DAVID SARNOFF Biography - Bussiness people and enterpreneurs


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A pioneer in radio and television, David Sarnoff was an immigrant           
who climbed the rungs of corporate America to head the Radio               
Corporation of America (RCA). Born 27 February 1891, in Uzlian, in         
the Russian province of Minsk, Sarnoff's early childhood years were         
spent studying to be a rabbi, but when he emigrated to the United           
States in 1900, he was forced to work to feed his mother, ailing           
father, and siblings.                                                       
Learning early the value of self-promotion and publicity, Sarnoff           
falsely advanced himself both as the sole hero who stayed by his           
telegraph key for three days to receive information on the Titanic's       
survivors and as the prescient prophet of broadcasting who predicted       
the medium's rise in 1915. While later described by others as the           
founder of both the Radio Corporation of American (RCA) and the             
National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Sarnoff was neither. These             
misconceptions were perpetuated because Sarnoff's later                     
accomplishments were so plentiful that any myth was believable.             
Indeed, his foresight and corporate savvy led to many communication         
developments, especially television.                                       
Sarnoff began his career at age nine, selling Yiddish-language             
newspapers shortly after arriving in New York. To better his               
English, he picked up discarded English newspapers. By the time he         
was ten, he had a fairly passable vocabulary. He also soon had his         
own newsstand. During the day he attended grade school, while at           
night he enrolled in classes at the Educational Alliance, an East           
Side settlement house. At age 15, with his father's health                 
deteriorating, Sarnoff was forced to seek a full-time job.                 
He became a messenger for the Commercial Cable Company, the American       
subsidiary of the British firm that controlled undersea cable               
communication. The telegraph key lured him to the American Marconi         
Company a few months later, where he was hired as an office boy.           
Once there, he began his corporate rise, including being Marconi's         
personal messenger when the inventor was in town. With Marconi's           
endorsement, Sarnoff became a junior wireless telegraph operator           
and, at age 17, volunteered for wireless duty at one of the                 
company's remote stations. There he studied the station's technical         
library and took correspondence courses. Eighteen months later, he         
was appointed manager of the station at Sea Gate, New York. He was         
the youngest manager employed by Marconi. After volunteering as a           
wireless operator for an Arctic seal expedition, he became operator         
of the Marconi wireless purchased by the John Wanamaker department         
stores. At night he continued his studies.                                 
Then, on the evening of 14 April 1912, he heard the faint reports of       
the Titanic disaster. One of a number of wireless operators                 
reporting the tragedy, Sarnoff would later claim he was the only one       
remaining on air after President Taft ordered others to remain             
silent. Another probably spurious claim was Sarnoff's assertion he         
wrote his famous "Radio Music Box Memo" in 1915. The version so             
often cited was actually written in 1920, when others were also             
investigating and predicting broadcasting.                                 
As his career thrived, Sarnoff's personal life also grew. On 4 July         
1917, he married Lizette Hermant, following a closely supervised           
courtship. Their 54-year marriage survived Sarnoff's occasional             
philanderings and proved the bedrock of his life. They had three           
sons: Robert, Edward, and Thomas. Robert succeeded his father as           
RCA's president. In 1919, when British Marconi sold its American           
Marconi assets to General Electric (GE) to form RCA, Sarnoff came on       
board as commercial manager. Under the tutelage of Owen D. Young,           
RCA's chair, Sarnoff was soon in charge of broadcasting as general         
manager of RCA and was integral in the formation of NBC in 1926.           
Again as Young's protégé, he negotiated the secret contracts with           
American Telephone and Telegraph (AT and T) that led to NBC's               
development. With the acquisition of AT and T's broadcasting assets,       
RCA had two networks, the Red and the Blue, and they debuted in a           
simulcast on 15 November 1926.                                             
In 1927 Sarnoff was elected to RCA's board and during the summer of         
1928, he became RCA's acting president when General James G.               
Harbord, RCA's president, took a leave of absence to campaign for           
Herbert Hoover. His eventual succession to that position was               
assured. During the end of the decade Sarnoff negotiated successful         
contracts to form Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) motion pictures, to             
introduce radios as a permanent fixture in automobiles, and to             
consolidate all radio manufacturing by the Victor company under             
RCA's banner. On 3 January 1930, the 39-year-old Sarnoff became             
RCA's president.                                                           
The next two years were pivotal in Sarnoff's life as the Department         
of Justice sued GE and RCA for monopoly and restraint of trade.             
Sarnoff led industry efforts to combat the government's suits that         
would have destroyed RCA. The result was a consent decree in 1932           
calling for RCA's divestiture from GE and the licensing of RCA's           
patents to competitors. When GE freed RCA, Sarnoff was at the helm         
and, for nearly the next three decades, he would oversee numerous           
communications development, including television.                           
Sarnoff's interest in television began in the 1910s, when he became         
aware of the theory of television. By 1923, he was convinced               
television would be the next great step in mass communication. In           
1929 Westinghouse engineer Vladimir Zworykin called on Sarnoff to           
outline his concept of an electronic camera. Within the year,               
Sarnoff underwrote Zworykin's efforts, and Zworykin headed the team         
developing electronic television. As the Depression deepened,               
Sarnoff bought television patents from inventors Charles Jenkins and       
Lee De Forest, among others, but he could not acquire those patents         
held by Philo Farnsworth. These he had to license, and in 1936, RCA         
entered into a cross licensing agreement with Farnsworth. This             
agreement solved the technological problems of television, and             
establishing television's standards became Sarnoff's goal.                 
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would set those                 
standards, but within the industry, efforts to reach consensus             
failed. Other manufacturers, especially Philco, Dumont and Zenith,         
fought adoption of RCA's standards as the industry norm. In 1936,           
the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA) set up a technical               
committee to seek agreement on industry standards, an action blessed       
actively by Sarnoff and silently by the FCC. For more than five             
years the committee would fight over standards. Sarnoff told the           
RMA, standards or not, he would initiate television service at the         
opening of the New York World's Fair on 20 April 1939, and he did.         
Skirmishes continued for the next two years over standards, but             
finally in May 1941 the FCC's National Television System Committee         
(NTSC) set standards at 525 lines, interlaced, and 30 frames per           
second. But rapid television development stalled as World War II           
intervened. Sarnoff's attention then turned to devices, including           
radar and sonar, that would help win the war.                               
During World War I Sarnoff had applied for a commission in naval           
communications, only to be turned down, ostensibly because his             
wireless job was considered essential to the war effort. Sarnoff           
suspected anti-Semitism. Now as head of the world's largest                 
communication's firm, Sarnoff was made a brigadier general and             
served as communication consultant to General Dwight Eisenhower.           
After the war, with the death of RCA chair of the board, General           
J.G. Harbord in 1947, General Sarnoff, as he preferred to be called,       
was appointed chair and served in that capacity until his death in         
After the war, RCA introduced monochrome television on a wide scale         
to the American population, and the race for color television with         
CBS was on. CBS picked up its pre-war experiments with a mechanical         
system, which Sarnoff did not see initially as a threat because it         
was incompatible with already approved black-and-white standards.           
When CBS received approval for its system in 1951, Sarnoff                 
challenged the FCC's decision in the courts on the grounds it               
contravened the opinions of the industry's technical leaders and           
threatened the public's already $2-billion investment in television         
sets. When the lower court refused to block the FCC ruling, Sarnoff         
appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the FCC action as a           
proper exercise of its regulatory power.                                   
Sarnoff counterattacked through an FCC-granted authority for RCA to         
field-test color developments. Demonstrations were carefully set for       
maximum public exposure, and they were billed as "progress reports"         
on compatible color. By then, the Korean War intervened in the             
domestic color television battle and blunted introduction of CBS'           
sets on a large scale. Monochrome still reigned, and Sarnoff               
continued pressing the compatibility issue. In 1953 CBS abandoned           
its color efforts as "economically foolish" in light of 25 million         
incompatible monochrome sets already in use. The FCC was forced to         
reconsider its earlier order, and on 17 December 1953, voted to             
reverse itself and adopt standards along those proposed by RCA.             
During the 1950s and 1960s Sarnoff's interests included not only           
television but also satellites, rocketry, and computers.                   
At the same time he was battling CBS over color, Sarnoff's feud with       
Edwin Howard Armstrong over FM radio's development and patents             
continued. Sarnoff and Armstrong, once close friends, were                 
hopelessly alienated by the end of World War II. Their deadly feud         
lasted for years, consumed numerous court challenges and ended in           
Armstrong's suicide in 1954.                                               
Sarnoff died in his sleep 12 December 1971, of cardiac arrest. At           
his funeral he was eulogized as a visionary who had the capacity to         
see into tomorrow and to make his visions work. His obituary began         
on page one and ran nearly one full page in The New York Times and         
aptly summed up his career in these words: "He was not an inventor,         
nor was he a scientist. But he was a man of astounding vision who           
was able to see with remarkable clarity the possibilities of               
harnessing the electron."                                                   
DAVID SARNOFF. Born near Minsk, Russia, 27 February 1891. Attended         
public schools, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.; studied electrical             
engineering at Pratt Institute. Married: Lizette Hermant, 1917;             
three sons. Joined Marconi Wireless Company, 1906-19, telegraph             
operator, 1908, promoted to chief radio inspector and assistant             
chief engineer, when Marconi was absorbed by Radio Corporation of           
America (RCA), 1919-70, commercial manager; elected general manager,       
RCA, 1921, vice president and general manager, 1922, executive vice         
president, 1929, president, 1930; invested in development of               
television during 1930s; chair of board, RCA, 1947-70; oversaw RCA's       
manufacture of color television sets and NBC's color broadcasts.           
Received 27 honorary degrees, including doctoral degrees from               
Columbia University and New York University. Died in New York City,         
12 December 1971.