Empire of the Air

by Tom Lewis

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Did the author have a thesis in Empire of the Air?

Empire of the Air technically has a thesis. Lewis presents three early contributors to the development of radio in the United States (Lee de Forest, Edwin H. Armstrong, and David Sarnoff) and argues that their little-known contributions led to radio's creation.

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Empire of the Air relates information about the origin of the radio. Generally, in non-technical terms, people assume that the radio was “invented” by famous scientists like Marconi and Tesla, who were certainly pioneers of radio. However, the author’s thesis is that the collective contributions of three lesser-known individuals ultimately led to the creation of modern radio communication.

The first of these individuals is Lee de Forest. He is an American inventor and the creator of the audion vacuum tube, which is an elementary form of radio tube developed in 1906 and patented by him. This enabled de Forest to develop the first successful electronic amplifier. He is often referred to as the “father of radio,” although that opinion is widely contested.

The second focus in the book is on Edwin H. Armstrong, also an American inventor. Armstrong contributed to long-distance, as well as AM and FM radio. Many of his findings are still used today.

The third subject of the book is David Sarnoff, a pioneer in the development of both radio and television broadcasting. The claim is that Sarnoff was the impetus behind commercial radio and television. He achieved high acclaim as the head of RCA, which was involved in the new radio industry.

This book does present the author’s view of the radio culture of times past. However, the significance attributed to the three men who are the central characters of Lewis’ book is somewhat exaggerated. All three were largely responsible for the characterization of their own fame.

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