“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.”
David Sarnoff (Belarusian: Даві́д Сарно́ў, Russian: Дави́д Сарно́в, February 27, 1891 – December 12, 1971) was an American businessman and pioneer of American radio and television. 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 to a Jewish family in Uzlyany, a small town in Belarus, to Abraham and Leah Sarnoff. Abraham Sarnoff emigrated to the United States and raised funds to bring the family. Sarnoff spent much of his early childhood in a cheder (or yeshiva) studying and memorizing the Torah. He emigrated 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 paid leave for Rosh Hashanah, he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America on September 30, 1906, and started a career of over 60 years in electronic communications.
Over the next 13 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 onSiasconset, 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. Sarnoff later exaggerated his role as the sole hero who stayed by his telegraph key for three days to receive information on the Titanic ’s survivors The event began on a Sunday, when the store would have been closed. Some researchers question whether Sarnoff was at the telegraph key at all. By the time of the Titanic disaster in 1912, Sarnoff was a manager of the telegraphers.
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 became president of RCA. NBC had by that time split into two networks, the Red and the Blue. The Blue Network later became ABC Radio. Sarnoff was sometimes inaccurately referred to later in his career as the founder of both RCA and NBC, but he was in fact neither.
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 broadcastingradio re-emerged in the 1960s despite Sarnoff’s efforts to suppress it (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, see also FM radio and Edwin Howard Armstrong the inventor who committed suicide financially broken and mentally beaten after years of legal tussles with RCA and others ).