History shows the perils of patents

If crystal clear hardware patents can be turned against their inventors, what lies ahead for software?
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on
You won't have heard of Major Edwin Howard Armstrong, but his ghost touches your life a hundred times a day. Your radio, television, mobile phone and Wi-Fi connection could not exist without his inventions. We'd possibly not be here ourselves without his wartime work. Awarded the highest honours by America's scientific and engineering establishment, and lavishly decorated by the French military, he did as much for the world of information as Ford, Whittle and the Stephensons did for transport.

Yet even as the man's ideas were taking over the world, he went from millionaire to pauper. Eventually, his funds exhausted and his spirit broken by the break-up of his marriage, he took his own life. It is one of the true tragedies of the twentieth century that his name is all but forgotten, and doubly so that he fell foul of an industry he did so much to create. For those reasons alone, he is worth remembering in the twenty-first. But the full story of Major Armstrong has enormous and timely resonances for today's IT world – and how brilliant ideas can be legally perverted by big business and turned against their creators.

Born in Manhattan in 1890, an early life marked by fascination with mechanics and the new science of radio led to his first major invention at the age of 22. Regeneration – now known as feedback – took the inefficient valve amplifiers of the time and turned them into ferociously efficient receivers and the first electronic wireless transmitters. He proceeded to make the first portable radio (given to his bride as a wedding present), the first broadcast transmitter and a string of other wonders. World War One intervened – as an American officer in France, he revolutionised aircraft radio for the Allies, helped break the codes of the Germans and came up with his second big idea, the superhet.

Every radio you own today is a superhet. Before this idea, it was easy to make a radio that efficiently received a single frequency but very difficult to make one that could reliably select any signal from a wide range. Superhets combine the efficiency of a fixed receiver with the flexibility to tune across an entire band: they turned wireless from a hobby to a mass market proposition, and simultaneously enabled such ideas as television, radar and radio data communications.

Not content with that, Armstrong turned his attention to static. All radios in the 20s were AM – amplitude modulation – and so was all interference. Frequency modulation had been investigated and rejected, because the mathematics said that hertz for hertz, an FM signal was less efficient at carrying audio than AM. Armstrong realised that by increasing the bandwidth of the signal, FM could actually sound better – and since no interference was FM, a radio designed to reject AM and demodulate FM would be effectively free of static. He built the first FM transmitter and receiver, and promptly demonstrated high-fidelity transmissions. His backer, the RCA Corporation, was horrified: they'd invested heavily in AM networks, and had no intention of replacing everything with FM. Neither did they want it as a competitor. They promptly threw their weight against him, refusing to license his invention at the same time as trying to overthrow it in the courts through patent law.

He'd previously fallen foul of patents. Although Armstrong was universally accepted as the inventor of regeneration, Lee deForest -- the person who'd invented the valve (tube, in American parlance) -- claimed that he'd thought of it first. DeForest was an incompetent chancer of an egomaniac with no tangible evidence for this claim beyond a scribbled note in a lab workbook, but the industrial bloc that owned deForest's patents funded an enormous court battle with Armstrong and his backers. Armstrong won case after case, but fell at the last when a technically ignorant Supreme Court judge decided for the challenger. Dejected, Armstrong tried to give back the medal he'd won from the American Institute of Radio Engineers for regeneration: every man at the conference where this happened rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. He kept the medal.

The FM battles were much more fearsome. Not only did RCA fight him in the courts, they lobbied against him in government. It took years for Armstrong – using his royalties from superhets -- to get transmission licences and a frequency band for his invention, but eventually he managed to build up a market of a few hundred transmitters and half a million receivers. At that point, the US government threw him off those frequencies to make room for RCA's latest baby, television, and he had to start all over again on a new band – that in use today, 88 to 108 MHz. Worse still, he was forced to do so on terms practically imposed by RCA and seemingly designed to make FM a borderline economic proposition. RCA itself used FM in television, but refused to pay royalties. In fact, it claimed the rights for itself.

Despite the facts, undisputed by the engineering world, the court cases went on for years while Armstrong was bled dry. In 1954, after his wife had left following a row about money he needed to continue the fight, he threw himself out of his 13th floor apartment window. It was left to his widow to carry on – and she eventually won all 21 of her suits against as many companies. The last one, against Motorola, was settled in 1967 even as FM was being used to relay messages back from deep space.

The most sobering aspect of the story of Major Armstrong is that the patents involved were relatively simple and clear cut. They described genuine inventions that stood apart from anything that had gone before, that could easily be understood and put in context, and that did things that had clearly not been possible before. Each of them changed the world. Software patents rarely have any of these attributes.

If such exemplary patents could fuel half a century of pitched legal battles, with entrenched interests prepared to burn money and lawyers to distort the market, how much more trouble is due to us with software patents? What modern-day Armstrong would knowingly embark on a similar course? And without more Armstrongs, how are we to make progress?

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