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28 August 2020

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Cover of Sponsor magazine

From Sponsor magazine, dated 16 May 1966

David Sarnoff’s life is part of the mathematics of many miracles, all involved with bringing man together with man. And David Sarnoff, the man himself, is a kind of miracle because the probability that so humble and austere a beginning — so remote from the potential revolution in communications — could come to fruition in the leadership of the largest and most dynamic communications complex in the world — is altogether astonishing. The catalogue of ways in which David Sarnoff has — in the past 4 decades — affected the life of mankind now and to come has already filled numerous volumes and will likely contribute to many more dealing with our culture and society. To intimate that this capsule biography is more than that would be pretentious, indeed, and it is difficult, too, to assume that it can adequately light the numerous peaks of a career instrumental in making man’s communications with his fellow man universal rather than individual.

Born in a rural Russian village, David Sarnoff arrived in the United States at the age of nine and proceeded to overcome the burden that made a veritable “deaf-mute” of the immigrant — his being unable to understand, speak, read or write English. School was abandoned early, for he became chief breadwinner for his family before he was 13. Yet, on his rise to the top of one of the greatest businesses in the world, the Radio Corporation of America — the monumental success of which is generally attributed to the concepts and energy of this one man, David Sarnoff has 24 honorary Ph.D.’s among his multitudinous awards.

Under his keen watchfulness, RCA has indeed become an oak tree of greatness. Last year, its sales for the first time topped the $2 billion mark [$16.5 trillion in 2020, allowing for inflation]. And it operates 48 different manufacturing plants in 10 different countries to produce an enormous diversity of products — from concepts as charmingly artful as a tv program to those as impenetrably complex as a satellite-tracking computer.


David Sarnoff

David Sarnoff


Young David Sarnoff in a bowtie

His career started Sept. 30, 1906 when he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America as office boy. This is how he looked the following year at the age of 16.

RCA’s Princeton, N.J., laboratories, one of the world’s foremost experimental centers for radio, tv and electronics, has been named commemoratively the David Sarnoff Research Center. The tribute is deserved, for such concepts as “broad”-casting itself, operating a network, adding pictures to sound for television, combining radios and phonographs into one instrument, adding color to television and — currently — communicating world-wide on a computerized satellite basis, have all originated in Sarnoff’s startling imagination. Yet because his toughest hurdle has sometimes been to persuade others to share, as visionaries, in the projects he foresees as practical, he feels the greatest miracle of his miracle-filled days has been staying on the payroll.

That, too, is a measure of the man. He takes care to distinguish between those who’ve contributed to broadcasting and those who’ve merely manipulated it for self-gain. He is a well paid RCA employee [his salary was $290,000pa in 1965, $2.4m in today’s money], but he has not amassed the vast personal fortune that typifies leaders of other industries. And Sarnoff’s many charities are characteristically as private as they are generous.

David Sarnoff was born Feb. 27, 1891, in Uzlian (near Minsk), Russia [now in Belarus]. He came to the United States with his parents in 1900 and, soon after his father fell ill, became the main support of his mother, brothers and sister. He started by selling newspapers (50 sales a day meant a 25 cent [hard to calculate, but probably about $7 now] profit), soon developed a service for delivering papers to other vendors (by a wagon he built himself), then bought a newsstand (which allowed others in the family to spell him). An entrepreneur had been born.

His ambition was, not to sell papers, but to help write them as a journalist. At the age of 15, he got side-tracked on his way into a newspaper building to apply for work, ended up a messenger for the Commercial Cable Co., instead. The clickety-click of the telegrapher’s key caught his music-loving ear, however, and he decided that this too must be important work. He saved up enough to buy a practice key of his own, then taught himself the Morse code and, hoping to become a telegrapher, applied for work with the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America. No operator’s job was open, so he signed on as office boy (salary: $5.50 [again, hard to calculate now, but probably about $150 now] per week), operating a newspaper route and messenger service on the side. But a career had been born.

Young David Sarnoff on a bicycle

Because the pay was modest and young Sarnoff was chief supporter of his mother, brothers and sister, he also had a newspaper route and worked as a messenger, as this 1908 photo depicts.

By the time he was 17, David Sarnoff was a Marconi operator on lonely Nantucket Island. As an omnivorous reader, he had been attracted as much by the station’s excellent technical library as by the pay ($60 [probably $1,600] a month). The following year he was transferred to Sea Gate, whose nearness to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute allowed him to take a special night course in electrical engineering.

Then, in 1910-11, he went to sea for two years as wireless operator aboard several coastal vessels and, briefly, on the S.S. Beothic during a seal-hunting expedition into the Arctic.

As wireless operator at the Marconi-owned station atop John Wanamaker’s New York store, he became on April 14, 1912, the first to pick up a distress signal disclosing the S.S. Titanic had struck an iceberg and was sinking. To prevent interference, President Taft ordered every other wireless station along the east coast silenced, and young Sarnoff stayed at his key uninterruptedly for 72 hours — until he had a complete list of survivors. The incident focused world attention on wireless telegraphy. (Before it, most ship captains had to be bribed with a gold watch to permit wireless installations on board.) It also brought young Sarnoff to the attention of the world.

In quick succession, he then became chief inspector, assistant chief engineer and, in 1915, assistant traffic manager for the Marconi Co. It was then that he wrote his now famous memo, addressed to Edward J. Nally, general manager of the Marconi Co., in which Sarnoff proposed a “radio music box” and “a plan of development which would make radio a household utility…”

In 1919, Sarnoff was made commercial manager of Marconi. When the Radio Corporation of America was formed later the same year, it acquired the Marconi Co. and its commercial manager — David Sarnoff — became RCA’s commercial manager.

Two years later, he was named general manager and then, in 1922, was elected vice president as well.

In April 1923, he wrote another memo — this time to the RCA board of directors — in which he advocated the practicability of television which, he said, “…will make it possible for those at home to sec as well as hear what is going on at the broadcast station.”

Original press announcement of the formation of NBC in 1926

NBC was organized by Sarnoff in 1926 as a service of RCA, and that’s a whole story in itself.

When the great success of radio and network broadcasting sent the phonograph business “downhill,” Sarnoff proposed – to the shocked disbelief of many – that phonographs and radios needn’t be considered competitors, that they could in fact be combined in the same set as radio-phonographs. And that, of course, led to the re-emergence of phonographs, in which RCA Victor has played such a dominant role.

An important change occurred at RCA in 1930. General James G. Harbord, who’d served as president for seven years, became chairman of the board. And David Sarnoff, the company’s 39-year-old executive vice president, was elected president.

As such, he inherited two major problems: One was the Depression, which had driven RCA income down from its 1929 peak of $182 million [$2.7bn] to about a third of that — just $62 million [$1.2bn] in 1933. The other problem was Justice Department litigation against agreements made among G.E., Westinghouse and RCA at the time of RCA’s incorporation. A 1932 consent decree settled the suit, and RCA became self-owned and independent.

During that same period (1930-31), Sarnoff was also active in shaping plans for the new complex of buildings in midtown Manhattan that was to be called Rockefeller Center and, in June, 1933, RCA moved its executive offices into the 70-story RCA Building.

In 1947, David Sarnoff was elected chairman of the board and chief executive officer of RCA, posts that he was to occupy for nearly two decades—years of great progress for the company. Just this year, he relinquished his status as chief executive but continues to serve very actively as chairman of the board.

Gen. Sarnoff’s military title, like his corporate rank, has been earned. He was active in helping to equip American forces with wireless during World War I, but his first military appointment didn’t occur until 1924 when he was named a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. In 1927, he completed a course of studies at the War College in Washington, D.C., and was promoted to Colonel in 1931.



During World War II, he served in the office of the Chief Signal Officer in Washington and, in 1944, went overseas to serve as special communications consultant to General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters. (Two of his assignments: To anticipate and prepare proper communication facilities for the Press prior to D-Day and immediately afterwards; to reinstate Radio Paris after the liberation of France.) He was nominated for promotion to Brigadier General Nov. 21, 1944, an increase in rank that was approved by the U.S. Senate Dec. 6 of the same year.



Gen Sarnoff has received citations from two Presidents for his contributions to national defense — the Legion of Merit from President Roosevelt and the Medal of Merit from President Truman. He has received many other U.S. accolades — both from government and industry — plus decorations from France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Poland and the United Nations. In fact, a list of his awards would literally fill pages.

But several in particular warrant mention. Although he has received top honors from broadcasters (among them: the first NAB Keynoter Award, the first Founders Award of the Institute of Radio Engineers, the first Honor Medal from the Radio-Television Manufacturers’ Assn.), a 1944 award said it all when the then Television Broadcasters’ Assn, called Sarnoff “The Father of American Television.”



The main reason that the Sarnoff performance has always been dazzling may be that he early discovered — and turned — his personal key to success. “The real purpose of life,” Gen. Sarnoff has said, “is to be able to express the forces within you.”

That he personally has done so is verified by two more “awards,” patents granted to RCA for inventions he’s personally originated. One, granted in 1948, is for a secret signaling system. The other, granted in 1951, combines the principles of tv, radar and microwave relays into an “Early Warning Relay System” that relates to guided missiles and air combat. Thus, if David Sarnoff, young telegrapher, has soared until he’s become a space-age visionary, it may be because visions of the public good have always soared high within David Sarnoff.

Hell’s Kitchen,* where David Sarnoff lived at the turn of this century, is within walking distance of Rockefeller Center where, on the 53rd floor of the RCA Building, he maintains offices as chairman of the RCA board. It takes a good deal more than such a walk, however, to cover the distance that David Sarnoff has covered in his 75 years.

* The area, which was a raw, slaughter house-tenement district at the beginning of this century, is located at 10th Avenue and the Forties in Manhattan. It got its name about 1868 from the Hells Kitchen gang of outlaws who lived there, often robbing the Hudson River Railroad (today’s New York Central) as it ran through their river-bounded province.


The Confidant of Presidents



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❛❛Chase McPherson writes:

Telegraphy showed The General the way
Took infant Radio and taught it to pay
To Radio what Edison was to Lamp
That’s why The Gentleman is a champ

Frank Sinatra, repurposing his hit The Lady is a Tramp at a fete honoring David Sarnoff

David Sarnoff’s life was predicated on and bookended by embellishment.

The founder of the National Broadcasting Company, Sarnoff took hold of the limelight and never released it. Long after the debunking of his claim to be the only Marconi wireless attendant at his post the night of the Titanic disaster, feeding a desperate New York populace the latest details, he continued to perpetuate the story to anyone willing to ignore the process of fact-checking.

The son of immigrants, the target of anti-Semitism since childhood, and a determined and steadfast Capitalist, there is no argument that Sarnoff’s status in the history books of technology and broadcasting is deserved — but he was no angel. In the end, a petty desire to one-up a former friend and cut him off at the cusp of the next world-changing discovery (television) played a major role in the former’s suicide.

As you will have read in this article, praise for Sarnoff’s drive, ingenuity and attention to progress flows like water. And that’s exactly as he wanted it. The book Empire of the Air – the Men Who Made Radio by Tom Lewis, which later became a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns, mentions that near the end of his life, he fired a team of biographers when their draft proved lacking in self-aggrandizing and boastfulness. Sarnoff died in 1971, so this 1966 article must have met with The General’s approval.

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1 response to this article

MARK JEFFRIES 29 August 2020 at 7:21 pm

The General would not recognise his company today. When RCA’s competitor General Electric bought them in the late 80s, they sold the television manufacturing units to Thomson of France and sold the record company to Bertelsmann of Germany (Sony of Japan now owns that division, which has been folded into the former Columbia Records USA), the radio stations were sold off and the radio network sold to Westwood One, a syndication firm barely 15 years old. Meanwhile, when late-night chat presenter David Letterman brought a gift basket to his new bosses without prior permission and with a camera crew following him, they kicked him out, which led to many years (his remaining time at NBC and his years at CBS) of him regularly saying “GE sucks.” And now NBC got merged with Universal Pictures and is owned by the Comcast cable company (which took Sky off of the Murdoch family’s hands). Wherever Gen. Sarnoff is, he can only be amazed.

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