COMMUNICATIONS PIONEERS: Marvin Middlemark

You’ve never heard of Marvin Middlemark. As far as anyone can tell, he was a slightly quirky inventor in the mid-20th century who came up with things like a water-powered potato peeler. If he’d stopped there we wouldn’t even be discussing him. However, he did invent something most of us recognize instantly.

The traditional rabbit-ears antenna was invented by Mr. Middlemark around 1953. It was the first commercially successful indoor TV antenna and it sparked tons of copycats. It’s still sold, even today.

He didn’t invent the antenna, but he made it better

Heinrich Hertz invented the receiving antenna. Scientists like Marconi, Uda, and others improved the design until it became the highly technical antennas we use today. Still, most improvements in antenna technology were aimed at scientists, not homeowners. Mr. Middlemark saw an opportunity for new homeowners to get in on the explosive growth in television sets by creating an antenna that didn’t need to be put on the roof, and could be adjusted easily.

How a rabbit-ears antenna works

The two key features of a rabbit-ears antenna are the telescoping elements and the hinge that lets them move. Both features let the antenna change its shape and therefore receive different frequencies.

In order to receive a channel effectively, an antenna’s length should be a clean fraction of the wavelength of the signal. If the signal wavelength is 3 feet, the antenna should be 3 feet, 1.5 feet, 6 feet, something like that. The telescoping elements allow an antenna to get longer and shorter. Pivoting up and down also changes the apparent length of the antenna but also allows the antenna to move vertically to avoid obstructions in the house.

It’s called “rabbit ears,” believe it or not, because it “kinda” looks like real rabbit ears on top of a TV. I mean, you have to squint, but, well, kinda.

The legend of Marvin Middlemark

We know little of Mr. Middlemark other than his birth in New York City, his stable of 62 patents, his slightly bizarre life, and his passing in 1989 in Long Island, New York. While he did in fact patent 62 things, it seems that 61 of them didn’t amount to much, including a device to reinflate or rehabilitate old tennis balls.

Mr. Middlemark, apparently, entertained guests with his own chimpanzee and collection of stained glass windows. He died fairly well off with a fortune over $5 million and apparently 1,000 pairs of gloves.

But hey, he has a Wikipedia page. I don’t. So I think it’s fair to say, he’s still a pioneer in the world of communications… perhaps just a bit of an eccentric one.