At Thanksgiving and Christmas, during World War II, there was a sort of variety show sent to troops overseas and broadcast throughout the country, a big deal in those days, starring celebrities such as Bing Crosby.
It was a wonderful time for radio. And I was very lucky, because I was on the fringe of its development. My father, an electrical engineer, was involved early on. As far as I know, he didn’t have inventions in the area, but he was very much up on the technology and carried out related work at Bell Telephone Laboratories.
What placed me more directly on the fringe was a trio of links to Edwin Howard Armstrong. Who? Patience.
Link 1: Me to my dad and mother.
Link 2: My dad and mother to Uncle Harry Houck and his wife, Aunt Maud. The first thing to know is Uncle Harry wasn’t my uncle nor Maud my aunt. He and Maud had lived years before my existence in the same apartment building as my parents. They had formed a friendship that lasted a lifetime. I was brought up to employ Uncle in his name and Aunt in hers. I maintained that friendship as an adult through the death of Maud and up to that of Harry. Harry had become wealthy through scores of patented inventions and he led a large business working on more. (You can read an out-of-date biography at https://ethw.org/Harry_W._Houck.) Which brings us to the last link.
Link 3: Uncle Harry to Armstrong. Harry at one point worked for Armstrong and told me that Armstrong would never let anyone other than Harry wind the coils of his transformers.
It wouldn’t be surprising if you hadn’t heard of Edwin Howard Armstrong. Or if you had. He was the inventor of FM. If you’ve ever compared the quality of sound from an AM station to one from an FM, you know we have all benefitted from that invention. There’s a biography, Man of High Fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong, by Lawrence Lessing that mentions Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry gave me a copy which I treasure today.
While the invention of FM was a tremendous contribution, it caused misery in Armstrong’s life. He had a working relationship with David Sarnoff who headed RCA. It was a relationship that went sour as lawsuits about income from the invention occupied much of Armstrong’s time and drained his energy.
On the night of January 31, 1954, he wrote a two-page note to his wife and jumped out a 13th floor window of his apartment.
Decades later Uncle Harry was still upset by it.
David Sarnoff denied any responsibility
I have fond memories of Uncle Harry, and I believe my children do also.
He had orange trees on his massive property in northern New Jersey and on every visit my daughter loved to pick them. Harry got a kick out of it. He never did anything to show his preference, but I think he favored my son because he didn’t cause any troubles when we visited but my poor daughter was a bit more active and vocal.
He went through a stage where he rode a tricycle just because it was fun. He tipped over on a curve. When he told me about it, he was analyzing just why you had to ride bikes and trikes differently. A true scientist.
He punched a time clock at the company he owned because he required all his employees to.
He was stopped for speeding and asked the deputy when his radar had last been calibrated. The deputy responded that day. Harry said he knew that, but what time that day? The officer asked what he did and Harry replied he was a radar engineer. The sheriff, the deputy’s boss, wrote Harry a letter saying they didn’t want any problems and, of course, there would be no ticket.
What a lucky kid I was to know Harry and to live in that exciting time.