How FM Inventor Armstrong Links to Two Sisters from Merrimac and Poet Whittier

The Armstrong grave at Locust Grove Cemetery, Merrimac, Mass.

The Armstrong grave at Locust Grove Cemetery, Merrimac, Mass.

By Tim Coco
WHAV President & General Manager (volunteer)

Part 1 of 2

The idea that any one person is only six introductions away from any other was first explored in the 1929 short story “Chains” by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. This “small world” phenomenon appears to be borne out locally when one studies such seemingly disparate figures as FM radio inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong, two sisters from Merrimac, Mass. and famous local son John Greenleaf Whittier.

A corollary to this concept of six degrees of separation might involve compression of geography instigated by the modern and efficient movement of people. How else might we explain how the Merrimac sisters closed the gap between the Merrimack Valley and metropolitan New York, how a great nephew of poet John Greenleaf Whittier came to independently make the same loop or why Armstrong, buried in the Bronx after his death in 1954, rests in Merrimac today?

The common link between these figures is Armstrong, who not only invented FM radio, but also new radio receiver technology that is still in use today. Curiously, the battles fought by Armstrong also brought collateral damage to institutions including WHAV.

In part 1, let’s start to connect the dots.

The MacInnes Sisters

Esther Marion McInnes

Esther Marion McInnes

Esther Marion and Marjorie McInnes grew up in Merrimac. Marion, as she preferred to be called, was born in 1898 followed by Marjorie in 1902. They were the daughters of Angus and Annie E. (Wells) MacInnis, who enjoyed prominence in the town. Angus served as assistant chief and then fire chief from 1904 to 1907, and interim chief again in 1911, according to Merrimac Deputy Fire Chief Larry S. Fisher. The sisters also had two older siblings, John F. and Lona B.

The older MacInnes sister found her way to New York City and become secretary to none other than the president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), David Sarnoff. Sarnoff’s biographer, Eugene Lyons, described MacInnes as “a tall, strikingly handsome girl.”1

“She was a very bright lady. Maybe she went off to New York to seek her fortune,” said Jeanne Hammond, Armstrong’s niece, during a recent telephone interview. Hammond said Armstrong referred to his wife as “Mary Ann.”

While working for Sarnoff during radio’s bustling heyday, MacInnes saw Armstrong frequently since the inventor routinely visited Sarnoff. Armstrong had become a multimillionaire and RCA’s largest stockholder after selling the company two of his radio patents. Armstrong and MacInnes began dating and the inventor literally went to great lengths to impress her. He climbed to the top and dangled one leg off of one of WJZ radio’s towers on top of Aeolian Hall, 350 feet above 42nd St., New York City. “He climbed that tower to impress her,” explained Hammond. The antics were photographed, winning Armstrong a reprimand from Sarnoff and banishment from the radio station.2

The couple married in Merrimac, Dec. 1, 1923.3 They honeymooned in Palm Beach, Fla. where they were famously photographed with the “world’s first portable radio,” a wedding gift from Armstrong, on the beach.

The younger MacInnes, Marjorie, also went to work for RCA as a stenographer in 19194. She married Arthur B. Tuttle in 1947. He had worked for RCA since 1921 and became its treasurer in 1946.5 Tuttle died in December, 1952, and she died July 22, 1963.

While the Armstrong’s primary home was a penthouse apartment at 435 East 52nd St. in New York City, the couple also purchased a second home—a mansion named “Shadowlawn”—on Sea Road, Rye Beach, N.H.

“At her summer address she earned the reputation for her elegant parties. Often they included dining and dancing under a large white and yellow marquee she had erected on the lawn. On occasion she gave expensive party favors to each guest. One resident took to calling her, not uncharitably, ‘The Duchess of Rye Beach,’” wrote Tom Lewis in Empire of the Air.

Major Edwin Howard Armstrong

Major Edwin Howard Armstrong

Major Edwin Howard Armstrong

Armstrong (left) was born in Chelsea, New York City, in 1890. Just before his senior year as a student at Columbia University in September, 1912, Armstrong effectively created the modern audio amplifier by adapting the earlier Audion triode tube, invented by Lee DeForest. He also discovered the tube could be made to generate radio waves—eliminating the need for huge mechanical contraptions, such as the Alexanderson alternator, to generate long distance radio waves.6

Armstrong was issued a patent in 1913 for his “regenerative circuit,” but was sued by DeForest. Armstrong won in the lower courts, but lost in the Supreme Court in 1934—a ruling widely criticized by the technical community. Armstrong also patented the “superheterodyne receiver,” a method of improved radio reception still used today in everything from television to mobile phones, in 1920. He conceived the idea while serving in France during World War I—military service that earned him the rank of major.

When Sarnoff turned to Armstrong to find the solution to AM radio static, the inventor created wideband FM. Armstrong was now a full-professor at Columbia—a position he took without salary since he was already wealthy from his inventions. He demonstrated noiseless FM and secured a variety of related patents in 1934. Rather than embrace the idea, Sarnoff believed FM would challenge the predominance of AM—and, thereby, RCA’s revenues—and labored to keep the new technology from taking hold.

Armstrong was forced to finance FM himself, erecting an experimental 20 kilowatt station and tall tower in Alpine, N.J. in 1938. He received a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for W2XMN and later KE2XCC. Hammond worked for Armstrong for two and a half years at Columbia University and visited the station. “I climbed up to the first rung of Alpine. I was scared to death.” Incidentally, the still-standing Alpine tower came in handy after the attacked of Sept. 11, 2001 when many radio and television stations sought emergency facilities after the World Trade Center towers were destroyed.

When experimental FM station W2XOR—the future WOR-FM—was launched Aug. 1, 1940 in New York City, Armstrong attended the dedication. He was thanked, but declined to speak on the air. Others in attendance were WOR Chief Engineer J. R. Poppele, who would help WHAV identify an FM transmitter site just a few years later.

During World War II, Armstrong gave the government permission to use his patents royalty-free. FM service came into widespread use after the war, especially in two-way communications and television sound. Few paid Armstrong for his patents, however, forcing the inventor to file 21 lawsuits, including one against RCA.

The battle did not take place only in courtrooms, but also underground in a conspiracy involving corporate and government officials. In 1945, the FCC decided to move FM from the 42 to 50 MHz band to 88 to 108 MHz, where it still exists today. Ostensibly, the move was intended to make room for television and those frequencies were needed for television channel 1 (which was never used). In effect, however, the FCC’s action made 500,000 existing FM radios obsolete and delayed FM’s development for years.7 Armstrong decried the move saying it represented “the first time that radio has been forced to follow an unsound theory.”8

In 1953, Armstrong added to his accomplishments, demonstrating multiplex transmission over FM—an invention that would pave the way for stereo broadcasting.

At age 63, Armstrong had become destitute waging legal battles. He leapt to his death from his 13th floor penthouse apartment Feb. 1, 1954. RCA immediately settled with the estate for $1 million and Sarnoff even attended Armstrong’s funeral. The inventor was initially buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx. Marion would continue the legal fight, settling or winning every one with the final judgment against Motorola in her husband’s favor coming in 1967.

“She did everything she could to preserve his heritage,” Hammond said of Marion’s battles after her husband’s death. “She never went back to that apartment. I think she was devastated by that.”

Marion died Aug. 8, 1979 at Exeter (N.H.) Hospital. She had previously purchased cemetery plots at Locust Grove Cemetery, Merrimac, not far from her parents’ graves, and moved her husband there. Hammond attended the funeral when Marion was interred there.

Next time, in part 2, let’s continue connecting the dots between Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, Armstrong and WHAV-FM.

The Armstrong grave at Locust Grove Cemetery, Merrimac, Mass.

1Eugene Lyons, David Sarnoff (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 112
2Ibid., p. 113
3Lawrence Lessing, Man of High Fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong: a biography (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1956), 154
4“Mrs. Arthur B. Tuttle,” New York Times, July 23, 1963
5“Arthur B. Tuttle, 57, RCA Ex-Official,” New York Times, December 18, 1952
6Yannis Tsividis, Edwin Armstrong: Pioneer of the Airwaves,
7Peter Fornatale and Joshua E. Mills, Radio in the Television Age (Overlook TP, 1995)
8“FM Inventor Calls New band Unsound,” New York Times, Nov. 13, 1945

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