This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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The Network - The Battle of the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Era
By Scott Wooley
Reviewed by Jim Widner © 2016
(From Radio Recall, June, 2016)
For those of us who are not only interested in the software side of old time radio where listening, collecting and chatting about the golden age of radio is a passion, the history of the development of radio technology and the politics that ensued in its development is equally fascinating. A newly published book from Harper Collins by business and technology writer, Scott Woolley, delves into a seamier side of the birth of communications in the 201h century and reveals details that "set the precedent for countless legal and industrial battles…that continue to influence policy and debate today."
In 1991 author Tom Lewis published a book called Empire of the Air about the "men who made radio" and which film maker Ken Burns turned into a documentary telling the story of Edwin Armstrong, David Sarnoff and Lee de Forest. Many of us interested in radio learned more details of the lives of Armstrong and Sarnoff as well as de Forest. Woolley in his new book refocuses mostly on David Sarnoff but also Edwin Armstrong whose friendship and battles with Sarnoff shaped the direction of the birth of telecommunications today.
While he briefly touches on their backgrounds, this is not a book about the lives of these extraordinary individuals. Rather it appears that Woolley's intent is to bring some sense to how we got to where we are in terms of the technology of how we communicate today. The book is organized as if it were a script divided into three acts with scenes pushing the plot forward. Act one, which the author titles "Invisible," begins on the night of the tragic suicide of Edwin Armstrong in 1954 but flashes back to his beginnings in 1914 in developing the regenerative circuit whereby weak signals were infused and became much more amplified making them easier to pick up from the ether.
This was a momentous event in the history of communications for until then the airwaves were only good for "zipping Morse code dots and dashes a few hundred miles - useful for communicating with ships at sea but little else." Armstrong is player number one who forms a bond of friendship with a young upcoming immigrant working for the Marconi Wireless company named David Sarnoff as he demonstrates his circuit to him by hooking it to the Marconi antenna array "the world's largest antenna." Sarnoff is player number two in this script of events. Through Sarnoff we are introduced to Guglielmo Marconi, whose experiments in wireless technology appear to threaten cable-based communications. Marconi is player number three in this Act. From. this point on, jumping from scene to scene, from player to player, Woolley takes us forward through Act one as we end with Marconi's seeming triumph of wireless over cable.
The book begins to focus primarily on David Sarnoff whose vision of the future of communications foresaw even elements of the Internet. It becomes a story of the continued advances in wireless communication with the help of Armstrong; the battles Armstrong encountered trying to protect his patents; Sarnoff's desire to expand his company, RCA, into television and ultimately into fiber-based technology. Along the way we learn about the cartel formed between AT&T and the Federal Communications Commission and their seemingly unknown pact to protect the monopoly of the Bell System in maintaining their cable communication technology even as others including Sarnoff wanted to move forward with wave based systems via microwave towers and global satellites.
While the book is a bit scattered in its overall plotting and sometimes the jumping around seems to get in the way, this is all a factual and fascinating look at the business of how the technology gradually plodded forward to our current 21 st century means of communications despite the many roadblocks placed in its way. No one is guiltless in Woolley's account: Armstrong for blindly trusting his "friend" Sarnoff; Sarnoff himself as he builds his own powerbase over the advancements in radio and television; AT&T which struggles to maintain its monopoly over the communications industry; and the Federal Government which through the FCC conspired, sometimes ignorantly, to maintain a status quo in a technology it didn't seem to understand. The book is partly historical as well as political in that Woolley doesn't hold back in placing blame on various players participating within the development of telecommunications.
Act two in which the author dubs "Invaluable" introduces more players in the advancement of the technology including Alfred McCormack, Edwin Armstrong's lead attorney, Herbert Hoover, who prior to becoming President was perhaps one of the most powerful men in Washington with regard to the growing business of the airwaves, and Lyndon Johnson, who as vice-president and head of the Senate wanted to squash an attempt by a group of senators trying to filibuster the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 which' would cede control over this new technology to AT&T thus increasing their monopoly and possibly stand in the way of others such as Sarnoff who had dreams of expanding tl1e ability for this country to shrink the world by offering instant sights and sound from around the world. One senator quipped to Johnson, who as president of the chamber, was working to expand AT&T's control "Mr. President, is this the council hall of the States, or has the Senate become the council hall of the corporations?"
Act two after jumping around among the various players concludes with Woolley's assessment: "For three decades, America's communications cartels had been protected by their friends in the FCC and Congress, crippling technologies including super-power AM radio stations, FM radio stations and all sorts, television, microwave relays and, most recently, satellites." With the accession of Johnson into the White House power it seemed had shifted to local stations around the country.
With the beginning of Act three titled "Infinite" the book returns to Sarnoff and William Paley, head of CBS. Despite the setbacks Sarnoff's RCA and NBC suffered from the crippling of technology, it became a temporary one. Sarnoff, ever the visionary, saw beyond these events to his push for what would later be termed the Internet as "continental and global networks of computer centers" which would "serve scholars, scientists, professional men and businessmen as instant sources of all known and recorded data on any conceivable subject." This was perceived by Sarnoff in 1965 as RCA was developing the "microchip" and fiber technology. Perhaps sadly, he never saw how mundane such a network could also become.
As Wooley details the breakup of AT& T's monopoly on cable communication, the rise of MCI, the first of the cellular networks, which helped perpetuate the demise of the Bell system, we are given by the author perhaps a darker picture of how this country reached this point in our telecommunications history. There is a lot of history covered within this small book and perhaps had it been detailed more thoroughly the result could be even more fascinating, but it is a good beginning to those who want to learn more about the history of America's telecommunications development, the power struggles that ensued and the victims it left behind. Perhaps it could have been better plotted. Still, it is a book that begs to be read if you are interested at all in the story of America's "network" technology and the struggles to move it forward.