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Happy 125th Birthday, David Sarnoff (David Who?)

The radio-and-television pioneer essentially created the consumer technology business.


Take Steve Jobs. Add CBS chairman Leslie Moonves. Toss in a little GE chairman Jeffrey R. Immelt, and flavor with a smidgen of Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. Mix vigorously. The result?

You’d get David Sarnoff, who would have been 125 years old today.

Wait, David who?

Today, on the 125th anniversary of his birth, perhaps a few more people will now know who he was and his importance to our tech-centric world.

It’s a bit shocking that David Sarnoff‘s name isn’t as recognizable as any of those mentioned above, or as Henry Ford’s or even Thomas Edison’s, at least among the tech cognoscenti.

Like Jobs, Sarnoff was not an engineer but a technology and media visionary, mogul and all-powerful — often merciless — titan. He knew what he wanted, and he drove his troops toward his idea of perfection.

For more than 40 years, until 1970, Sarnoff led RCA in the development and domination of:

Radio: In the fall of 1915, while working at the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Sarnoff wrote a memo to his bosses: “I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless … ”

His bosses, running what was then a purely wireless telegraph message company, filed the memo and forgot about it. But a few years later, RCA invented AM radio and, under Sarnoff, became both the leading seller of consumer radios — including the first factory-installed in-dash car radio — and was the medium’s leading broadcaster with two radio networks, NBC and what would become ABC.

Music: RCA was both the leading maker and seller of both record players (Victrolas) and records via its RCA Victor Records label, the second-oldest record label in the U.S. The label released the first recordings on 33 1/3 discs, invented the 45 RPM “single,” and released the first records in stereo. RCA Victor’s most famous artist was Elvis Presley. So you could say Sarnoff helped mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.

Television: In April 1923, less than two years after Idaho farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth sketched out his idea for electronic television, Sarnoff wrote: “I believe that television, which is the technical name for seeing as well as hearing by radio, will come to pass in due course … the instrument will make it possible for those at home to see as well as hear what is going on … ” Sarnoff pushed TV’s development in both black-and-white and color, coast-to-coast broadcasts via NBC, and made RCA the leading seller of TV sets for decades.

In other words, the Sarnoff-led RCA pioneered and dominated the three major forms of home entertainment hardware and the content for each. It manufactured all its own products and pressed its own records, primarily in Camden, N.J., and its radio and later TV studios originated from its own studios, the RCA Building, part of its “Radio City” at the heart of Rockefeller Center in New York City.

This is a skimpy oversimplification of how Sarnoff and RCA monopolized the consumer hardware and content businesses, as well as industrial, government, military (air, land and sea) and aerospace communications components and products, for an enormous chunk of the 20th century. Sarnoff also pushed RCA to developed color videotape-recording technology, movie sound (and was the “R” in RKO Studios, which produced Citizen Kane), computers, car phones (the precursor to cellphones) and satellites. RCA was the only consumer electronics maker among the Fortune Top 30 companies during Sarnoff’s tenure, increasing its revenue and profit nearly every year.

Visionary or villain?

Born into abject poverty on Feb. 27, 1891, in Russia, and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan from the age of 9, Sarnoff fought his way to success. His march began when he got a job at Marconi and taught himself telegraphy. Sarnoff switched his focus to leading rather than serving when he moved to RCA a year after the company was established in 1919. He served in increasingly important executive positions until he was named president of RCA in 1930. He could now turn his visionary ideas into reality.

But like many other business titans, Sarnoff was hardly a corporate saint. In fact, he could be downright coldhearted.

Throughout his life he actively promoted the fiction that he had been the first wireless operator to receive messages from the doomed Titanic on April 14, 1912.

RCA was an early booster of FM radio until Sarnoff determined that the static-free radio technology posed too big a threat to AM. He and FM’s inventor, Howard Armstrong, engaged in a long-running legal battle that culminated in Armstrong’s suicide in January 1954. “I did not kill Armstrong,” the imperious Sarnoff supposedly stated upon hearing the news of his old friend’s death.

Virtually by force of will, and backed by RCA’s enormous engineering, legal and lobbying muscle, Sarnoff pushed the FCC into accepting RCA’s color technology, NTSC, in 1953, as the industry standard, forcing the abandonment of the earlier-adopted CBS color system. NTSC remained the U.S. standard until analog TV broadcasts ended in June 2009, replaced by the digital standard, ATSC — which the David Sarnoff Research Center helped develop.

For his leadership in creating and supplying communications technology and equipment during World War II, and for his service as part of General Dwight Eisenhower’s communications staff during the June 1944 D-Day operations, Sarnoff was made a brigadier general. For the rest of his life, Sarnoff reveled on being referred to as “General.” A virulent anticommunist, Sarnoff also was a supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and allowed blacklisting at RCA.

Sarnoff’s steely patent tug-of-war with Philo T. Farnsworth, the business-naive inventor of television, has been the subject of many books and, in 2007, an Aaron Sorkin-penned Broadway play, “The Farnsworth Invention,” starring Hank Azaria of “The Simpsons” fame as Sarnoff. A broken and alcoholic Farnsworth died in March 1971, nine months before Sarnoff.

But as cynics would dismissively philosophize, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. David Sarnoff may have been ruthless, but he was also prescient, determined and brilliant, the individual primarily responsible for the success of the three foundational home entertainment technologies that still occupy the center of our leisure lives.

Today, on the 125th anniversary of his birth, perhaps a few more people will now know who he was and his importance to our tech-centric world.

Technology historian Stewart Wolpin has been reviewing the latest consumer electronics for more than 30 years and writes about consumer technology for eBay. Reach him @stewartwolpin.

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