A pioneer in
radio and television, David Sarnoff was an immigrant who climbed
the rungs of corporate America to head the Radio Corporation of
America (RCA). Born 27 February 1891, in Uzlian, in the Russian
province of Minsk, Sarnoff's early childhood years were spent studying
to be a rabbi, but when he emigrated to the United States in 1900,
he was forced to work to feed his mother, ailing father, and siblings.
the value of self-promotion and publicity, Sarnoff falsely advanced
himself both as the sole hero who stayed by his telegraph key for
three days to receive information on the Titanic's survivors
and as the prescient prophet of broadcasting who predicted the medium's
rise in 1915. While later described by others as the founder of
both the Radio Corporation of American (RCA) and the National Broadcasting
Company (NBC), Sarnoff was neither. These misconceptions were perpetuated
because Sarnoff's later accomplishments were so plentiful that any
myth was believable. Indeed, his foresight and corporate savvy led
to many communication developments, especially television.
his career at age nine, selling Yiddish-language newspapers shortly
after arriving in New York. To better his English, he picked up
discarded English newspapers. By the time he was ten, he had a fairly
passable vocabulary. He also soon had his own newsstand. During
the day he attended grade school, while at night he enrolled in
classes at the Educational Alliance, an East Side settlement house.
At age 15, with his father's health deteriorating, Sarnoff was forced
to seek a full-time job.
He became a
messenger for the Commercial Cable Company, the American subsidiary
of the British firm that controlled undersea cable communication.
The telegraph key lured him to the American
Marconi Company a few months later, where he was hired as an
office boy. Once there, he began his corporate rise, including being
Marconi's personal messenger when the inventor was in town. With
Marconi's endorsement, Sarnoff became a junior wireless telegraph
operator and, at age 17, volunteered for wireless duty at one of
the company's remote stations. There he studied the station's technical
library and took correspondence courses. Eighteen months later,
he was appointed manager of the station at Sea Gate, New York. He
was the youngest manager employed by Marconi. After volunteering
as a wireless operator for an Arctic seal expedition, he became
operator of the Marconi wireless purchased by the John Wanamaker
department stores. At night he continued his studies.
Then, on the
evening of 14 April 1912, he heard the faint reports of the Titanic
disaster. One of a number of wireless operators reporting the
tragedy, Sarnoff would later claim he was the only one remaining
on air after President Taft ordered others to remain silent. Another
probably spurious claim was Sarnoff's assertion he wrote his famous
"Radio Music Box Memo" in 1915. The version so often cited was actually
written in 1920, when others were also investigating and predicting
As his career
thrived, Sarnoff's personal life also grew. On 4 July 1917, he married
Lizette Hermant, following a closely supervised courtship. Their
54-year marriage survived Sarnoff's occasional philanderings and
proved the bedrock of his life. They had three sons: Robert, Edward,
and Thomas. Robert succeeded his father as RCA's president. In 1919,
when British Marconi sold its American Marconi assets to General
Electric (GE) to form RCA, Sarnoff came on board as commercial manager.
Under the tutelage of Owen D. Young, RCA's chair,
was soon in charge of broadcasting as general manager of RCA and
was integral in the formation of NBC in 1926. Again as Young's protégé,
he negotiated the secret contracts with American Telephone and Telegraph
(AT and T) that led to NBC's development. With the acquisition of
AT and T's broadcasting assets, RCA had two networks, the Red and
the Blue, and they debuted in a simulcast on 15 November 1926.
In 1927 Sarnoff
was elected to RCA's board and during the summer of 1928, he became
RCA's acting president when General James G. Harbord, RCA's president,
took a leave of absence to campaign for Herbert Hoover. His eventual
succession to that position was assured. During the end of the decade
Sarnoff negotiated successful contracts to form Radio-Keith-Orpheum
(RKO) motion pictures, to introduce radios as a permanent fixture
in automobiles, and to consolidate all radio manufacturing by the
Victor company under RCA's banner. On 3 January 1930, the 39-year-old
Sarnoff became RCA's president.
The next two
years were pivotal in Sarnoff's life as the Department of Justice
sued GE and RCA for monopoly and restraint of trade. Sarnoff led
industry efforts to combat the government's suits that would have
destroyed RCA. The result was a consent decree in 1932 calling for
RCA's divestiture from GE and the licensing of RCA's patents to
competitors. When GE freed RCA, Sarnoff was at the helm and, for
nearly the next three decades, he would oversee numerous communications
development, including television.
in television began in the 1910s, when he became aware of the theory
of television. By 1923, he was convinced television would be the
next great step in mass communication. In 1929 Westinghouse engineer
Vladimir Zworykin called on Sarnoff to outline his concept of an
electronic camera. Within the year, Sarnoff underwrote Zworykin's
efforts, and Zworykin headed the team developing electronic television.
As the Depression deepened, Sarnoff bought television patents from
inventors Charles Jenkins and Lee De Forest, among others, but he
could not acquire those patents held by Philo Farnsworth. These
he had to license, and in 1936, RCA entered into a cross licensing
agreement with Farnsworth. This agreement solved the technological
problems of television, and establishing television's standards
became Sarnoff's goal.
Communications Commission (FCC) would set those standards, but within
the industry, efforts to reach consensus failed. Other manufacturers,
especially Philco, Dumont and Zenith, fought adoption of RCA's standards
as the industry norm. In 1936, the Radio Manufacturers Association
(RMA) set up a technical committee to seek agreement on industry
standards, an action blessed actively by Sarnoff and silently by
the FCC. For more than five years the committee would fight over
standards. Sarnoff told the RMA, standards or not, he would initiate
television service at the opening of the New York World's Fair on
20 April 1939, and he did. Skirmishes continued for the next two
years over standards, but finally in May 1941 the FCC's National
Television System Committee (NTSC) set standards at 525 lines, interlaced,
and 30 frames per second. But rapid television development stalled
as World War II intervened. Sarnoff's attention then turned to devices,
including radar and sonar, that would help win the war.
Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center
World War I Sarnoff had applied for a commission in naval communications,
only to be turned down, ostensibly because his wireless job was
considered essential to the war effort. Sarnoff suspected anti-Semitism.
Now as head of the world's largest communication's firm, Sarnoff
was made a brigadier general and served as communication consultant
to General Dwight Eisenhower. After the war, with the death of
RCA chair of the board, General J.G. Harbord in 1947, General
Sarnoff, as he preferred to be called, was appointed chair and
served in that capacity until his death in 1971.
the war, RCA introduced monochrome television on a wide scale
to the American population, and the race for color television
with CBS was on. CBS picked up its pre-war experiments with a
mechanical system, which Sarnoff did not see initially as a threat
because it was incompatible with already approved black-and-white
standards. When CBS received approval for its system in 1951,
Sarnoff challenged the FCC's decision in the courts on the grounds
it contravened the opinions of the industry's technical leaders
and threatened the public's already $2-billion investment in television
sets. When the lower court refused to block the FCC ruling, Sarnoff
appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the FCC action as
a proper exercise of its regulatory power.
counterattacked through an FCC-granted authority for RCA to field-test
color developments. Demonstrations were carefully set for maximum
public exposure, and they were billed as "progress reports" on
compatible color. By then, the Korean War intervened in the domestic
color television battle and blunted introduction of CBS' sets
on a large scale. Monochrome still reigned, and Sarnoff continued
pressing the compatibility issue. In 1953 CBS abandoned its color
efforts as "economically foolish" in light of 25 million incompatible
monochrome sets already in use. The FCC was forced to reconsider
its earlier order, and on 17 December 1953, voted to reverse itself
and adopt standards along those proposed by RCA. During the 1950s
and 1960s Sarnoff's interests included not only television but
also satellites, rocketry, and computers.
At the same time he was battling CBS over color, Sarnoff's feud
Howard Armstrong over FM radio's development and patents continued.
Sarnoff and Armstrong, once close friends, were hopelessly alienated
by the end of World War II. Their deadly feud lasted for years,
consumed numerous court challenges and ended in Armstrong's suicide
died in his sleep 12 December 1971, of cardiac arrest. At his
funeral he was eulogized as a visionary who had the capacity to
see into tomorrow and to make his visions work. His obituary began
on page one and ran nearly one full page in The New
York Times and aptly summed up his career in these words:
"He was not an inventor, nor was he a scientist. But he was a
man of astounding vision who was able to see with remarkable clarity
the possibilities of harnessing the electron."
SARNOFF. Born near Minsk, Russia, 27 February 1891. Attended
public schools, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.; studied electrical
engineering at Pratt Institute. Married: Lizette Hermant, 1917;
three sons. Joined Marconi Wireless Company, 1906-19, telegraph
operator, 1908, promoted to chief radio inspector and assistant
chief engineer, when Marconi was absorbed by Radio Corporation
of America (RCA), 1919-70, commercial manager; elected general
manager, RCA, 1921, vice president and general manager, 1922,
executive vice president, 1929, president, 1930; invested in development
of television during 1930s; chair of board, RCA, 1947-70; oversaw
RCA's manufacture of color television sets and NBC's color broadcasts.
Received 27 honorary degrees, including doctoral degrees from
Columbia University and New York University. Died in New York
City, 12 December 1971.
The Papers of David Sarnoff. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Louise. "In Search of the Sarnoff 'Radio Music Box' Memo."
Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (Washington,
D.C.), Summer 1993.
Kenneth M. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications
Industry. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
"David Sarnoff of RCA Is Dead; Visionary Broadcast Pioneer."
New York Times, 13 December 1971.
Carl. Sarnoff, An American Success. New York: Quadrangle/New
York Times Book, 1977.
Lyons, Eugene. David Sarnoff, A Biography. New York: Harper
& Row, 1966.
Sobel, Robert. RCA. New York: Stein and Day, 1986.
The Wisdom of Sarnoff and the World of RCA. Beverly Hills,
California: Wisdom Society for the Advancement of Knowledge, Learning
and Research in Education, 1967.
See also American
Broadcasting Company; Color
Broadcasting System; Farnsworth,
Broadcasting Company; Paley,
William S.; Radio
Corporation of America; Sarnoff,
States: Networks; Zworykin,