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David Sarnoff  (David Allen Sarnoff)
RCA - A Media Pioneer (1891-1970)

Key Work

David Sarnoff was a pioneer of American commercial radio and television. Sarnoff was responsible for the introduction of radio and television in the United States as forms of mass media. David Allen Sarnoff  was also founder of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Sarnoff rose from office boy to commercial manager of the company, learning about the technology and the business of electronic communications on the job.

  • David Sarnoff a Russian born, later his family immigrated to USA 
  • He supported his family by selling newspapers. In 1906 his father became incapacitated and David assumed the role of head of household at the early age of 15.
  • He worked as an office boy at the Commercial Cable Company.
  • He joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America.
  • Secured the radio technology patents from inventor Edwin H. Armstrong
  • General Electric Company purchased of American Marconi and turned it into the Radio Corporation of America, a radio patent monopoly.
  • 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, and Sarnoff devoted his time to managing the company's factory in Roselle Park, New Jersey.
  • When Sarnoff was put in charge of radio broadcasting at RCA, he organized to meet with Westinghouse engineer Vladimir Zworykin in 1928  to develop TV tube model. RCA demonstrated a working iconoscope camera tube and kinescope receiver tube to the press on April 24, 1936. 
  • At age 39, Sarnoff became president of RCA on January 3, 1930
  • Initially, the Great Depression caused RCA to cut costs, but Zworykin's project was protected. Finally, in 1939 Television in America was born under the name of the National Broadcast Corporation (NBC).
  • The first television show aired at the New York World's Fair and was introduced by the Sarnoff himself.
  • NBC became the first Television network in the United States.
  • After the World War II, monochrome television production began in earnest. Color television was the next major development and NBC once again won the battle.

Note: Sarnoff's success story with RCA, was not possible without his relationship with the inventor Edwin H. Amstrong. Originally based on friendship, the relationship descended into animosity and ended with Armstrong's suicide in 1954. Sarnoff key differentiation is vision to recognize the commercial potential of Armstrong's scientific inventions when others did not.

Books & References:

  • Bilby, Kenneth M. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Dreher, Carl. Sarnoff: An American Success . New York: Quadrangle/ New York Times Book Co., 1977.
  • Kenneth Bilby, The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry (NY: Harper & Row, 1986). The best biography available, by the retired RCA vice president of public affairs
  • Tom Lewis, 'Empire of the Air The Men Who Made Radio' (NY: Edward Burlingame, an imprint of HarperCollins, 1991). Profiles Sarnoff's life along with those of Edwin Armstrong and Lee De Forest, drawing on archival sources.

  • Eugene Lyons, David Sarnoff a Biography(NY: Harper & Row, 1966). A cousin's sympathetic but insightful biography approved by Sarnoff.
  • David Sarnoff, Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff (NY: McGraw Hill, 1968). A useful one-volume compendium of Sarnoff's writings, covering his views on innovation, broadcasting, monopoly rights and responsibilities, freedom, and future electronic innovations.
  • Robert Sobel, Rca(NY: Stein and Day, 1984).

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