THE WAYBACK MACHINE
by Bill Continelli, W2XOY
reprinted with permission
If Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, or Eugene O'Neill had been amateur radio operators, one of them certainly would have written a play about the VHF frequency allocation battle of the mid 1940's. For, except for sex, this event had all the elements of great drama--Power, Passion, Politics, Greed, and sudden twists and turns in the plot were the hallmark of this epic battle. It hastened the destruction of probably the greatest man in the history of radio, solidified the stranglehold of another in his quest for total television domination, doomed a viable alternative in the infant television industry, and gave birth to the predecessor of CB radio. Got your attention? Then let's open our Playbills and read the
CAST OF CHARACTERS
THE ARRL AND THE 50,000 AMATEUR RADIO OPERATORS--
Prior to World War II, hams were virtually the only major users of the "UHF" spectrum (as the frequencies above 25 Mc were then known). They had the use of the 10 meter band (28-30 Mc) and 5 meters (56-60 Mc) since the late 1920's, as well as a small slice of spectrum at 400 Mc. In the late 1930's, the FCC had allocated two new bands to amateurs--2 1/2 meters (112-116 Mc) and 1 1/4 meters (224-230 Mc). Except for 10 meters, most of the operations on these frequencies were done with very simple equipment. Modulated oscillators and superregenerative receivers were the mainstay of their activities. For those not familiar with this type of equipment, a modulated oscillator was a tube coupled to a tuned circuit directly on the desired frequency which was modulated by another tube. Since crystal control and frequency multiplication were not used, the resulting signal varied in both frequency and amplitude when the oscillator was modulated. The only way to receive such an unstable signal was with a superregenerative receiver. Invented by Major Edwin Armstrong in the early 20's, the "supergenny" was extremely sensitive, but very broadbanded. It gave off a loud "rushing" noise (like an FM receiver unsquelched). A complete 'phone station of this type could be built with only 3 tubes--an important consideration for the Depression era hams.
Except for limited operation on the 112-116 Mc band in World War II under WERS (War Emergency Radio Service), amateur stations had been silent since December 7, 1941. Now, late in 1944, with the end of the war in sight and new VHF/UHF tubes in production for the War effort, the ARRL was making plans for more bands above 25 Mc.
MAJOR EDWIN H ARMSTRONG--
The unquestioned "Father of Modern Radio", Major Armstrong had experienced several setbacks in the 1920's and 30's, partly because of his secretive nature and uncompromising attitude. He had delayed in obtaining his original patent on the regenerative detector, and when he did finally apply, he omitted the oscillating properties of the circuit. Lee De Forest challenged Armstrong on this invention by submitting a circuit of his own that he claimed he developed in mid-1912. Armstrong initially won, based on the fact that De Forest's design was basically uncontrolled feedback. When, however, Armstrong flaunted his court victory (by flying a flag with his patent number on it where De Forest could see it), and when Armstrong refused to grant De Forest a license to manufacture regenerative receivers, De Forest went back to court--and this time won. In two separate cases, the Supreme Court ruled that De Forest, not Armstrong, was the inventor of regeneration. This was bad enough, but then Armstrong lost another court battle. Although he had invented the superheterodyne receiver while in France in 1918, it was based partly on a crude, barely functional converter designed by a Frenchman. Despite the obvious superiority of Armstrong's design, the courts ruled against him again.
Desperate for a success to reverse these setbacks, Armstrong turned to the idea of FM. At that time, the late 1920's, the concept of FM was known, but it was widely believed that it was impractical, if not impossible. Armstrong, however, proved them wrong, and by 1933-34 had developed an operational, noise free, wideband FM system. He offered it to RCA, which had the first right of refusal. RCA, for reasons we will see in a moment, declined to fully develop FM, and Armstrong turned to GE. In Schenectady, NY, he found an ally in W.R.G. Baker, a GE Vice President, who saw the potential in FM. With GE's help, he continued to develop FM, got the FCC to allocate a slice of the VHF spectrum for FM broadcasting (42-50 Mc), and set up his first FM broadcasting station--W2XMN in Alpine, NJ. With two other pioneer FM stations, W1XPW in Meriden, CT, and W2XOY in Schenectady coming on the air in 1939-1940, the new Yankee Network was up and running. Armstrong was convinced that, once the war ended, FM would completely replace AM as the broadcasting standard, and he wanted a large chunk of VHF frequencies to accommodate it.
BRIGADIER GENERAL DAVID SARNOFF AND RCA--
For the first forty five years of it's corporate life, RCA WAS Sarnoff and vice versa. From his humble beginnings as a telegraph boy and the wireless operator who copied the "Olympic" wireless signals about the doomed "Titanic", he had risen quickly in the Marconi organization, and was with RCA from the start. Sarnoff had watched the progress of his old friend Armstrong as he developed FM. However, he had other plans for RCA. Sarnoff was convinced that television was the future and radio was the past. Throughout the 1930's, he had poured millions of RCA's dollars into an all electronic television system, to replace the crude mechanical "spinning disk" sets that were in the experimental stage. By the late 1930's, he had a viable, all electronic system ready to go. On April 20, 1939, at the New York World's Fair, Sarnoff introduced commercial television to the world, using the slices of VHF spectrum that the FCC had set aside for experimental television.
Sarnoff's interest in the VHF frequencies extended beyond obtaining large allocations for television; he also wanted to minimize the frequencies available for FM broadcast. To him, radio was simply radio, an old technology made obsolete by television. He also realized that the public had a limited amount of disposable income available, and he wanted every spare dollar to be spent on TV sets, not FM radios. Sarnoff saw FM broadcasting as a serious threat to his beloved child, and he wasn't going to allow FM to gobble precious VHF frequencies that he felt rightfully belonged to television.
WILLIAM PALEY AND CBS--
Although only a supporting player in this drama, William Paley and his CBS Network almost changed the course of TV history, and, at one point, had both the FCC and the Supreme Court on their side. Paley, through the genius of Peter Goldmark, one of CBS' top engineers, had developed a working color television system with brilliant, lifelike colors more than a decade before RCA's color system was remotely viable.
In 1940, as CBS was looking for a way to get past Sarnoff and RCA's stranglehold of patents on their all electronic black and white system, Peter Goldmark came up with the solution. Going back to the 1920's and the mechanical spinning disk, Goldmark developed a hybrid electronic-mechanical system. Using the spinning disk (which CBS now called the color wheel) with red, blue and green filters, he scanned it with an electron beam. On the receiving end, a similar "color wheel" synchronized to spin at the same speed detected the color signal. On August 28 and September 4, 1940, CBS gave demonstrations of their color TV system to the FCC. The FCC was very impressed with the vivid, sharp clarity of the colors they saw on the screen. By contrast, RCA's color system was an embarrassing flop.
In addition to wanting television to start off directly with color, Goldmark was also convinced that the postwar TV frequency allocations should be on UHF, not VHF. In fact, CBS was so sure that their UHF color system would become the industry standard, that they had no plans to apply for any VHF TV license.
And so, the players in this drama wait in the wings for their cue to come out on the stage. How will they react to the FCC's first VHF allocations proposal, issued in late 1944? Who will live past ACT I? Who will make it to the final curtain call? "The Wayback Machine", with front row seats, will have the answers.
All material Copyright © William Continelli
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