David Sarnoff
Businessman, broadcasting pioneer
Born: February 27, 1891, Minsk, Russia
Died: December 12, 1971, in New York City
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2013: Enterprise

A fierce competitor and visionary businessman, David Sarnoff played a huge role in championing new technology – especially radio and television – for much of the 20th century.

Born into poverty in a Jewish settlement near the Russian city of Minsk, Sarnoff was nine when his family emigrated to New York. He quickly went to work hawking Yiddish newspapers on the Lower East Side; within a few years he bought his own newsstand.

At age 15, with his father ill, Sarnoff became the family breadwinner. He took a job as an office boy at $5.50 per week at the Commercial Cable Company. He next moved to a similar post at the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. At Marconi, he began his education in electronic communications and climbed the ladder to a management position.

On the fateful night of April 14, 1912, Sarnoff was serving at the Marconi wireless station atop the Wanamaker Department store at Broadway and Ninth Street in Manhattan when a message came in from the S.S. Titanic. It had struck an iceberg and was sinking. Sarnoff notified the authorities about the pending disaster and legendarily stayed at his post for 72 hours taking in messages as the Titanic tragedy unfolded at sea.

As the Marconi company expanded following the Titanic disaster, Sarnoff continued his swift rise through the company ranks. By World War I, he was commercial manager of the company’s factory in Roselle Park, New Jersey. The Marconi company evolved into the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and it was Sarnoff who proposed the idea of turning wireless radio into “a household utility” with music and other entertainment programming aimed at mass audiences. It took some convincing, but RCA management finally invested in Sarnoff’s idea and consumer radio sales soared.

In 1926, RCA launched the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to feed programming to a network of radio stations around the country. Helping to fulfill his vision, Sarnoff conceived some of the key content. He also engineered RCA’s purchase of the Camden-based Victor Talking Machine Company, which allowed RCA to combine a radio and phonograph in a single unit for consumers.

Even as he was pioneering the radio industry, Sarnoff had begun to focus on a new technology: television. As early as 1923, he predicted in a memo: “I believe that television, which is the technical name for seeing as well as hearing by radio, will come to pass in the future.”

RCA named Sarnoff president in 1930 and he was soon faced with the task of steering the company through the Great Depression. Amid the necessary budget-tightening, he continued to invest precious funds in technological research, including the development of television. In 1939, at the New York World’s Fair, Sarnoff appeared in America’s first TV broadcast.

Sarnoff’s technological march was slowed by the onset of World War II, which required RCA to shift its manufacturing to military needs, such as radar. Much of the work was done at the new RCA research labs in Princeton, later renamed the David Sarnoff Laboratories. During the war, Sarnoff served in the Pentagon as a communications consultant. By war’s end, the Army named him a brigadier general; he would be addressed as “General Sarnoff” for the rest of his life.

After the war, as black-and-white TV secured its place in American homes, Sarnoff’s RCA invested heavily in the development of color TV. In 1953, the FCC accepted RCA’s system as the basis for the color TV standard. Following that triumph, Sarnoff, by then RCA’s board chairman and CEO, diversified RCA with the acquisitions of book publisher Random House and auto-rental giant the Hertz Corporation.

According to the New York Times, Sarnoff marked his 60th anniversary in the communications industry by relinquishing his CEO title in 1966. He continued, however, to “keep a firm hand on the reins” as RCA’s board chairman, the Times reported. Sarnoff retired in 1970 at the age of 79.

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