U.S. Media Executive

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.

Learning early 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.

Sarnoff began 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 broadcasting.

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.

Sarnoff's interest 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.

The Federal 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.


David Sarnoff
Photo courtesy of the David Sarnoff Research Center

During 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.

After 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.

Sarnoff 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 with Edwin 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 in 1954.

Sarnoff 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."

DAVID 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.

Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Benjamin, Louise. "In Search of the Sarnoff 'Radio Music Box' Memo." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1993.

Bilby, 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.

Dreher, 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 Television; Columbia Broadcasting System; Farnsworth, Philo; Goldenson, Leonard; National Broadcasting Company; Paley, William S.; Radio Corporation of America; Sarnoff, Robert; United States: Networks; Zworykin, Vladimir.