History Repeats (or does it Regenerate?)

Empire of the Air
Last night, we watched one of my favorite documentaries.
It’s the story of three people who made history in the world of technology: the first was someone who fancied himself a technologist but appeared far more interested in achieving fame for himself, and was known for his publicity-grabbing grandstanding; the second was a genius who was more interested in solving technical issues than in furthering his own renown; and the third was someone who saw opportunity in a brand-new market and created a seemingly-unstoppable corporate behemoth. These three men (along with many others) took what was a hobby and turned it into a serious business that touched nearly every life on the planet.
The documentary is Empire of the Air: The Men Who Built Radio, and the people were Lee de Forest, Edwin Howard Armstrong, and David Sarnoff.
You’re forgiven if you came up with three different, more contemporary names.
Based on Tom Lewis’ book of the same name, Empire of the Air shows how each of these people achieved their places in the history of radio. We learn that de Forest may or may not have developed the revolutionary Audion tube, and spent a lifetime promoting himself as “The Father of Radio.” We see how Armstrong improved upon de Forest’s and others’ work and made AM radio practical– and created FM radio. And we hear the tale of David Sarnoff’s rise from a poor paperboy to the chairman of RCA.
And while telling these stories, we spend a lot of time in courtrooms.
Well, not really– but this was a litigious bunch of people, and as one watches Empire of the Air it’s hard to resist drawing parallels to the personalities in today’s technology world. And while it’s certainly unfair to either set of people to draw the comparisons, I can’t help but have the familiar names floating through my mind while listening to the stories.
Produced by Ken Burns in 1992, Empire of the Air is a fascinating documentary even to those without a technical background. The emphasis is on the people, their circumstances, and the world they lived in– and not the inner workings of a regenerative circuit. Old photos, music, and archival film are mixed in with interviews with family, friends, coworkers, and radio insiders like Norman Corwin and Garrison Keillor.
You can find a copy of the movie here.
Why am I talking about this now, 15 years after the movie was first aired? (Incidentally, it was shown about a week before my daughter Becka was born. 🙂 Well, two reasons: Lisa and I were talking about my interest in the radio hobby (check my radio page), and then I got the idea to build a radio from a kit, like I did when I was a kid. It’s a modernized version of a crystal set, and I’ll post about it here within the next week.
In the meantime, check out Empire of the Air— you’ll find it enlightening, especially when you realize things haven’t changed all that much.