A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Eight


John Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803)

One of the underlying themes of this series is the role that luck plays in success – being in the right place at the right time or, in the case of inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps a shining example of this is the Belgian-born inventor, John Joseph Merlin. Born in Huy, he studied at the Academie des Sciences in Paris where he became well-known for his inventiveness and was persuaded to move to London in 1760.

In London Merlin used his knowledge of automata and the mechanics of clocks to develop a range of innovative toys and musical instruments which he patented. In 1783 he opened in Hanover Square a Mechanical Museum where he displayed many of the toys and objects that he had developed. It was a great success, Madame d’Arblay noting that “Merlin was quite the rage in London where everything was a la Merlin – Merlin chairs” – he had developed a mechanical gouty chair – “Merlin pianos, Merlin swings…Merlin fiddles and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos”.

Merlin was lionised by the great and the good. He was a particular friend of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted a rather splendid portrait, possibly in return for one of Merlin’s mechanical instruments. He was a regular visitor at the house of the musicologist, Charles Burney. His daughter, Fanny, wrote that Merlin was “very diverting in conversation…he speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom”. But showing a little Englander attitude even then, she noted “He does not, though a foreigner, want words but he arranges and pronounces them very comically”.

Another theme that runs through this series is man’s frustrations with the limitations that bipedalism imposes on the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We have seen early attempts to create bicycles, air flight, submarines and the like. Merlin applied his ingenuity to the problem of how to accelerate man’s ability to travel and his light bulb moment was to hit upon the ice skate from which he removed the blade and replaced it with a couple of wheels. Attaching them to the feet he had made, and naturally, patented the first pair of roller skates.

Merlin was a showman and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate his roller skates at one of the premier events of the 1771 London season, a soiree at the home of Mrs Cowley’s at Carlisle House. For maximum effect, Merlin decided to make his entrance on his roller skates while playing the violin – and why not? What happened next is to be found in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1805. “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction” – two major design faults, I feel –“he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”.

Merlin’s dramatic entrance set back the development of the roller skate by nearly 90 years. In 1863 James Plimpton, an American, came up with the idea of a rocking skate with four wheels for stability and independent axles. So successful was Plimpton’s device that roller skating took off. Plimpton’s design is still today.

For inventing the roller skate but putting back its development by nearly a century because of your eccentric demonstration, John Julius Merlin, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Seven


Dave Smith (? to present)

Ah, the nineteen eighties. Whether you loved them or hated them, the music of the time was dominated by synthesisers and electronica and one of the developments that made this possible was the creation of the MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface in 1983. It quickly became the universal standard and you would have thought that its inventor would have found the key to a fortune. But you would be wrong as the story of Dave Smith, the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, reveals.

The problem with electronic instruments pre-MIDI was that they couldn’t talk to each other. OK, a clever keyboard player could play two instruments at the same time, one with their left and the other with their right but that was pretty much as far as it went. A graduate in Computer Science and Electronic Engineering from UC Berkley, Smith was fascinated by synthesisers, creating Sequential Circuits in 1974 and in 1977 developed the Prophet 5, one of the first analogue polyphonic synthesisers. Sequential Circuits went on to become one of the most successful synthesiser manufacturers ever.

But Smith wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to develop a protocol whereby electronic instruments and synthesisers could communicate, allowing the musician to control a range of instruments from one synthesiser or computer. In 1981 he issued a challenge to the industry to back a universal protocol. To set the ball rolling, he created a rough draft of what it might look like, calling it the Universal Synthesiser Interface. Few came forward to insist but one who did was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland. The two collaborated during 1982, communicating – it seems astonishing to write this these days – by fax and by the time of the National Association of Music Merchants in 1983, Smith was ready to reveal what they had come up with.

By today’s standards the specification for MIDI was pretty rudimentary, consisting of eight sheets of paper and limiting itself to a range of basic set of instructions you might want to send between two synthesisers, like what notes to play and at what volume. But it worked – Smith was able to link up his Prophet 600 synthesiser with a Roland JP-6. A musical revolution had arrived.

MIDI’s development coincided with the development of the PC whose processors were now fast enough using MIDI to sequence notes, control the number of keyboards and drum machines operating at the same time. It also allowed aspiring musicians to operate at home rather than spending time in expensive recording studios. But it didn’t stop there. MIDI technology has been on Mac OS since 1995 and is used in your smartphone, powering the first wave of ring tones. Games like Guitar hero use it. And it has stood the test of time. The basic protocol has been added to but remains the same.

And why did Smith not make a fortune? Well, he gave it away. Explaining what may seem on the face of it a baffling decision, he said, “we wanted to be sure we had 100% participation, so we decided not to charge any other companies that wanted to use it”. Very magnanimous. On the other hand, it may have been a sprat to catch a mackerel, making products such as synthesisers more valuable and desirable. But even then, Smith had to sell Sequential Circuits to Yamaha in 1988 to stave off bankruptcy.

He is still making and selling synths with his own company, Dave Smith Instruments. But for eschewing the money that would have come his way through licensing MIDI, Dave Smith is a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Six


Gary Kildall (1942 – 1994)

The early days of computing were a bit like the Wild West where fortunes were won and lost and where the unwary were ripped off. What has been particularly liberating for the ordinary users of PCs has been the development of operating language and protocols which are intuitive and easy to use. You would think that the brainbox who made all this possible would have been assured of fame and riches. Think again as I recount the salutary tale of Gary Kildall, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Kildall started working for Intel in 1974, hired to develop programming tools for the Intel 4004 microprocessor. He was a bit of a whizz at coding software, turning out code that would work, albeit not necessarily the final polished article. He proposed and developed a high-level language for the 8008 and 8080 models which would allow the user to issue quasi-English commands to the chip rather than relying on binary code. Intel then developed the now unfortunately named ISIS which was the world’s first floppy disk based system and Kildall developed the operating system, CP/M. When Intel decided not to make the PC available in the commercial market, Kildall obtained their consent to market and sell a version of PC/M.

Kildall set up Intergalactic Digital Research and soon PC/M was the operating system of choice in the nascent personal computing world. But success was not assured. In 1980 IBM was on the hunt for an operating system for their soon to be released PC and naturally contacted our hero. Legend has it that Kildall preferred to fly his aeroplane rather than meet the suits from IBM but the reality is that whilst he was late for the meeting, the sticking point was that the hardware giant was only prepared to pay him a one-off fee of $200,000 for using his operating system.

DOS – heard of that? – now enters our story. It was developed by Seattle Computer Products and purchased by a company called Microsoft, owned by one Bill Gates – heard of him? This operating system took the best features of the CP/M operating system but tweaked it ever so slightly to make it incompatible with Kildall’s offering. Gates, a smarter business man than Kildall, sold the rights to IBM for a paltry $50,000, reckoning, rightly as it turned out, that he could make much more by licensing it out to other computer manufacturers – the archetypal sprat to catch a mackerel.

Kildall threatened to sue but never did and was forced to develop another operating system, DR-DOS, to compete with what was his own system. It never made much traction and in 1991 Novell bought what was left of his company. Gates had pretty much the whole of the market sewn up and when Windows replaced DOS his place in history was secured. Kildall was relegated to a footnote, if that.

Worse was to follow. In 1994 Kildall walked into a bar in Monterey wearing a leather jacket with Harley-Davidson badges. There was a group of bikers in the gaff and an altercation. Kildall was pushed, fell to the floor and died from head-related injuries. The coroner reported that the death was suspicious but no one was held to account.

So, Gary, for developing the first PC operating system and failing to cash in on it, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Five


Jerry Siegel (1914 – 1996) and Joe Shuster (1914 – 1992)

Up in the sky, look: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman”. Superman is one of the most enduring superheroes to have appeared in American comics. The man from the planet Krypton wandered around Earth as Clark Kent on the look-out for possible trouble and adventure. The stories of his astonishing derring-do in the fight against evil have enchanted millions and filled the coffers of publishers and movie companies over decades. But who created him and did they get a sizeable share of the pie?

From around 1933 Messrs Siegel, a writer, and Shuster, an artist, had been developing the idea of a character who would turn out to be Superman. The story goes that Siegel’s father< Mitchell, died on 2nd June 1932 during a robbery staged at his second-hand clothes store in Cleveland. Although the coroner claimed that Siegel’s dad died of a heart attack, the police report indicated that gunshots were heard. In memory of his Dad Siegel created a character who was immune to bullets and would wage war against evil. Shuster was corralled to provide the artwork.

Coming up with an idea and selling it are two different things. The duo’s original idea was to sell it to a newspaper syndicate to be run as a cartoon strip with them retaining ownership and rights to the Kryptonite. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any takers. By now they were working for National Allied Publications and struck a deal in March 1938 with their successor company, Detective Comics, Inc. Under the terms of the contract the duo assigned all rights, goodwill and title to Superman to Detective Comics for the princely sum of $130.

Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics on 18th April 1938 and was an overnight sensation. Siegel travelled to New York to meet the co-owner of Detective Comics, Harry Donenfeld, in an attempt to renegotiate the ill-advised contract but was told to do one. The owners did throw the duo some scraps, offering them first refusal on any other creations they may come up with, allowing themselves a six-week window to make a decision. Siegel presented them with the idea of Superboy, stories of Superman’s childhood but encountered radio silence. True to form, Superboy appeared in More Fun Comics whilst Siegel was serving in the army, the script being largely based on Siegel’s script and using Shuster’s illustrations.

In 1948 the pair launched legal action to regain control of the characters and to get a “just share” of all the profits that had been made out of Superman. They failed to wrest control of the character but did get occasional slices of the action but not enough to transform their lives of penury. Their partial breakthrough came when DC Comics sold the film rights to Warner Brothers in 1975. Anxious to avoid any bad press which might have marred the launch of their block-buster movie in 1978 starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando et al, the film company agreed to pay the pair $20,000 a year and include their names on all credits on future Superman publications.

The story didn’t end there. In 1999, after Siegel had died, his family finally won rights to half of his creation. But that decision was immediately challenged and the only ones who have subsequently got rich out of the whole mess are the lawyers.

Siegel and Shuster, for giving the world Superman and giving him away for $130, you are worthy inductees into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Four

Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777 – 1826)


For a musician time is important. You can dispense with melody or harmony but if rhythm goes out of the window then you are left with an unholy racket. That is why you see a conductor flailing their arms in front of a concert orchestra or a drummer preparing a solid foundation upon which the other players can build in a rock or jazz ensemble. When a musician is practising they will often deploy a metronome, a handy device which you can set to register so many beats per minute by way of audible clicks or ticks. Being mechanical it is unerring. Composers mark their scores with metronome settings to give the musos a clue as to the tempo at which to play the piece.

Of course, some bright spark must have come up with the idea of a musical metronome and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Lippstadt born Dietrich Winkel, comes in. He was not the first to develop a metronome – this honour goes to the Andalusian polymath, Abbas ibn Firnas (810 – 897 CE) who is said to have devised “some sort of metronome”. In 1696 Frenchman, Etienne Loulie, created the first mechanical metronome, using an adjustable pendulum. The problem with Loulie’s invention was that it did not make a sound and did not have a device – the technical term is an escapement – to keep the pendulum in motion. For a musician it was not much use.

Winkel who by 1812 had now settled in Amsterdam began experimenting with pendulums. His breakthrough came when he realised that by weighting a pendulum on both sides of a pivot it could beat a regular rhythm which was audible. It could be adapted to suit various tempi and was housed in the now familiar pyramid casing. Winkel donated his “musical chronometer” to the Hollansch Instituut van Wetenschappen on 27th November 1814. It was described and commended in the Journal of the Netherland Academy of Sciences the following year.

If Winkel thought by developing this machine he was on to a winner, he was gravely mistaken. He made the fatal mistake that earns him a place in our Hall of Fame of failing to patent his musical metronome. This opened the way for Johann Nepomuk Maetzel to initially try to buy the rights and title to Winkel’s metronome. When Winkel refused, Maelzel simply copied his machine, added a scale and applied, successfully, for a patent. He produced around 200 of his metronomes and sent them out to friends, composers and manufacturers of musical instruments for their comments and suggestions for modifications. One recipient was Ludwig van Beethoven who was much taken by the device and added metronome settings in his later scores.

Winkel sued Maetzel and won but by then the damage had been done. Although the courts acknowledged our hero as the true inventor of the metronome,, Maetzel had cornered the market. Even to this day the metronome is known as the Maetzel Metronome and the notation MM is used in score to denote the tempo at which a piece is to be played.

Winkel did achieve some fame of sorts by inventing the componium which was an automatic organ with two barrels which revolved automatically. The barrels took turns at playing a variation of a piece whilst the other randomly, by way of something resembling a roulette wheel, selected the next variation to play. The variations were almost limitless and it could play variations, “not only during years and ages, but during so immense a series of ages that though figures might be brought to express them, common language could not”. It wowed the crowds when it was displayed at an exposition in Paris in 1824.

Dietrich, for inventing the musical metronome and not getting the recognition you deserved, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Three


Philo T Farnsworth (1906 – 1971)

Christmas has come and gone and many of us will have spent more time than we would care to admit slumped somnolently in front of a glowing rectangular box transmitting what passes for entertainment these days. Yes, the television. I had always assumed that John Logie Baird was the brains behind the gogglebox but recently I was alerted to the endeavours of Utah born scientist, Philo Farnsworth, the latest to be enrolled into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Philo, who had already shown his mettle as a child by winning a national contest for inventing a tamper-proof lock, was an avid reader of science magazines.  He became interested in the concept of television and quickly deduced that the mechanical systems that were being suggested would be too slow to scan and assemble the many images required to put on a moving picture show. In a chemistry lesson at school he sketched out an idea for a vacuum tube that would revolutionise the TV, although no one realised it at the time. By the age of 16 he had worked out the basic outlines of a functioning electronic television.

In 1926 Philo raised some money to fund his work – $6,000 from private investors and $25,000 from Crocker First National Bank of San Francisco – and on 7th September 1927 made his first successful electronic television transmission, filing for a patent that year. Continuing to work on and perfect the equipment Farnsworth gave his first demonstration to the press in September 1928. But as you would come to expect with our inductees, trouble was just round the corner. His backers were keen to capitalise on their investment and entered into talks with RCA.

RCA sent their head of TV, Vladimir Zworykin, to review Farnsworth’s work. Zworykin was by no means an impartial assessor – after all, he was working on similar ideas for the American corporate – and concluded that whilst his receiver, the kinescope, was superior, Farnsworth’s video camera tube which dissected images and was essentially what he had sketched out in his science lesson a few years earlier was the bee’s knees. To buy him out RCA offered Farnsworth $100,000, an offer he rejected.

The 1930s saw Farnsworth embroiled in legal battles with RCA who claimed that his inventions were in violation of a patent filed earlier than his by Zworykin. The resources of RCA funded a series of actions, appeals and counter-appeals and it was not until 1939 that they agreed to pay Farnsworth $1m for his patents. The Second World War put a stop on TV production and by the time peace returned, Philo’s patents had expired in any case.

The decade of legal battles had taken its toll on Farnsworth’s health – he had a nervous breakdown in the late 1930s – but in 1947 his company Farnsworth Television produced its first TV set. The company, though, was unable to compete with the giants of the industry, particularly RCA, got into financial difficulties and was taken over by IT&T in 1949. Farnsworth was retained as vice president of research but the battle for primacy in the TV market was lost.

Worse was to follow. He moved back to Utah to continue research on technologies such as radar, infra-red telescopes and nuclear fusion but his company, Philo T Farnsworth Association went bankrupt in 1970. Philo then took to drink and died of pneumonia in Salt Lake City on 11th March 1971. It was only through the efforts of his wife, Pem, that Farnsworth’s part in the development of TV has been belatedly recognised, being inducted into the San Francisco Hall of Fame and the Television Academy of Fame.

Philo, for playing a major part in the development of TV and not profiting from it, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Two


Joseph Hansom (1803 – 1882)

I was rereading one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the other day. The protagonist rushed to the scene of the crime in a Hansom cab, the principal form of taxi in those days. It set me thinking about who designed the carriage and this led me to the unfortunate character that was Joseph Hansom whose ingenuity and ill-fortune earns him a place in our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Working as an estate manager at Caldecote Hall, near Nuneaton, Hansom came up with a revolutionary design for a safety cab. It could hold two passengers with the driver seated at the back, communication between the two parties being effected through a trapdoor in the roof. Its principal advantage over contemporary rivals was that it had a low centre of gravity – large wheels and a lower cab and suspended axle – which meant it was much more stable when cornering. Being light and capable of being drawn by only one horse – making it cheaper for the cabbie to operate – it was faster and more manoeuvrable than many of its rivals.


Hansom applied for a patent on December 23rd 1834 and the first Hansom cab travelled down the Coventry Road in Hinckley in 1835. The design was a great success and Hansoms soon replaced the more expensive to run four-wheeled Hackney carriages as the vehicle of choice for hire. In its heyday there were up to 7,500 Hansoms plying their trade in London and they were to be seen in other major cities in the UK as well as Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and New York. The last London Hansom driver handed his licence in as recently as 1947.

Although others, principally, John Chapman, made modifications to the design, mainly to improve passenger comfort, Hansom’s design stood the test of time. As the holder of the patent you would expect Joseph to have received a handsome reward for his ingenuity. Alas, he didn’t. He sold his patent for the cab to a company for the sum of £10,000. The company immediately got into financial difficulties and reneged on the payment leaving Hansom without a penny.

Throughout his life Hansom was dogged by ill-luck. Starting out as an architect – he designed over two hundred buildings including Plymouth Cathedral – he and his partner, Edward Welch, overcame stiff opposition to win the commission to design and build Birmingham Town Hall in 1831. It is a beautiful building with tall pillars and a Roman feel about it but costs soon spiralled out of control and as the architects had stood surety for the builders the edifice brought their company crashing down into bankruptcy.

In 1843 Hansom together with Alfred Bartholomew started an architectural journal called the Builder which is still going today, although it was renamed Building in 1966. Aimed at architects, builders and workmen it found a profitable niche but, as you might expect, Hansom didn’t share in the rewards. He had to relinquish his control over the journal because of lack of capital.

Whilst his name was immortalised in the cab that he designed – there is a blue plaque in his memory outside one of his former residences, 27, Sumner Place in South Kensington – he didn’t receive a bean for his ingenuity. It must have been particularly galling for him to summon a cab. For that reason, Joseph, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty One


Wilhelm Rontgen (1845 – 1923)

Without question, one breakthrough that has revolutionised the medical profession is the discovery of the x-ray machine. The process of x-raying a patient in a hospital or in the dentist’s chair to get a picture of what is going on inside is so routine that we barely give it a second thought. But someone somewhere must have identified these radioactive rays which illuminate our insides and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, the German physicist, Wilhelm Rontgen, comes in.

During the course of 1895 he began investigating what happened when an electrical discharge was passed through various types of vacuum tubes. In early November he was concentrating on testing a tube created by Philipp von Lenard which had been modified by adding a thin aluminium window to allow the cathode rays to escape and a cardboard covering to stop the aluminium from being damaged. Despite the cardboard cover stopping light escaping, Wilhelm noted that when a small cardboard screen coated with barium platinocyanide was placed close to the aluminium window a fluorescent glow could be detected.

On 8th November Rontgen then turned his attention to the Hittorf-Crookes tube which had a thicker glass wall, covering it with cardboard and attaching it to a coil to generate an electrostatic charge. He darkened the room and as he passed the coil charge through the tube, he noticed a shimmering effect which came from the barium platinocyanide screen he had placed nearby. It dawned on him that he may have isolated a new form of ray which he dubbed x, using the algebraic notation used to denote an unknown quantity.


Locking himself away in his laboratory for a couple of weeks to examine the properties of these rays, Wilhelm summoned his wife, Anna Bertha, and took the world’s first x-ray. When she saw the bones of her hand, his old Dutch exclaimed, “I have seen my death”. It’s hard being an inventor’s wife.

When experimenting to see which materials had the ability to stop the rays, Rontgen positioned a small piece of lead while the discharge was occurring. On the screen he saw his own skeleton, flickering and ghostly – the first radiographic image. He published the first of three papers he wrote on his discovery – Uber eine neue Art von Strahlen (On a New Kind of Rays) – on 28th December 1895 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wurzburg. In 1901 Wilhelm was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Physics.

But as we come to expect from our inductees, financial success didn’t follow his landmark discovery. Firstly, and nobly, he refused to patent his discovery, wanting mankind to benefit from the practical applications of his discovery. The prize money from the Nobel award, he donated to his university at Wurzburg.

But philanthropy doesn’t make you immune from harsh economic reality. Despite inheriting a fortune, 2 million Reichsmarks, on his father’s death, the rampant inflation of the Weimar republic ate into it and shortly after the end of the First World War he was declared bankrupt. He saw the rest of his life out quietly at his country home in Weilheim, near Munich, and on his death in accordance with his wishes, his personal and scientific correspondence was destroyed.

Wilhelm, for identifying x-rays and refusing to patent your discovery, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty


Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890 – 1954)

Before the arrival of Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) what revolutionised the quality of radio signals was the switch to Frequency Modulation (FM) from Amplitude Modulation (AM). Gone for the most part were those irritating hisses from extraneous noises which affected and spoiled an AM radio programme. The battle to get FM adopted was long and hard and eventually did for its inventor, the latest inductee to our Hall of Fame, Edwin Armstrong.

In the mid 1920s Armstrong began researching into ways to eliminate the static that bedevilled AM radio, initially by modifying the characteristics of existing AM transmissions with little success, before in 1928 turning to investigate the use of frequency modulation transmissions. Working away in a laboratory in Columbia’s Philosophy Hall, he developed what is now known as wide-band FM which had significant advantages over the previously developed narrow-band transmissions. He was granted five US patents on 26th December 1933 on the basic features of his new system. That was the easy part.

Armstrong had a standing arrangement with RCA to give them first refusal on his patents and whilst they were impressed, were investing in the nascent television technology and so declined the opportunity. Undaunted he decided to finance his own development and form ties with smaller players in the radio industry like Zenith and General Electric. In June 1936 Armstrong demonstrated his new system to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in front of an audience of 500 engineers, by playing a jazz record through conventional AM radio frequencies and then through FM. A contemporary noted “if the audience..had shut their eyes they would have believed the jazz band was in the same room. There were no extraneous sounds”.

But, as you would expect with an inductee, Armstrong hit major problems. Firstly, a switch-over to the ultra-high frequency system would mean scrapping all the existing broadcasting equipment and domestic radios, an expense which for America just emerging from the Great Depression was unpalatable. Then when interest in FM grew amongst some of the radio stations, construction restrictions that were put in place during the Second World War limited its growth. And then to prevent interference between radio stations that were early adopters of FM and the mainstream AM stations the FCC reallocated the FM band – to 88 to 108 Mhz – which meant that the FM equipment and receivers had to be scrapped. Armstrong saw the dead hand of RCA behind the attempts to frustrate the adoption of FM.

Armstrong’s fourth problem was his battle with RCA. In 1940 they had offered him $1 million for a non-exclusive, royaIty-free licence to use his FM patents but Armstrong turned them down. This prompted RCA to conduct their own research into FM and develop what they claimed to be a system which didn’t infringe Armstrong’s patents. Worse still, RCA encouraged other companies to stop paying royalties to Armstrong. In 1948, our hero sued RCA and NBC, claiming patent infringement and that they “had deliberately set out to oppose and impair the value” of his invention.

The case dragged on depleting Armstrong’s finances, worsened when his primary patents expired in late 1950. It all got too much for him and during the night of 31st January/1st February 1954 Armstrong jumped to his death from a window of his flat on the 13th floor of River House in New York City. His wife, Marion, pursued the case against RCA and reached an out of court settlement of around $1m. It was not until the 1960s that FM started to get really established in America, although NASA adopted Armstrong’s system for communications between Houston and the Apollo astronauts.

Edwin, for developing FM and not profiting from it, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty Nine


Percy Spencer (1894 – 1969)

One of the things that has revolutionised the kitchen and accelerated the acceptability of convenience foods is the microwave oven. I remember buying my first one in the 1980s and was astonished how heavy it was as I carried it from the shop to my flat. What many people don’t know is who invented the microwave. This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of fame, Percy Spencer, comes in.

Born in Howland, Maine, by 1939 Spencer was one of the leading experts in radar tube design, working for Raytheon. Magnetrons were used to generate the microwave radio signals that were fundamental for radar and Spencer developed a more efficient way of manufacturing them, by punching out the parts and soldering them together rather than using machined parts. This meant that the rate of production increased from a stately 17 per day to around 2,600.

Whilst standing by an active radar set, our Percy noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He decided to investigate the phenomenon by experimenting to see the effect that exposing various foodstuffs to a magnetron would have. Some popcorn kernels became the world’s first microwaved popcorn. More amusingly, an egg was placed in a kettle and the magnetron was placed directly above it. To the doubtless consternation of one of his colleagues who was peering over the contraption to see what was going on the egg exploded in his face.

Undaunted by this set back Spencer persevered and before long had produced a contraption which consisted of a metal box to which a high density electromagnetic field generator was attached – the world’s first microwave oven. The magnetron sent microwaves into the metal box, trapping them and enabling them to be used in a controlled and, mercifully, safe environment. His experiments demonstrated that not only could food be cooked in the microwave oven so that they were edible, it could be done much more quickly than in a conventional oven.


His employers, Raytheon, applied for a patent for his oven, the Radarange, on 8th October 1945. A prototype was installed in a restaurant in Boston and by 1947 the first commercially available microwave oven was launched on to the unsuspecting public. They were around 6 feet tall, weighed 750lbs and phenomenally expensive, retailing at around $5,000 a time. The magnetron had to be water-cooled which meant that the device had to be plumbed in.

Not unsurprisingly, initial sales were disappointing but soon after further refinements and modifications, an air-cooled, lighter oven was developed. Not only was it cheaper – retailing at around $2,000 to $3,000 but it didn’t require the services of a plumber to instal. The food industry began to twig on to the advantages of a microwave, allowing them to keep refrigerated food up to the point that it was required and then heat it up, resulting in fresher food, less waste and financial savings.

By 1967 the first counter-top, 100 volt domestic oven was available, costing $500. The take-up was phenomenal and by 1975 sales of microwaves had exceeded those of more conventional gas-powered ovens. And the rest is history.

As for Percy, whilst he climbed up the greasy corporate pole at Raytheon, ending up as a Senior Vice President and Board member of Raytheon, he didn’t receive a share of the royalties. All he got was $2, the standard gratuity paid by Raytheon to employees who invented things.

Percy Spencer, for inventing the microwave oven and not sharing in the financial success of your product, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link