Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991) Poster

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A fascinating documentary about early radio...
MartinHafer11 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The show begins by announcing that there are three big names associated with early radio. As on reviewer pointed out correctly, the show oddly omitted Nicola Tesla and should have at least mentioned him.

The first was de Forest. According to everything I saw about him, he was an incredibly ugly man--and I am talking about his soul, not his face. He seemed to delight in taking credit for other peoples' work and would, in some cases, sue the inventors--taking credit for their work! While he was responsible for popularizing radio and combining others' work to make better products, he was also an opportunist who, at times, seemed like a huckster.

Second was Armstrong (probably the least horrible of the three men--hence he was the least successful in many ways!!). He was the brilliant inventor whose many innovations made radio for the masses as well as brought the world FM radio. He was very bright--and naturally de Forest spent decades suing him (and vice-versa) after de Forest 'borrowed' his invention and claimed credit for it.

Finally, there was Sarnoff--who invented nothing nor did he claim to. Instead, he was instrumental in spreading radio to the masses and eventually became the head of both RCA and NBC--a giant in the radio industry indeed.

I think this documentary worked very well for one reason apart from the fact that Ken Burns is a freakin' genius at making films. The despicable nature of these three men made for an interesting film. Had they been nice and 'played well' together, the film just wouldn't have been as fascinating. Such cut-throat and obsessed guys, while personally repulsive, made for great competition and drive and viewing, that's for sure! So is the film perfect? Nah. Tesla should have been at least mentioned and several other figures from the early days of radio are omitted (these three men were NOT the only ones who made and popularized radio). But, considering the time constraints of the length of the film, I can certainly understand these things. Unless it was a mini-series, you cannot possibly cover everything that SHOULD be covered (if such a thing is even possible). Well done and quite compelling.
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This explains it all
rkuntz18 November 2005
This reminds me of why I got into radio. I started in radio running old time radio shows at WRVO in Oswego NY. This documentary fills in the history for me. I am a very big fan of old time radio like the Great Gildersleeve and "the Shadow" and this sparked my interest. I highly recommend this film for those interested in how our current radio was born. If you want to know the pioneers and the "cads" watch this film for a great background! I think that it gives the controversy a little kick. I think that the invention of the radio tube is still a issue. As one of the commentaries talk about, the development of the audion was a controversial thing. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
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jbacks3-115 May 2006
Ken Burns hits another one out of the ballpark! This amazing examination of the genesis of radio reveals the principals for what they really were: Marconi is quickly dismissed for his disinterest and lack of vision (and a knowing nod to Tesla), Lee DeForest, a social outcast with questionable ethics and more dumb luck than genius, David Sarnoff as the cunning capitalist and Edwin Armstrong, the dynamic tragic force behind the medium. Burns reveals DeForest's feet of clay: he stumbled upon the heterodyne circuit yet couldn't explain how it worked! Armstrong, comprehending it's function, vastly improves upon the design, creating the super-heterodyne, virtually invents FM and briefly becomes General Electric's largest stockholder before falling as a pawn to the Machiavellian manipulations of David Sarnoff. This plays like a corporate soap opera set against the dominate mass medium of a the first half of the 20th Century. Small complaint: the introduction is far too drawn out before the story begins. Unless you're a radio buff it's unlikely you'll recognize the names (or voices) of those being interviewed. But this is a minor quibble--- Empire of the Air is an entertaining exercise in history and rates right up there with Burns' Horatio's Drive. 10 out of 10.
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Why not nobody mentions TESLA while he is the true inventor according to the Supreme Court Ruling in 1943
yce417 January 2005
The Guglielmo Marconi Case Who is the True Inventor of Radio?

How many mistakes are there in our history books after all? How many facts are erroneously described and so replicated throughout the world, while the reality is completely different?

The invention of radio is one of these cases. Despite the fact that almost every book mentions Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor of radio, the only thing Marconi did seems to be nothing more than reproducing apparatus Nikola Tesla had registered years ago. Marconi copied Tesla, made some modifications, built a large industry producing radio devices in Europe and spent huge amounts to advertise his supposed invention.

Yet, the inventor of radio is Nikola Tesla, as proved by official court decisions and as great scientists of his era admit.

The Facts

1893 Tesla carries his first experiments with high frequency electric currents. The first demonstration of wireless communication. In his articles and lectures Tesla describes his first radio apparatus in detail.

1895 Marconi presents a radio device in London, claiming it as his invention. However, the device is the same as what Tesla had already described in his articles. Later on, Marconi will claim that he had not read Tesla's articles, despite that they were translated in many languages very quickly.

1897 First patent registered by Nikola Tesla on radio communication, Patent No. 645576.

1898 Tesla constructs the first remotely controlled boat and demonstrates it in New York. He registers this invention under Patent No. 613809.

1899 Tesla builds a large radio station in Colorado Springs, USA and starts his experiments. His observations are noted in his diary.

1900 Marconi starts selling his radio apparatus. Tesla says he wants to sue him.

1901 Tesla begins the construction of a huge radio station in Wanderclyffe, near New York. This station, Tesla's biggest dream, would transmit electric signals and energy to the whole planet. It was never completed, due to lack of financial means. The same year, Marconi transmits his first message over the Atlantic. The world was impressed, but did not learn that Marconi was only using Tesla's Patent No. 645576 (1897).

1916 Marconi starts exploiting the rights of his supposed invention, considering himself, and not Tesla, the patent holder.

1917 In an article in "Electrical Experimenter" Tesla announces a system to locate metallic objects through radio signal reflection. This is the beginning of the radar.

1943 Nine months after Tesla's death, the Supreme Patent Court of the USA decides that Nikola Tesla must be considered the father of wireless transmission and radio. Justifying its decision the court notes that in Marconi's related Patent (No. 763772 of 1904) there is nothing new not having been earlier published and registered by Tesla. The Court considered Marconi's claim that he did not knew of Tesla's patents false.
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How could anyone (let alone Ken Burns) do a documentary about the pioneers of radio with no mention of Nikola Tesla?
Wellenstock24 January 2011
First of all I recommend anyone reading this (especially Ken Burns) to pick up a copy of "Tesla" by Tad Wise. Tesla is one of the most brilliant and fascinating inventors of all time.

Without Tesla we would not have radio! We would also not have television, alternating current, electric motors, fluorescent light, remote controls and the list goes on and on. He has around 300 patents and phony Marconi infringed on more than one. But he's not the only one to cheat Tesla, give Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse their due.

So what happened Ken Burns? Were you getting your funding from Republicans that forced you to manipulate history? Wasn't Tesla enough of a money grubbing cheating capitalist for you? Well you lost a lot of credibility with this and it's a shame.

I suggest you change the title slightly. Let's call this pretend documentary, "The Men Who Made-Off With Radio"

To think that children trying to learn about the history of radio may as a result of your abomination never hear the name Nikola Tesla. This reflects so poorly on PBS and Ken Burns the thing should be retracted. At the very least Ken should appear at the beginning of the film apologizing and saying we really blew it with this one. We didn't do our research on something as basic as who invented radio.
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Tesla doesn't deserve the credit for the great innovations of radio.....(Spoilers)
Ricktrumpetman10 March 2015
Warning: Spoilers
.....anymore than Benjamin Franklin could have. Discovering that arcing electricity created "static" is an even more feeble claim to genius than DeForest's extremely slippery claim to truly understanding his own detector. Armstrong's the REAL genius, and no amount of Rock Band/pop culture political/historical revisionism will change this fact. Tesla was cheated. (Not as unjustly as Armstrong was, by a FAR cry.) But he well and truly lost his marbles and everybody who had dealings with him knew it. That's an appealing anti-hero narrative for a world looking for "magic" answers. Pop culture has found him to be an appealing eccentric to hang their hopes on. But there are NO secrets of AC or DC transmission of power that have been "hidden" or hijacked. It's (just) another of the "mysticism alternative" conspiracy theories that were played like a harp by conjectural TV script writers like Chris Carter. Great Entertainment. Bad Science. Ken Burns got this one, RIGHT. I wish I could say the same for "Jazz".
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