Chairman of Radio Corporation of America
"Nobody can be a success if they don't love their work."-David Sarnoff
David Sarnoff wasn't a scientist, engineer or inventor. Yet he, more than any other individual, was the driving force behind the development of the electronic mass media in the United States. Truly ahead of his time, Sarnoff's vision and ambition fueled some of the greatest technological achievements of the 20th century. His stubborn pursuit of technology turned his employer, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), into a powerhouse in less than a decade. And along the way, he managed to spawn one of America's top three television networks.
Sarnoff's story is a classic American rags-to-riches tale. Born in Uzlian, Russia, in 1891, the young boy and his family traveled steerage to America when he was 9. Knowing no English, Sarnoff entered school but also helped support his family by running errands for a local butcher, selling and delivering newspapers and singing at his synagogue.
When Sarnoff was 15, his father became very sick from tuberculosis, so Sarnoff was forced to quit school and take on the full burden of supporting his family. He bought a telegraph key, taught himself Morse code, and applied for a job at Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America. Although he hoped to be hired as a telegraph operator, he accepted the only job available¬-office boy. Sarnoff made the most of the opportunity, learning as much as he could about his employer's company by perusing the correspondence and memos it was his job to deliver. He also attached himself to any company executive who could further his career.
His efforts quickly paid off. Within two years he became a full-fledged "wireless" operator, and by 1911, he was managing the 5-kilowatt Marconi station on top of the Wanamaker department store in New York City. In 1915, he submitted a memo outlining an idea for what he called a "radio music box." At the time, radio was mainly used in shipping and by amateur wireless enthusiasts. But Sarnoff boasted that his device would make radio a "household utility," like the phonograph. "The idea," he wrote, "is to bring music into the house by wireless." Marconi management wrote off the concept as a commercial folly.
After World War I, in 1919, General Electric (GE) formed RCA to absorb Marconi's U.S. assets, which included Sarnoff. Figuring the new management might see things his way, Sarnoff again submitted his "radio music box" idea. RCA execs were intrigued, but pointed out that in order to sell radios, they had to have programming. But Sarnoff had already conquered that problem. He proposed that RCA, in conjunction with GE and its partners, would produce the radio and underwrite programming at the same time.
To prove his idea would work, on July 2, 1922, Sarnoff broadcast the Jack Dempsey-George Carpentier prizefight. Few people owned radio receivers in those days, so Sarnoff arranged to have receivers connected to large amplifiers strategically placed in theaters and auditoriums throughout the eastern states. The fight was a knockout for both Dempsey and Sarnoff-the former in the fourth round, and the latter when reports of a radio audience of some 500,000 people poured in. Within three years, the radio music box, now called the Radiola (and priced at a hefty $75) was a success, with sales of $83.5 million. Sarnoff's career took off.
His next bright idea: RCA could increase its sales of radios by stringing together hundreds of stations from coast to coast, creating a national broadcasting network. Based on this plan, in 1926, as general manager of RCA, Sarnoff formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) as a subsidiary of RCA.
With radio clearly a success, Sarnoff turned his attention to another pet project in which he saw tremendous potential-television. He set up a special NBC station called B2XBS to experiment with the new medium. At the World's Fair in April 1939, Sarnoff conducted the first public television broadcast. Speaking from the RCA Pavilion on the fair's Avenue of Progress, Sarnoff told viewers, "It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth of a new art so important in its implication that it is bound to affect all society."
Television would have arrived faster if it weren't for the intervention of World War II, during which Sarnoff served as a consultant for General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Upon his return to civilian life, Sarnoff threw himself into making his dream of commercial television a reality. The new medium seemed risky and expensive at the time. But just as Sarnoff had predicted, the postwar TV market boomed, and RCA recouped its $50 million investment in research in just three years. Sarnoff then became obsessed with color television, gambling millions of dollars on its success and nearly losing.
The problem with color TV lay in creating a set that was "compatible"-able to receive both black-and-white and color images. In 1950, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a noncompatible system developed by NBC's top rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System, but reversed its decision three years later when NBC came up with a compatible system. Sarnoff had spent $150 million to come out ahead, but the investment proved to be worthwhile.
Color television would be Sarnoff's last, and perhaps his greatest, accomplishment. In the summer of 1968, he became ill with a mastoid infection and never fully recovered. In 1970, he retired as chairman of RCA, and he died a year later. At the time of his death, RCA was grossing more than $3 billion annually and had 64 manufacturing plants in the United States and abroad. During his 41-year tenure as head of RCA, Sarnoff had turned the fledgling company into a corporate titan. But his real genius lay in his ability to see further into the future than his contemporaries, and through hard work and determination, to bring that future into reality. It was Sarnoff who was primarily responsible for both radio and television, and the creation of a truly global village.
As a member of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff during World War II, David Sarnoff spearheaded many of the communications advances that aided the Allies in defeating the Axis forces. Under Sarnoff's direction, RCA developed and produced airborne and shipborne missiles guided by TV, as well as many other types of equipment, including electronic navigation systems. Sarnoff himself coordinated "D-Day" communications and was later instrumental in restoring communications systems in France.
After the war, as head of RCA, Sarnoff was awarded both the Legion of Merit and the Medal of Merit for the company's contribution to the war effort. He was also named a brigadier general in the U.S. Army, and for the rest of his life he would affectionately be referred to as "The General."
During the first public television broadcast at the 1939 World's Fair, David Sarnoff predicted that television "will become an important factor in American life." But it's doubtful that even he could have imagined how true that statement would be. According to a study conducted by Nielsen Media Research, in 1998, more than 98 million homes-nearly 99 percent of the households in America-had at least one television set, and more than 73.5 million (74 percent) of those households owned two or more sets.
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.