Originally Published in PBS.
In November 1916, E.J. Nally, vice president of the American division of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, received an unusual memo from one of his young assistants. The memo depicted a future in which music, news, sports, and even lectures could be broadcast over the airwaves, with Marconi reaping millions of dollars in profits from the sale of "radio music boxes."
Nally quickly rejected the idea. Marconi sold radios for naval communication; the idea of entertainment radio seemed wrongheaded, if not completely fantastic.
At the time, Nally had no way of knowing that the memo's author, twenty-five year-old David Sarnoff, had successfully predicted the multimillion dollar future of radio. Nor did he know that Sarnoff would one day, through a combination of keen foresight, boundless ambition, public relations manipulation, and ruthless opposition to everyone who stood in his way, develop a worldwide communications empire called RCA.
Sarnoff's optimistic predictions for the future of radio, and belief in his personal vision were largely the by-products of his own dogged determination.
Born into appalling poverty in a Jewish settlement near the Russian city of Minsk, Sarnoff came to New York with his family in 1900. He was nine years old at the time. Within days of his arrival, the young immigrant found employment hawking Yiddish newspapers on the mean streets of New York's Lower East Side. By the time he was thirteen, he had saved enough cash to buy a newsstand for $200. Profits gained for this early business venture only whetted Sarnoff's appetite for further gain.
One Saturday morning in 1906, young Davey, as he was known to his friends, set out to visit the offices of the Herald newspaper to inquire about available positions. Quite by accident, he wandered into the Commercial Cable Company telegraph office instead, where he was hired immediately as a messenger boy--and fired almost as quickly, for requesting time off for the Jewish holidays.
Undeterred, Sarnoff found work as a messenger boy at Marconi Wireless. He had already begun to develop his skills with a telegraph key, as he read voraciously from any technical journals he could find. In his spare time, he followed Marconi's engineers into their workshops, where he absorbed every possible morsel of technical information. At age sixteen, his persistence paid off. Sarnoff was hired as a junior telegrapher, earning $7.50 per week. A lifetime of vocational improvement through self-education had begun.
Unrelenting persistence provided David Sarnoff with entree into the practice of wireless telegraphy; tragic accident earned him recognition in the field. On April 14, 1912, the day theS.S. Titanic sank in the frozen North Atlantic, Sarnoff was working as a telegrapher at the Marconi Wireless station atop the Wanamaker Hardware building in New York. His actions at the telegrapher's station following the sinking earned him considerable cache within the confines of Marconi Wireless.
The carefully manipulated Sarnoff legend places young Davey at the telegraph, the first to hear news of the Titanic's sinking. More likely, Sarnoff rushed to the telegraph after learning about the accident from newspaper vendors. But there is no disputing that he sent and received wireless messages for seventy-two straight hours, gathering names of survivors as anxious relatives of Titanic passengers congregated on the streets below. Sarnoff impressed his superiors with his persistence and ambition. A promotion soon followed.
Shortly thereafter, Sarnoff decided to abandon his career as a telegrapher, pursuing instead the business end of the wireless industry. His goal now was to acquire both money andpower.
He decided to pitch his idea for the radio music box to his superiors at Marconi. They, too, turned it down. But their rejection failed to quell his faith in his vision--or his determination to see it realized.
Sarnoff's next chance came in 1920, with the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Created to prevent domination of American strategic communications by a foreign company like the British-owned Marconi, RCA was controlled largely by General Electric, which provided the startup funds. So it was to GE that Sarnoff next pitched his radio music box idea. To his delight, GE agreed to front $2000 for RCA to develop a prototype.
In 1923, when federal investigators threatened to charge RCA, Westinghouse, and its other partners AT&T and GE for conspiring to restrain trade in the radio industry, Sarnoff suggested splitting off part of the conglomerate to form NBC, the first national broadcasting network. This satisfied the Feds, but the conglomerate remained unwieldy. Sarnoff understood that a complete break would be necessary for him to realize his dream of an RCA empire.
The opportunistic Sarnoff saw his chance in May 1930, five months after being named RCA president. The U.S. government announced its intent to pursue anti-trust actions against RCA. Smaller companies had complained that the patent-sharing system RCA, GE, and Westinghouse operated under resulted in unfair competition. While other executives braced for struggle, Sarnoff instead played compromise to his advantage.
Through two years of constant lobbying, the wily Sarnoff helped convince the Feds that breaking up the patent-sharing system would cripple an American communications industry already wounded by the Depression and pave the way for foreign control of the airwaves. Instead, Sarnoff proposed that the business relationship between RCA, Westinghouse, and GE be severed, and that RCA be given the benefit of a two year non-competition agreement in the field of radio. The Feds agreed. RCA became an independent empire, controlling broadcasting stations and manufacturing facilities nationwide. David Sarnoff ruled as its king.
If King Sarnoff was capable of beneficent, compassionate leadership, he was equally capable of despotic brutality. Sarnoff gladly considered the opinion of any man, be it the one who shined his shoes or the president of his board of directors. He rewarded loyalty grandly and supported his engineers unreservedly. He seldom raised his voice or violated public decorum. But to oppose David Sarnoff within the halls of his empire often resulted in a scathing verbal assault--or a call to Sarnoff's palatial East Seventy-first street home in the after hours, during which one would be summarily dismissed.
Sarnoff's assaults on those who opposed him from outside his empire were even more brutal. He quickly calibrated the value of controlling patents, and used the power of RCA lawyers to crush the businesses and ruin the lives of any who got in the way. Edwin Howard Armstrong and Philo Farnsworth were two who had the genius and the audacity to challenge Sarnoff in patent litigation; both men paid dearly as a result.
In 1933, Armstrong, a friend of Sarnoff's since 1914, devised a new scheme for radio broadcasting called frequency modulation, or FM. Superior to amplitude modulation, or AM, radio which virtually all RCA broadcasting systems used, FM drastically reduced static and provided a much clearer sound. Armstrong proposed switching the RCA broadcasting system to FM; Sarnoff opposed this vigorously.
Armstrong left RCA to start his own FM station. In 1948, he sued RCA and NBC, alleging a conspiracy to influence the FCC in limiting the development of FM radio. Sarnoff sent for his lawyers, and bludgeoned his former friend in the courts for six years. In January, 1954, despondent and nearly destitute, Armstrong committed suicide.
Philo Farnsworth, the first inventor to patent a completely electronic television system, received similar treatment at the hands of Sarnoff and RCA. When RCA engineer Vladmir Zworykin applied for a new patent for television based, in part, on information gleaned from a visit to Farnsworth's laboratory, Farnsworth sued. The courts vindicated Farnsworth after a lengthy court battle, but by that time Farnsworth's will had been broken, and his patent had nearly run out. He would never see the millions he'd dreamed of; RCA reaped them instead.
Sarnoff would again muster his iron will in the battle for color television. In 1945, CBS presented the first color television system to the FCC for approval. The mechanically-operated system was not compatible with RCA's existing black-and-white television sets, which operated electronically. Sarnoff realized that FCC approval of the new color system would devastate RCA. Anyone who wanted to watch color television using a CBS set would have to discard his RCA set. Sarnoff feverishly drove his engineers to develop an electronic color system, simultaneously lobbying the FCC to approve a system compatible with existing RCA sets.
In a blow to RCA, the FCC approved the CBS system in 1950. But Sarnoff's faith in his engineers paid off. They developed an electronic color system that worked compatibly with existing sets. Spurred by the mainstream press and Sarnoff's efficient public relations machine, the FCC reversed its decision in 1953. Under Sarnoff's tenacious leadership, RCA had won again.
Sarnoff's leadership skills extended into the political arena as well, with mixed results. He began his work with the government in 1929, negotiating a war reparations treaty with Germany. But with Hitler leading Germany, the treaty was ignored. During World War II, Sarnoff successfully directed the press communications for D-day, earning the rank of brigadier general in the process. General Sarnoff then returned home to fight the Cold War.
Sarnoff vigorously opposed Communism. In the 1950's and 60's, he wrote and lectured frequently, encouraging American's to "prosecute the Cold War to the point of victory." He corresponded frequently with Vice-President Richard Nixon about effective anti-communist strategy. Sarnoff proposed dropping millions of radios and compact phonographs on the Communist Bloc to broadcast pro-democracy propaganda, and influenced the formation of the Voice of America broadcasting network. His war against communism was even waged within his own company. Sarnoff supported Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, and condoned blacklisting at RCA.
Sarnoff's belief in political solutions ran a distant second to his unflagging faith in science and technology. He foresaw a future in which technology would allow long-lasting peace, unmatched prosperity, and increased leisure time. As far back as 1956, Sarnoff's picture of the future included biotechnology, push-button weather control, aquaculture, nuclear reactors for the home, and the computer revolution.
Working well into his seventies, Sarnoff continued to push RCA and its engineers, investing money and work-hours in computers and aerospace technology. The man who came to America during the infancy of radio lived to see photographs delivered electronically from space to Earth in satellites his company had made. In 1970, at age seventy-nine, Sarnoff retired from RCA. He died in 1971, leaving behind a legacy of technological triumphs and insatiable ambition.