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Posted: Wednesday May 30, 2012, 2:05 PM
By Ryan Greene - (201) Magazine

If you've ever driven the Palisades Parkway through Alpine, you might have noticed a sort of six-armed red-and-white radio tower. The tower is visible for miles, even from clear across the Hudson River. At the foot of that tower sits an unassuming brown brick building bearing the legend W2XMN.

That building and that tower mark the birthplace of FM radio.

Major Edwin Howard Armstrong, the man who invented FM, got started young. Born in 1890, he developed an interest in electronics and mechanics after contracting St. Vitus' Dance, which causes uncontrollable spasms, when he was 8 years old. His parents had to remove him from school for two years to recover, during which time he withdrew and focused on machines.

He also loved heights and built a makeshift radio tower in his Yonkers back yard.

As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Armstrong developed and patented a number of electrical and radio devices. Those included the regenerative and super-regenerative circuits. During both World Wars, Armstrong granted the U.S. free use of his patents, which proved critically important for Allied communications.

The saga of FM radio, meanwhile, proved to be a darker time in Armstrong's life.

As the story goes, Armstrong befriended David Sarnoff, the head of RCA and the founder of NBC. Sarnoff challenged Armstrong to develop "a little black box" that eliminated the static plaguing AM broadcasts. The task consumed Armstrong's attention for years, but working in the basement of Columbia's Philosophy Hall, he invented wide-band frequency modulation, or FM, radio. He received a patent for it in 1933.

In 1934, Armstrong started working for RCA, at Sarnoff's request, and he conducted the first major field tests of FM radio in a lab on the 85th floor of the Empire State Building. But Sarnoff had his eye on television (and considered FM a threat to RCA's AM empire), so RCA passed on the chance to buy Armstrong's patents and sent him packing.

And so, in 1937, Armstrong bought a plot of land along 9W and oversaw the construction of W2XMN in Alpine. He designed the unique antenna tower (shown here in 1939) with six prongs to accommodate plenty of future expansion.

Broadcasting in 1938 at 42.8 MHz, Armstrong's station sent out the first FM radio broadcasts, which could be heard for 100 miles in every direction.

But in the 1940s, RCA sued Armstrong, claiming responsibility for the invention of FM radio. Despite Armstrong's fierce, protracted resistance, the company won its own patent on the technology and denied him any royalties for his work.

Years later, the courts would settle most of those suits in Armstrong's favor – but those victories came too late. The years of legal battles against RCA broke Armstrong mentally and financially. He sank into depression and lashed out at his wife, Marion. And then in 1954, he removed the air conditioner from a window in his 13th-floor New York apartment and leaped to his death.

Today, the distinctive tower is used for directional services, such as cell phone signals, though it served as a temporary transmitter site for some New York City television and radio stations in the wake of 9/11. And the W2XMN building serves as a small museum to FM radio and its oft-forgotten inventor.

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