Segments in this Video

Power of Radio (03:27)


Hear archival broadcasts. Norman Corwin describes the significance of sound.

Fathers of Radio (03:17)

Guglielmo Marconi is given credit for inventing the radio, but three Americans greatly contributed to its success.

The Men and the Idea (01:11)

See archival footage from "This is Your Life." Host Ralph Edwards presents the first radio tube and Bob Warren introduces Lee de Forest.

De Forest: Childhood and Education (04:18)

De Forest grew up in segregated Alabama and spent his time reading patent reports. He was determined to be more successful than Marconi whose wireless company had spread to America.

De Forest: Competition with Marconi (04:33)

In 1900, de Forest patented a device that improved reception of weak signals. He started the de Forest Wireless Telegraph Company with Abraham White.

De Forest: First Radio Tube (03:59)

The Audion made reception of the human voice practical and became the foundation of radios. De Forest aimed to build an empire built on radio waves. See footage from "This is Your Life."

de Forest: Fraud Trial (03:23)

De Forest did not acknowledge Fessenden's radio broadcast. He married a second time in 1908 and transmitted music from the Eiffel Tower on his honeymoon.

Armstrong (03:34)

Edwin Armstrong's niece and several engineers comment on his genius. He became focused on wireless as a child and went on to build a tower.

Armstrong: Regeneration (03:28)

Armstrong increased the power of the Audion tube. He patented the receiver that could also transmit in 1913. He demonstrated his device for the Marconi Wireless Company.

Sarnoff (04:07)

David Sarnoff was a corporate executive who recognized the significance of science. He emigrated from Russia as a child and 30 years later became president of RCA.

Origin of Mass Broadcasting (03:36)

Marconi and his invention were praised in the days following the Titanic disaster. Sarnoff came up with the idea that information could be transmitted to many points.

Longest Patent Suit in History (03:36)

De Forest transmitted music and news from New York. He was angry about Armstrong's regenerative receiver and claimed the idea as his own. Wireless transmitters were commandeered for WWI.

Superheterodyne (04:03)

Sarnoff became the general manager of RCA when it absorbed American Marconi. De Forest made profited from the war he did not support. Armstrong joined the Army Signal Corps and designed wireless receivers for airplanes.

Regeneration Circuit Victory (02:42)

Armstrong won the patent suit that had been put on hold during WWI. It was known that de Forest did not understand how the Audion worked.

First Portable Superheterodyne Radio (04:47)

Armstrong was fascinated by heights. His sale of the superregenerative circuit had made him the largest stockholder in RCA. A single speaker could widely spread information through broadcasting.

Broadcasting (03:05)

Radio announcer Red Barber talks about the early days of radio.

Spread of Broadcasting (04:12)

KDKA in Pittsburgh was one of the first stations to broadcast regularly. Universities, banks, and stores made wireless transmissions.

National Broadcasting Company (04:43)

Sarnoff helped create the first radio network in 1946. De Forest had exhausted his appeals against Armstrong, but challenged earlier decisions and won.

Fireside Chats (04:29)

Sarnoff became president of RCA in 1930. See footage of Marconi visiting him in New York. Roosevelt closed the banks and addressed the nation over the radio in March of 1933.

NBC Symphony Orchestra (03:11)

Americans sought escape through radio entertainment. People listened to plays, soap operas, and symphonies.

Most Popular Home Appliance (03:08)

Radio enforced prejudices in America. See footage of "Amos and Andy."

A Little Black Box (05:02)

Sarnoff, de Forest, and Armstrong did not listen to the radio. Armstrong discovered frequency modulation, which he used to eliminate static.

1939 World's Fair (03:36)

With funding from RCA, Sarnoff directed a team of engineers that created television. There were claims that they stole inventions that made it possible. Armstrong continued with FM.

World War II (03:39)

Sarnoff effectively suppressed FM. Hear radio broadcasts and see footage from WWII.

General Sarnoff (02:14)

During World War II, Armstrong gave his FM patent to the U.S. government. Sarnoff supervised the communication system that enabled the invasion of Normandy.

Rise of Television (02:51)

TV overtook radio by the mid-1950s. The golden age of radio only lasted 10 years.

Armstrong Radios Obsolete (03:27)

RCA refused to pay royalties to Armstrong when the FCC declared FM would be used to transmit sound for TV. Armstrong spent millions of dollars fighting RCA.

Armstrong's Suicide (04:36)

When Armstrong died in 1954, he and Sarnoff were enemies. His niece was not surprised when she heard the news.

"Father of Radio" (02:14)

De Forest wrote an autobiography and tried to keep his name in the media. He died in 1961.

Sarnoff's Legacy (04:47)

Sarnoff commissioned an autobiography, built a library, and launched colored television before his death in 1971. Armstrong's wife won all of his patent suits.

Credits: Ken Burns: Empire of the Air—The Men Who Made Radio (02:58)

Credits: Ken Burns: Empire of the Air—The Men Who Made Radio

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Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio - A Film by Ken Burns

3-Year Streaming Price: $339.95



From Ken Burns, producer of THE CIVIL WAR, comes the story of radio's creation of radio and three men of genius, vision, and determination: Lee De Forest, a clergyman's flamboyant son; Edwin Howard Armstrong, a brilliant, withdrawn inventor; and David Sarnoff, a hard-driving Russian immigrant who created the world's most powerful communications company. This film evokes the lives of three men whose work profoundly transformed modern America.

Length: 113 minutes

Item#: BVL131290

Copyright date: ©1992

Closed Captioned

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