choosing Armstrong’s historic mast, once the site of America’s first FM radio station.
“The idea of NBC ending up there….it’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Maybe Armstrong is turning over in his grave,” mused Jerry Minter in an interview I did with him in 2001. Minter, who died at age 95 in 2009, was a veteran radio engineer who knew Armstrong personally.
The incongruity stems from a series of events beginning in the 1930s that helped define American broadcasting. The 102-story Empire State Building, opened in 1931, was at the time the tallest building in the world and a natural place to install broadcast antennas. Its 1,250-foot peak, originally designed as a mooring for dirigibles, was soon converted to an antenna mast.
Early on, the Empire State Building’s 85th floor became a hotbed of broadcast activity. It was home to RCA’s experimental television station, which began broadcasting shortly after the skyscraper opened. Eventually, “Empire” became home to nearly all of New York City’s television stations, remaining so until completion of the 110-story World Trade Center in the early 1970s.
Empire’s 85th floor was also home to Edwin Armstrong’s FM radio laboratory. By 1935, it was clear that Armstrong’s “static-less” FM system worked well. Perhaps too well.
RCA chief David Sarnoff, claiming he needed the space for television, ordered Armstrong — who wanted to begin an FM broadcasting service in the city — to remove his equipment and vacate the Empire State Building.
“Sarnoff was very much worried that since one FM station could pick up another that they would be relaying (programming) instead of using the telephone lines in the NBC network,” recalled Renville McMann, who began his engineering career with Armstrong at age 14. “More than being threatening to AM radio, FM was threatening to the networks which at the time were largely under the control of RCA and NBC.”
Armstrong’s eviction from Empire left the inventor undeterred in his quest to bring high fidelity FM radio to New Yorkers. After purchasing 11-acres in Alpine, N.J. that overlooked the New York metropolitan landscape, Armstrong built a 425-foot, three-armed steel tower in 1937 and soon launched the nation’s first FM radio station.
It was a spectacular project, both in its visionary foresight and scenic beauty. “The view from that magnificent tower is unbelievable. You can see out to the tip of Long Island. It’s a great piece of technological real estate,” said Tom Lewis, author of Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, a 1991 history of radio broadcasting.
Armstrong’s independent FM radio venture, however, would lead to a legendary feud with rival Sarnoff. After World War II, with the launch of commercial television on the horizon, a lengthy patent battle ensued between Armstrong and Sarnoff’s RCA and NBC network. It would eventually consume Armstrong.
“Sarnoff started stealing the patents. In early television equipment, RCA paid a royalty for the picture component, but they decided not to pay a royalty on the audio component, which was the invention of Armstrong,” said Lewis. “What Sarnoff did to Armstrong was just awful. Just inhuman.”
Along with Lee de Forest, Armstrong is recognized as one of radio’s great pioneers. Among his contributions are the invention of the regenerative circuit (1912); the superheterodyne circuit (1918); the superregenerative circuit (1920); and the wideband frequency modulation system that became known as FM radio.
Armstrong’s wideband FM system offered improved noise properties and delivered significantly better performance under adverse weather conditions, noted McMann. RCA promoted an alternative design, but the engineering community was in wide agreement that it violated Armstrong’s patents.
“Sarnoff was trying to block FM and trying to block Armstrong. Making him go broke was as good a way as any other,” said McMann. “RCA effectively chose to violate his patents and not pay him.”
In 1954, Armstrong, financially devastated and under family pressure to end his long legal fight with Sarnoff, dressed in a suit and overcoat with scarf and gloves and jumped to his death from his New York City apartment. “I would give my life to turn back to the time when we were so happy and free,” Armstrong wrote in a suicide note to his wife.
Armstrong’s widow, once Sarnoff’s personal secretary, continued her husband’s legal proceedings over the patents. Eventually, the courts validated Armstrong’s position, establishing him — not RCA and NBC — as the legitimate inventor of key FM radio technology and the sound system used by analog television.
Jerry Minter remembered Armstrong’s funeral. “Sarnoff sat behind me. I’d never met him, but he shook hands with me and everybody there. When it was over, he just stood there looking stunned as we all walked off. He was very upset. I think he felt responsible.”
When Armstrong designed his Alpine tower, he anticipated using it one day for television, recalled Minter. “But because of the feud between Armstrong and Sarnoff, it didn’t come off. Now, we are reliving that history.”
(In the upcoming Part 2, we’ll see how the Alpine tower saved on-the-air TV broadcasting in New York City)