Empire of the Air

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title of this group biography is taken from a typically grandiose statement by Lee de Forest, the self-styled Father of Radio: “I discovered an Invisible Empire of the Air, intangible, yet solid as granite.” Discounting the boasting, de Forest’s words conjure the magic that dazzled radio’s first audiences. Yet having invoked that magic in his prologue, Tom Lewis rarely summons it again. He makes only a minimal attempt to re-create the atmosphere of “radio days,” nor, except for a few generalities in passing, does he analyze radio’s impact.

Instead, Lewis focuses almost exclusively on the careers of three radio pioneers: Lee de Forest, a self-aggrandizing inventor who stumbled on a device that helped make the full-scale development of radio possible; Edwin Howard Armstrong, whose early discoveries de Forest claimed as his own; and David Sarnoff, a Russian Jewish immigrant who had the vision to forsee radio’s enormous potential. Lewis’ narrative interweaves the stories of these three men. De Forest and Armstrong became embroiled in a long and bitter patent dispute which was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court, with the decision unjustly going to de Forest. Another protracted legal struggle, in which Armstrong tried to obtain fair compensation for his invention of FM, led to his suicide in 1954. Armstrong’s chief antagonist was RCA, headed by his former friend and close associate, Sarnoff.

Lewis is a plodding writer. To make matters worse, when he shifts from one of his three subjects to another, picking up the narrative thread, he frequently repeats himself. Three times, for example, Lewis summarizes the pattern of Sarnoff’s compulsive womanizing and his wife Lizette’s response (Lewis credits her “tolerance and temperament” for preserving the marriage), saying essentially the same thing each time. Lewis even repeats anecdotes. The result is an uninvolving book which fails to live up to the promise of its title.