Edwin Armstrong was born on December 18, 1890 in Manhattan, New York. He earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University and immediately began working for the university's engineering school. While he was a junior at Columbia, he invented the regenerative circuit, which is a means for amplifying a signal multiple times using vacuum tubes.
In 1914, Armstrong received a patent for his regenerative circuit, which would revolutionize the world of electronics. Unfortunately, a dispute erupted when Lee De Forest attempted to patent the same idea. It appeared that the two gentlemen came upon the idea independently, but a court battle erupted nonetheless.
Armstrong had sold the patent rights to the regenerative circuit to RCA and Westinghouse, but De Forest also sold the patent rights to AT&T. The three corporations and the two inventors found themselves in court in 1922 and the legal battle lasted for 12 years. Armstrong won the first trial, but lost the second and then had a stalemate in the third trial. In 1934, the United States Supreme Court overruled the lower courts and gave the patent rights to Lee De Forest.
The question of who was first at patenting the device remains, but it is probably fair to credit both of the men for their work. Nonetheless, Armstrong kept inventing, patenting a Superheterodyne Receiver in 1918, followed by a Super-Regenerative circuit in 1922. In 1929, Armstrong received an honorary degree from Columbia University and was granted full professorship in its engineering school. In 1933, he patented another very important invention, the frequency modulator radio. Prior to the invention of frequency modulation, amplitude modulation was the popular method of radio transmission. However, it was quickly discovered that FM modulation was less prone to signal noise and interference, as well as amplitude fading. For these reasons, Armstrong believed that FM should be the standard for radio transmission.
Armstrong lobbied the FCC to establish an FM radio band of frequencies between 42 and 50 MHz. He then helped to create the first FM radio stations in New England, producing a network of stations that became known as the "Yankee Network". Unfortunately RCA (The Radio Corporation of America) did not like FM and convinced the FCC to move its reserved frequencies from 42-50MHz to 88-108MHz.
The decision by the FCC suddenly made all of Armstrong's FM radio receivers and transmitters completely useless. RCA then decided to claim that it was the rightful owner of the FM radio patent, causing another patent battle in the courtrooms. RCA managed to win the battle, meaning that Armstrong could no longer license the technology and make money.
The decision by the courts sent Armstrong even deeper into depression. His marriage crumbled from all of the stress and he decided to take his own life. On January 31, 1954, he dove from his thirteenth floor window and died after striking the street below. His widow appealed the court decision in favor of RCA, eventually winning in 1967. Armstrong was finally established as the true inventor of FM radio and it became the standard over the next several decades.