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Sarnoff, David - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: David Sarnoff

company rca television war

(1891-1971)
National Broadcasting Company, (NBC)

Overview

David Sarnoff, who is commonly regarded as the “father of television,” began his career as a Russian immigrant working as a messenger for a telegraph company. He conceived the idea of “radio music boxes,” predicting they would become household items. He also predicted the advent of television and fostered its technical development. He himself was broadcast from the 1939 World’s Fair in one of the first televised pictures announcing that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) would begin daily programming. He went on to build the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which owned NBC at that time, into a worldwide conglomerate, retiring in 1966.

Personal Life

David Sarnoff was born in Uzlian, Russia, on February 27, 1891, to parents Abraham and Lena (Privin) Sarnoff. The family emigrated to the United States in 1900 and settled in New York City. Before the family came to the United States, Sarnoff had studied to become a Jewish scholar. Once they arrived in America, however, he found it necessary to take odd jobs, such as selling newspapers, in addition to school in order to help support the family. Sarnoff eventually left school and devoted his talents to the emerging broadcasting industry.

While working for the Commercial Cable Company as a teenager, he developed interest in telegraphy and learned Morse code. In 1907, he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company and was promoted through the company. At this time, he also studied electrical engineering at the Pratt Institute. He was a wireless operator on ships sailing off the Atlantic Coast and in the Arctic. In 1912, while working in New York City, he received messages from the sinking Titanic passenger ship. He remained on duty for 72 hours reporting news of the disaster. Sarnoff continued to rise in the company and, during World War I, handled contracts for and consulted with the U.S. military. When Marconi became part of the newly organized RCA, Sarnoff was named commercial account manager of the company he would eventually lead for over three decades.

David Sarnoff married Parisian-born Lizette Hermant on July 4, 1917, and had three sons: William, Edward, and Thomas. During his career, Sarnoff was honored with dozens of honorary degrees and awards. His civic and philanthropic activities were varied and extensive, including memberships and serving as a Director for over forty organizations. He was an eloquent speaker, and many of his speeches have been reprinted.

Career Details

In 1921, after David Sarnoff has demonstrated the possibilities with an account of a Jack Dempsey championship fight, the RCA company began manufacturing sets to receive radio signals. Within three years, $83 million worth of sets had been sold. In 1926, under Sarnoff’s guidance, the National Broadcasting Company was formed to pursue possibilities of the medium. Sarnoff was named president of RCA in 1930. During the 1930s, Sarnoff was responsible for creation of many popular cultural programs and established the NBC Orchestra led by Arturo Toscanini, one of the highest-regarded conductors of the 20th century. He was responsible for the company’s investment and research into the possibility of broadcasting images, which was realized in 1939. The new industry did not really expand, though, until after World War II.

Sarnoff joined General Dwight Eisenhower’s staff in 1944, and was responsible for building a broadcasting station that could reach all of his forces. Many of the innovations in television weaponry were advanced by RCA during the war. The company developed and produced airborne and shipborne missiles guided by TV, and many other types of equipment including electronic navigation systems. After the war, Sarnoff was instrumental in restoring communication systems in France. For his service during the war, Sarnoff was named brigadier general and decorated with the Legion of Merit. He was also presented with the Medal of Merit as head of RCA for the company’s contribution to the war effort. During the war, RCA established a unified research center in Princeton, New Jersey, which was renamed in 1951 to honor Sarnoff. When he returned after the war to RCA, he preferred to be addressed as “General.”

David Sarnoff was elected chairman of RCA in July 1947. Color television was now a distinct possibility and Sarnoff was a leader in the successful effort for the Federal Communications Commission to approve a compatible system allowing sets to receive both black and white and color signals. The 1950 RCA annual report revealed the company employed 54,000 persons and had a profit of $46 million on revenue of $312 million. The company continued to expand its operations under Sarnoff until it made practically every type of electronic communications device ranging from tiny ferrite cores for computers to huge radar sets for tracking satellites and missiles. By the time Sarnoff resigned as CEO in 1966, RCA was a huge conglomerate involved not only in electronics, radio and television but also sound films, phonograph records, computers and space exploration equipment. Sarnoff also led the company’s expansion into the field of book publishing and auto rentals with the purchase of Random House Publishing and the Hertz Corporation. Sarnoff remained honorary chairman and also continued to serve on the board on NBC. After a severe illness in 1968, Sarnoff no longer had an active role in the company. He died in 1971 in New York City and is buried in an ornate mausoleum in Valhalla, New York.

Social and Economic Impact

David Sarnoff had unique and major roles in the development of commercial radio and television as he presided over what was formerly the United States’ preeminent consumer electronics and media company. At his suggestion, RCA invested in radio sets, and later he was responsible for a $60 million research effort on television signals. The research necessary to develop these new technologies also led to innovations in many other industries. In addition, the National Broadcasting Company under his direction initiated the concept of nationwide radio and television networks, which have had a huge impact on daily life in this country. Sarnoff later built RCA into a major United States military supplier and one the largest corporations in the United States. Sarnoff himself held two important patents, one for a secret signaling system and the other for an early warning relay system. The NBC Symphony Orchestra, which, under the direction of the Sarnoff, recruited the celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini as conductor, is generally regarded as one of the finest orchestras in U.S. musical history.

Chronology: David Sarnoff

1891: Born.

1915: Submitted proposal to Marconi Company for “radio music box.”

1921: Appointed general manager of RCA.

1926: Launched the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

1939: Led first public demonstration of television by NBC at World’s Fair.

1944: Promoted to brigadier general and awarded Legion of Merit for service in World War II.

1947: Elected chairman of RCA.

1950: Led efforts to establish color television standards. RCA reported $46 million profit and employed 54,000 persons.

1966: Retired from RCA.

1971: Died in New York City.

A close associate, Kenneth Bilby, described Sarnoff’s view on management: “his cardinal leadership principle was growth through innovation. Core businesses must be germinated through in-house creation of technology. How often he had said: ‘the heart of RCA is its scientific laboratories.’” As such, Sarnoff’s interest lay in technology rather than entertainment and programming. Commenting on CBS rival William S. Paley’s talent raid on NBC in the late 1940s, Sarnoff remarked “a business built on a few comedians, isn’t a business worth being in.”

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