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Quick-Thoughts: Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air (1992)

“Sound is the first stirring of the infant.”

Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio is a pretty standardly crafted historical account. This is my introduction to acclaimed documentary director Ken Burns. I do approve of the film’s infectious sound effects, tasteful audio/news excerpts, competent editing, etc. It is, nevertheless, maybe a little too protracted here and there, plus the drama is only tolerably attempted and the second half barely matches the cohesive quality of the first. In the end though, it did bring up a short yet contemplative discussion on who truly did invent “radio.”

From my perspective, choosing who “The Father of Radio” truly depends on what you define as “radio.” Can it just be considered broadcasting music? Live commentary? Commercialing? Broad publication? Was it when the first morse code was sent over wirelessly? Or is it when all these elements came together? 

If “The Father of Radio” were to solely mean “who created radio first?” I’d lean towards Guglielmo Marconi or Reginald Fessenden. Marconi basically created the technology needed for inventors to start scheming the common radio traits, and Fessenden was the one who genuinely not only made Lee de Forest’s invention of the Spade Detector beforehand with the Electrolytic Detector, but he also was the first to broadcast music over a radio transmission. 

However, if we were claiming whoever had the larger impact on popularizing radio as the definition of “The Father of Radio,” it’d be a toss-up between Lee de Forest and Howard Armstrong. While David Sarnoff certainly pushed forward this idea of making radio receivers a household utility, he doesn’t nearly hold a candle to the amount of accomplishments Forest or Armstrong have. For one, Forest showcased the idea of transmitting music into a wider audience with the creation of “The Empire of the Air,” as well as in his wireless musical transmissions from the Eiffel Tower and New York. Forest was a man concerned with becoming famous, not so much with maintaining sustainability; the amounts of wives he divorced at the flip of a switch could convince you plenty alone. He never genuinely created that many wholly original ideas, but he certainly was concerned with crafting a ton of different inventions like his Audion Tube or implementing already established ideas by kickstarting as many radio companies he could despite some failures and as many large-ranging broadcasts as he could possibly share. 

Howard Armstrong, on the other hand, used Forest’s Audion Tube to create a radio-like receiver that he called “regeneration.” This device was not only able to receive broadcasts, but was able to transmit them. During this landmark, Armstrong was basically able to make broadcasting a huge deal. On top of this, he also invented the first portable superheterodyne radio, which allowed people with a microphone the ability to broadcast live commentary. He essentially blew up the “broadcasting” term, in fact. Armstrong even created wide-band frequency modulation (FM radio) to cut the amount of static from broadcasts. 

At the end of the day though, this is what has me almost indecisive of who’s to have the mantle of “The Father of Radio.” If I had to choose one, however, it would be Lee de Forest, because he’s been in the game longer and popularized a significant amount of the inventions and ideas that Armstrong basically needed to even think about working in broadcasting in the first place. Forest was working in the radio business for so long, promoting so many assets needed to design the radio style that it’s hard not to see him as the king. 

Discussion aside, the documentary is pretty “whatever” overall, but hey! At least it spawned this moderately interesting debate!

Verdict: C+

“Empire of the Air” is now available to stream on PBS.

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