David Sarnoff - biography
David Sarnoff (Belarusian: Даві́д Сарно́ў, Russian: Дави́д Сарно́в, February 27, 1891 – December 12, 1971) was an American businessman and pioneer of American commercial radio and television. He founded the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and throughout most of his career he led the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in various capacities from shortly after its founding in 1919 until his retirement in 1970. He ruled over an ever-growing telecommunications and consumer electronics empire that included both RCA and NBC, and became one of the largest companies in the world. Named a Reserve Brigadier General of the Signal Corps in 1945, Sarnoff thereafter was widely known as "The General." Sarnoff is credited with Sarnoff's law, which states that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers.
David Sarnoff was born in Uzlyany, a small Jewish village near the city of Minsk, Russian Empire (now Pukhavichy Raion, Minsk Voblast, Republic of Belarus), to a poor Jewish family, the eldest son of Abraham and Leah (Privin) Sarnoff. Given the limited opportunities for Jews in Russia at that time, Sarnoff's future as a bright young boy seemed assured as a rabbi. Until his father emigrated to the United States and raised funds to bring the family, Sarnoff spent much of his early childhood in a cheder studying and memorizing the Torah. He immigrated with his mother and three brothers and one sister to New York City in 1900, where he helped support his family by selling newspapers before and after his classes at the Educational Alliance. In 1906 his father became incapacitated by tuberculosis, and at age 15 Sarnoff went to work to support the family. He had planned to pursue a full-time career in the newspaper business, but a chance encounter led to a position as an office boy at the Commercial Cable Company. When his superior refused him unpaid leave for Rosh Hashanah, he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America on September 30, 1906, and started a career of over sixty years in electronic communications.
Over the next thirteen years Sarnoff rose from office boy to commercial manager of the company, learning about the technology and the business of electronic communications on the job and in libraries. He also served at Marconi stations on ships and posts on Siasconset, Nantucket and the New York Wanamaker Department Store. In 1911 he installed and operated the wireless equipment on a ship hunting seals off Newfoundland and Labrador, and used the technology to relay the first remote medical diagnosis from the ship's doctor to a radio operator at Belle Isle with an infected tooth. The following year, he led two other operators at the Wanamaker station in an effort to confirm the fate of the Titanic. 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 1916.
Regarding the Titanic story, some modern media historians question whether Sarnoff was at the telegraph key at all. As the profile done for the Museum of Broadcast Communications correctly points out, by the time of the Titanic in 1912, Sarnoff was in management, and no longer a telegrapher; plus, the event occurred on a Sunday, when the store would have been closed. Regarding the "radio music box" prediction, the memo he allegedly wrote making that claim has never been found, but Louise Benjamin, the author of the 1993 article which expressed skepticism about it has since back-tracked somewhat. She and the curator of Sarnoff's papers found a previously mis-filed 1916 memo that did mention Sarnoff and a "radio music box scheme" (the word "scheme" in 1916 usually meant a plan); Benjamin wrote a follow-up article about Sarnoff and the radio music box in 2002. (See Louise Benjamin articles in References, below)
Over the next two years Sarnoff earned promotions to chief inspector and contracts manager for a company whose revenues swelled after Congress passed legislation mandating continuous staffing of commercial shipboard radio stations. That same year Marconi won a patent suit that gave it the coastal stations of the United Wireless Telegraph Company. Sarnoff also demonstrated the first use of radio on a railroad line, the Lackawanna Railroad Company's link between Binghamton, New York, and Scranton, Pennsylvania; and permitted and observed Edwin Armstrong's demonstration of his regenerative receiver at the Marconi station at Belmar, New Jersey. Sarnoff used H. J. Round's hydrogen arc transmitter to demonstrate the broadcast of music from the New York Wanamaker station.
This demonstration and the AT&T demonstrations in 1915 of long-distance wireless telephony inspired the first of many memos to his superiors on applications of current and future radio technologies. Sometime late in 1915 or in 1916 he proposed to the company's president, Edward J. Nally, that the company develop a "Radio Music Box" for the "amateur" market of radio enthusiasts. Nally deferred on the proposal because of the expanded volume of business during World War I. Throughout the war years, Sarnoff remained Marconi's Commercial Manager, including oversight of the company's factory in Roselle Park, New Jersey.
Unlike many who were involved with early radio communications, viewing radio as point-to-point, Sarnoff saw the potential of radio as point-to-mass. One person (the broadcaster) could speak to many (the listeners).
When Owen D. Young of the General Electric Company arranged the purchase of American Marconi and turned it into the Radio Corporation of America, a radio patent monopoly, Sarnoff realized his dream and revived his proposal in a lengthy memo on the company's business and prospects. His superiors again ignored him but he contributed to the rising postwar radio boom by helping arrange for the broadcast of a heavyweight boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in July 1921. Up to 300,000 people heard the fight, and demand for home radio equipment bloomed that winter. By the spring of 1922 Sarnoff's prediction of popular demand for broadcasting had come true, and over the next eighteen months, he gained in stature and influence. In 1926, RCA purchased its first radio station (WEAF, New York) and launched the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the first radio network in America. Four years later, Sarnoff had become president of RCA and NBC had split into two networks, the Red and the Blue. The Blue Network later became ABC Radio. Sarnoff would be later described by others as the founder of both RCA and NBC, but he was neither. These misconceptions were perpetuated because Sarnoff's later accomplishments were so plentiful that any myth was believable.
Sarnoff was instrumental in building and established the AM broadcasting radio business which became the preeminent public radio standard for the majority of the 20th century. This was until FM broadcasting radio re-emerged in the 1960s (following FM's initial appearance and disappearance during the 1930s and 1940s - see Yankee Network for more details on early FM broadcasting and a tragic legacy to the Sarnoff story).
Sarnoff negotiated successful contracts to form Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), a film production and distribution company. Essential elements in that new company were RCA and the former Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains.
Early history of television
When Sarnoff was put in charge of radio broadcasting at RCA, he soon recognized the potential for television, i.e., the combination of motion pictures with electronic transmission. Schemes for television had long been proposed (well before World War I) but with no practical outcome. David Sarnoff was determined to lead his company in pioneering the medium and met with Westinghouse engineer Vladimir Zworykin in 1928. At the time Zworykin was developing an all-electronic television system at Westinghouse, with little management support. Zworykin pitched the concept to David Sarnoff, claiming a viable television system could be realized in two years with a mere $100,000 investment. Sarnoff opted to fund Zworkyin's research, most likely well-aware that Zworykin, in his enthusiasm, had underestimated the scope of his television effort by orders of magnitude in cost and several years in duration. Seven years later, in late 1935, Zworykin's photograph appeared on the cover of the trade journal Electronics, holding an early RCA photomultiplier prototype. The photomultiplier, subject of intensive research at RCA and in Leningrad, Russia, would become an essential component within sensitive television cameras. RCA, soon thereafter, demonstrated a working iconoscope camera tube and kinescope receiver display tube (an early cathode ray tube), the two key components of all-electronic television, to the press on April 24, 1936.
The final cost of the enterprise was closer to $50 million. On the road to success they also encountered a battle with the young inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, who had been granted patents in 1930 for his solution to broadcasting moving pictures. Eventually Sarnoff was ordered to pay him $1,000,000 in royalties. In 1929, Sarnoff engineered the purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the nation's largest manufacturer of records and phonographs, merging radio-phonograph production at Victor's large manufacturing facility in Camden, New Jersey. Sarnoff became president of RCA on January 3, 1930, succeeding General James Harbord. On May 30 the company was involved in an antitrust case concerning the original radio patent pool. Sarnoff's tenacity and intelligence were able to negotiate an outcome where RCA was no longer partly owned by Westinghouse and General Electric, giving him final say in the company's affairs.
Initially, the Great Depression caused RCA to cut costs, but Zworykin's project was protected. After nine years of Zworykin's hard work, Sarnoff's determination, and legal battles with Farnsworth (in which Farnsworth was proved in the right), they had a commercial system ready to launch. Finally, in 1939 Television in America was born under the name of the National Broadcast Corporation. The first television show aired at the New York World's Fair and was introduced by Sarnoff himself. The standard approved by the National Television System Committee (the NTSC) in 1941 differed from RCA's standard, but RCA quickly became the market leader of manufactured sets and NBC became the first Television network in the United States. Meanwhile, a system developed by EMI based on Russian research and Zworykin's work was adopted in Britain and the BBC had a regular television service from 1936 onwards. However, World War II put a halt to a dynamic growth of the early television development stages.
World War II
At the onset of World War II, Sarnoff served on Eisenhower's communications staff, arranging expanded radio circuits for NBC to transmit news from the invasion of France in June 1944. In France, Sarnoff arranged for the restoration of the Radio France station in Paris that the Germans destroyed and oversaw the construction of a radio transmitter powerful enough to reach all of the allied forces in Europe, called Radio Free Europe. Thanks to his communications skills and support he received the Brigadier General's star in December 1945, and thereafter was known as "General Sarnoff." The star, which he proudly and frequently wore, was buried with him. Sarnoff's anticipated that post-war America would need an international radio voice explaining its policies and positions. In 1943, he tried to influence Secretary of State Cordell Hull to include radio broadcasting in post-war planning. In 1947, he lobbied Secretary of State George Marshall to expand the roles of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. His concerns and proposed solutions were eventually seen as prescient.
After the war, monochrome television production began in earnest. Color television was the next major development and NBC once again won the battle. CBS also had their electro-mechanical color television system approved by the FCC on October 10, 1950, however Sarnoff filed an unsuccessful suit in the United States district court to suspend that ruling. Subsequently he made an appeal to the Supreme Court which eventually upheld the FCC decision. Sarnoff's tenacity and determination to win the "Color War" pushed his engineers to perfect an all-electronic color television system that used a signal that could be received on existing monochrome sets that finally won the day. CBS was now unable to take advantage of the color market, due to lack of manufacturing capability and sets that were triple the cost of monochrome sets. A few days after CBS had its color premiere on June 14, 1951, RCA demonstrated a fully functional all-electronic color television system and became the leading manufacturer of color Television sets in the United States.
Color television production was suspended in October 1951 for the duration of the Korean War. As more people bought monochrome sets, it was increasingly unlikely that CBS could achieve any success with its incompatible system. The NTSC was reformed and recommended a system virtually identical to RCA's in August 1952. On December 17, 1953 the FCC approved RCA's system as the new standard.
In 1955, General Sarnoff received The Hundred Year Association of New York's Gold Medal Award "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York." In 1959 Sarnoff was a member of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund panel to report on U.S. foreign policy. As a member of that panel and in a subsequent essay published in Life as part of its "The National Purpose" series, he was critical of the tentative stand being taken by the United States in fighting the political and psychological warfare being waged by Soviet-led international Communism against the West. He strongly advocated an aggressive, multi-faceted fight in the ideological and political realms with a determination to decisively win the Cold War.
Although a cousin's sympathetic biography earned Sarnoff's approval, there is not yet an objective, scholarly biography—one which documents its sources and draws on multiple archives. Sarnoff retired in 1970, at the age of 79, and died the following year, aged 80. He is interred in a mausoleum featuring a stained-glass vacuum tube in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
On July 4, 1917, Sarnoff married Lizette Hermant, the daughter of a French immigrant family who settled in the Bronx. It was Sarnoff's good luck that the Hermants just happened to become one of his mother's neighbors. This 54-year marriage is said to have been the bedrock of his life. Mrs. Sarnoff soon learned that, in addition to a wife's more conventional roles, she also became the first person to hear her husband's new ideas as radio and television became integral to American home life. The couple had three sons: Robert W. Sarnoff, Edward Sarnoff, and Thomas W. Sarnoff. Robert succeeded his father as RCA's Chairman in 1971; and the youngest of these sons, Thomas, became NBC West Coast President.
Sarnoff was the maternal uncle of screenwriter Richard Baer. Sarnoff is credited with sparking Baer's interest in television, as well as kick starting his career.
According to Baer's 2005 autobiography, Sarnoff called a vice president at NBC at 6 A.M. and ordered him to find Baer "a job by 9 o'clock" that same morning. The NBC vice president complied with Sarnoff's request. Baer was hired as an assistant on the William Bendix sitcom, The Life of Riley, in 1953. Baer went on to write for more than 56 television series during his career.
David Sarnoff's first cousin was Eugene Lyons, U.S. journalist and writer. Lyons wrote a biography on Sarnoff.
- Knight of the Cross of Lorraine (France), 1951.
- Companion of the Resistance (France), 1951.
- Mr. Sarnoff was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1975.
- Sarnoff was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.
- Sarnoff was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in the radio division.
The David Sarnoff Library, a library and museum open to the public containing many historical items from David Sarnoff's life was located in Princeton Junction, NJ. The David Sarnoff Radio Club composed of local amateur radio operators also meets there, as does The New Jersey Antique Radio Club and other community organizations. The exhibits are currently being moved to The College of New Jersey in Roscoe L. West Hall.