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 which 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 forty-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.
Woolley, a technology and business writer, traces the development of communications technology from the telegraph to the television to the first visions of the Internet. He frames these advances with the story of the complicated friendship between David Sarnoff, a media mongul who rose to the helm of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and Edwin Armstrong, prolific inventor who developed, among other game-changing technologies, the first amplifier to enable telegraph signal reception from greater distances. In this short but magnetic narrative, Woolley shows how, despite their differences, the men connected through their mutual understanding of "the power and possibility of the invisible waves." Both figures were truly visionary, especially Sarnoff, who led the charge on radio broadcasting and color television and articulated a vision that prophesied the Internet. Yet for both Sarnoff and Woolley, innovation was obstructed by corporate interest, and government agencies were unwilling to intercede. This classic struggle visionaries with revolutionary ideas and capabilities against established interests drives the book's narrative. By focusing on a handful of characters, Woolley avoids getting bogged down in excessive technological and scientific detail, legal nuances, and biographical minutiae, and instead crafts a highly readable, plot-driven narrative that illuminates the genesis of innovations that many readers take for granted.
How We Got To Today
This book contains the origin story of the foundational technology of the communications age—as told through the complicated forty-year friendship of an entrepreneurial industrialist & a brilliant inventor.
David Sarnoff, the head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) who led the charge on radio broadcasting, color television & articulated a vision that prophesied the Internet, & his friend Edwin Armstrong, developer of the first amplifier, the modern radio transmitter, and FM radio.
Many corrupt politicians & corporations had their say in the early alliance between high tech and business & set the precedent for countless legal & industrial battles over broadband & licensing bandwidth. This struggle drives the book's narrative.
Mr. Woolley has a nice touch for describing technology. But his book’s structure is sometimes superfluous: Armstrong’s & Sarnoff’s funerals; the breakup of AT&T. There are also omissions. Woolley never explains how Armstrong’s invention actually reinvigorated electromagnetic waves. He doesn’t explore the creation of NBC or describe the details of Armstrong’s suit against RCA & NBC.
By the way, the FCC is incompetent & dumb to the core. We could’ve had color television earlier. We could’ve had satellite TV in the 60s. Competition does lead to innovation, but as you’ll learn in this book, it can also lead to bitterness & stalled progress. Why? Money & hubris.
“The Network” was an interesting read as someone who is unversed in communication technology & how we got to where we are today. It could’ve been done differently story-wise. But the important thing is it gets the facts straight in a history that involves a slew of different men spanning decades.