Born: 27 February 1891
Died: 12 December 1971
Business genius David Sarnoff made great contributions to the development of radio and television. His vision, inexhaustible energy, and aggressive personality led to the creation of radio and television broadcasting as we know it.
Sarnoff was born on 27 February 1891, the oldest of five children, in Minsk, Russia. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1900 and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Sarnoff’s first job was as a newsboy. At the age of fifteen, his grade schooling finished, he literally stumbled into the wrong building and found a job as a messenger boy for the Commercial Cable Company. Later he found work as an office boy and then a telegrapher for the Marconi Wireless Company of America. While there, Sarnoff met Guglielmo Marconi, the famous radio pioneer, who served as Sarnoff’s mentor.
Driven by nearly unbounded ambition Sarnoff rose in the ranks. By 1912, he was managing the new Marconi station atop the Wanamaker’s Department Store in Manhattan. Legend has it that Sarnoff was at his Wanamaker’s post during the sinking of the Titanic and was the first to hear the news. Although that version of the story is myth, there is no disputing that during the tragedy, Sarnoff sent and received wireless messages for seventy-two straight hours, gathering names of survivors as relatives of passengers anxiously waited for word of their loved ones. Sarnoff impressed his superiors with his persistence and another promotion soon followed.
In 1917, General Electric purchased the American branch of the Marconi Company and combined its radio patents to form a new company called the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Sarnoff was promoted to General Manager of RCA in 1921 and was given full authority to run the company. By this time, Sarnoff had come to understand the potential of radio as a means of entertainment and communication. In July of that year, he promoted the first home entertainment event, a radio broadcast of a boxing match. As many as 300,000 people listened. Sales of home radios took off and money rolled into RCA’s coffers.
But Sarnoff was not satisfied with the enormous success of home radio. He foresaw the merger of radio with the phonograph, network broadcasting (the NBC network) and the movie industry. Sarnoff also recognized the potential of another home entertainment device—the television. In the 1920s and 1930s, he allocated large sums of RCA research money to television projects and funded the work of Vladimir Zworykin who developed an early electronic camera tube. When other developers and their patents got in Sarnoff’s way, he fought them hard. Philo T. Farnsworth was one of the few who stood up to Sarnoff and won.
In the 1940s, Sarnoff volunteered to serve as a communications officer during World War II and helped coordinate allied communications for the invasion of Europe. He served on General Eisenhower’s staff and was given the courtesy title of Brigadier General. For the rest of his life, he insisted on being addressed as “General.” Sarnoff was named CEO of RCA in 1947, a position he would hold until 1970. On 12 December 1971, Sarnoff passed away in New York.