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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 676

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This is the grave of David Sarnoff.

Born in 1891 in what is today Belarus, Sarnoff’s youth was like many Jewish families of the time. His father went to the U.S. alone, saved up money, and paid for his family to join him. David came over in 1900. They were poor. Sarnoff made extra money for the family as a newsboy, which was about as low on the economic totem pole as you could get. But he was a smart kid and a good student. However, he had to drop out of school in 1906 when his father came down with tuberculosis. David was now the main bread winner. He took a job with a wireless cable company. But the boss proved to be anti-Semitic, refusing to give him Rosh Hashanah off. So he joined another similar company, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America.

At Marconi, Sarnoff started off as an office boy, but in the classic, if rare, rise from nothing story that Americans love to tell, he quickly was promoted again and again. He became a leading expert in wireless communication. Sometimes he worked on boats that used the company’s equipment. Once, when on a sealing expedition, he was able to send the first remote medical diagnosis in history when he wired that a doctor had diagnosed a radio operator on land with an infected tooth. He became semi-famous when he and a few others at Marconi manned the wireless lines for news of the Titanic, though others noted that he was the manager by this time and probably it was the unknown lower workers who were actually manning the machines.

When Congress passed a law in 1915 mandating staffing of shipboard radio stations, Sarnoff and the company had the opportunity to make a ton of money. He was able to use radio receivers in a number of new fields. What Sarnoff really had in mind though was using this technology to reach the public for mass entertainment. It’s possible, though this is hard to really prove, that he was the first major radiowave figure to realize and propose this. Marconi’s owner was reticent though.

After World War I, General Electric bought out Marconi and merged it with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). And Sarnoff proposed his mass radio idea to GE. They were also skeptical. But he went around them, arranging for the mass broadcast of a call of the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier fight in 1921 (this was memorialized on an episode of Boardwalk Empire). 300,000 people listened. Now people Sarnoff as a genius. Radio became the sensation of the day. RCA created NBC, the first national radio broadcasting company in America, in 1925. In 1929, RCA Victor was spun off from RCA with Sarnoff as chairman of the board and co-ownership from RCA/GE/Westinghouse. Sarnoff had an old phonograph plant in Camden, New Jersey transformed into a radio factory and proclaimed it “Radio Capital of the World” when he dedicated it in 1930. Sarnoff also created RKO, which would become known as a mid-major film company over the next two decades.

Sarnoff was also interested in television from a very early moment. As early as 1928, he met with engineers to figure out a way to combine visual and audio transmission. RCA dropped $50 million in researching this over the next several years. Sarnoff later claimed to be the inventor of television, but he wasn’t the only one working on this and he lost a patent suit to Philo Farnsworth, an inventor who was the proper creator of the Image Dissector, which was a key component. In fact, Sarnoff had to pay Farnsworth $1 million in royalties as part of the suit. But he was richer than God by this point, so what did he care.

During World War II, Sarnoff was on Eisenhower’s communications staff and was critical in creating the radio networks that allowed for a live broadcast of the invasion of France in 1944. He was named a Brigadier General for that and loved to be called “General Sarnoff” for the rest of his life. He was also very interested in the power of radio and television for propaganda and lobbied Cordell Hull and George Marshall to make and expand Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.

Once the television became the new communications revolution technology, Sarnoff was off to beat the competition to the next frontier: color television. CBS beat him to it though he was pissed. Like so angry that he filed a suit with the FCC in 1950 demanding that their system not be allowed. When he lost that, he appealed to the Supreme Court. He lost that too. But he won in the end anyway. The Korean War put a general halt on the making of color TVs. In the meantime, RCA created better technology for them. So that became the standard system.

In his later life, Sarnoff became more involved in the Cold War, mostly demanding more aggressive action against communism, claiming the U.S. was too soft on international communism. He was heavily involved in Cold War propaganda efforts. For instance, he had the NBC Opera Company go to Brussels in 1958 for a World’s Fair where he would use the battle of the arts to show the superiority of the United States through the power of television. He even wrote a 1955 pamphlet called “Program for a Political Offensive Against World Communism, which I have not read. Doubt I am missing a whole lot. But hey, you can buy a copy on ebay for $25!

It may not then surprise you to know that he was an anti-union as any other millionaire. When the RCA plant in Camden attempted to unionize, Sarnoff met the union leaders personally to tell them of his Horatio Alger-like life. That didn’t really work. So he hired Hugh Johnson, just off getting canned as the horrible, dictatorial, quasi-fascist (Frances Perkins said he was a fascist) leader of the National Recovery Administration to handle his labor relations. He handled it just as poorly as he had the NRA. A United Electrical Workers local was born. Sarnoff and then his sons then sought to move away from Camden, as they would again and again, fleeing unions, as Jefferson Cowie has explored in his superb history Capital Moves, a history of RCA capital mobility. One capitalist is pretty much the same as any other when it comes to grinding workers’ rights into dust.

Sarnoff died in 1971, at the age of 80, a year after retiring.

David Sarnoff is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other radio and television executives, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bill Paley is in Laurel Hollow, New York and Roone Arledge is in Southampton, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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