Teaching them to become lawyers

This evening we showed our 6.002 students the Ken Burns PBS documentary Empire of the Air.  This was adapted from a book of the same name by Tom Lewis.  Here are the facts that were related in two hours:

Lee De Forest, who did much to publicize the idea of using radio for broadcast rather than point-to-point communication, claimed credit for other peoples’ inventions and, through good luck and great legal talent, managed to prevail in a decades-long lawsuit against Major Edwin Armstrong, the true inventor of most of the important technologies behind radio broadcasting.  De Forest ridiculed America’s entry into World War I and then became a profiteer.  On the cusp of his 60th birthday, De Forest married Wife #4, a beautiful 21-year-old actress who remained devoted to him until his death at age 88.  As an old man, De Forest wrote a book entitled The Father of Radio and unsuccessfully encouraged his wife to write a book entitled I Married a Genius.

Edwin Armstrong worked hard and labored through formal electrical engineering training at Columbia University, the very sort of EE torture that our students are getting in 6.002.  Armstrong developed the circuits that enable using a vacuum tube as a radio transmitter and the superhet receiver, which together made it practical to transmit music and voice over AM radio, rather than Morse code.  A staunch patriot, Armstrong donated a royalty-free license to all of his patents to the U.S. government for use in World War II and served in that war by designing communications systems including that used during the invasion of Normandy in 1944.  Armstrong developed frequency modulation (FM), which was suppressed by David Sarnoff at RCA because it would threaten revenues from his AM radio monopoly and the emerging television.  RCA eventually was forced to use FM for the federally mandated NTSC television system but they refused to pay Armstrong royalties on his patents.  Armstrong committed suicide while embroiled in lawsuits attempting to force RCA to stop infringing.

David Sarnoff had no formal technical training.  Through ruthless business dealings and manipulation of the federal government managed to create and sustain a magnificently profitable enterprise that included the RCA radio and TV manufacturing company and the NBC radio and TV networks.  Though Armstrong’s widow eventually made him pay up a bit for his flagrant infringement of the frequency modulation patents, Sarnoff sailed unscathed through a sea of lives that he wrecked.  He died an old and rich man.

The only people in the drama who made millions without taking tremendous risks, working very hard, and occasionally going bankrupt, were … the lawyers in the patent and regulatory disputes.

What are our students to make of all this?  It can’t be that working hard as an MIT electrical engineering student and contributing useful innovations to society will be rewarded.  If you’re walking your dog in the Harvard Law School Yard four years from now and you run into our 6.002 alumni, tell them “hi” from me.

[The video also made one wonder for whom public television programs are made.  Despite having two hours the show did not attempt to explain even the simplest physics or engineering behind radio or any of the inventions that were the subject of the disputes chronicled.  The biographical and historical information was narrated so slowly that it could have been sped up 3X without approaching the speed of dialog on the Simpsons, which most people seem to have no trouble following.  It seems as though public TV is designed for people whose minds are not quick enough to handle the quick pace and intellectual challenge of commercial TV shows.]

5 thoughts on “Teaching them to become lawyers

  1. I’m reminded of the story of Philo Farnsworth and the invention of television. See:


    About PBS “dumbing down” shows: Scientific American Frontiers covers some interesting topics, but it does so in a superficial, half-assed manner. The show is of a much lower quality than the magazine. Nova is a better show than Sci Am Frontiers, but it seems to be declining in quality over the years. Or maybe it just seems that way to me.

  2. The article in Time, referenced above, appears to neglect the public demonstration of television by John Logie Baird in London on 26 January 1926 (a working prototype transmitted an image of a Maltese cross in 1924).

  3. I refuse to take a position in the religious war about who invented television. ( The answer is “lots and lots of people working at more or less the same time.” )

    But I can recommend The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. It’s not an encyclopedic book (Baird, for example, is not mentioned) and it’s not technical, but it has lots of hilarious anecdotes. (My favorites are about live television. Before videotape, the TV studio was such a stress-filled environment that, according to legend, a director once had a heart attack during a show and didn’t realize it until the next day.)

  4. Does anyone know of a resource that lists/describes other similar cases where innovations (in whatever field) were held back or completely shut out of the market because other market players (like David Sarnoff and RCA) were threatened by said innovation? I’m thinking of Beta vs. VHS, the Tucker automobile (remember the movie from 10 or so years ago?), perhaps Napster and other online sharing systems more recently, Mac OS vs. early versions of Windows, etc. Is there a book accounting for these kinds of “market failures”? If not, we need one!

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