David Sarnoff

The American pioneer in radio and television David Sarnoff (1891-1971) was chairman of the board of the Radio Corporation of America.

David Sarnoff was born on Feb. 27, 1891, in the Russian-Jewish community of Uzilan close to Minsk. In 1895 his father left to try his luck in the United States; 5 years later he sent for his family. When the father died in 1906, David, as the eldest son, became the family provider. He started as a messenger boy for the Commercial Cable Company. Six months later he became an office boy for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America.

Studying in his spare time, Sarnoff finally was promoted to wireless operator. While working at Sea Gage, N.Y., he completed a course in electrical engineering at Pratt Institute and later acquired practical experience as a marine radio operator on various ships. He then became the operator for John Wanamaker's New York station, where he was the first to pick up the distress call of the S.S. Titanic on April 12, 1912. This unfortunate incident proved rewarding for Sarnoff, for his dedicated work in the disaster won him an appointment as a radio inspector and instructor at the Marconi Institute. By 1914 he had risen to contract manager, and in 1919, when Owen D. Young's Radio Corporation of America (RCA) absorbed American Marconi, Sarnoff was commercial manager. In 1917 he married Lizette Hermant, who bore him three sons.

By 1921 Sarnoff was general manager of RCA and had revived an earlier idea to send music over the air. RCA's directors were reluctant to invest much money, but after Sarnoff broadcast the 1921 Dempsey-Cartier fight, they quickly changed their minds. Sarnoff became a vice president in 1922 as RCA began the manufacture of radio sets. He also was responsible for the creation of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1926.

Sarnoff is known as the father of American television. From the initial experiments in the early 1920s, he pushed its development to commercial feasibility. As president of RCA (since 1930), he appeared on the first public demonstration of television, in April 1939. Although NBC launched commercial telecasting in 1941, World War II retarded its growth. Sarnoff served as communications consultant to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and emerged as a brigadier general.

In 1947 Sarnoff became chairman of the board of RCA, which grew into one of the world's largest corporations, its activities including leadership in black-and-white and color television and many other associated industries. He received honorary degrees from over 26 universities and numerous awards from foreign governments and technical institutes. He died on Dec. 12, 1971, in New York City.

Further Reading on David Sarnoff

For the serious student of communications, Sarnoff's own Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff (1968) is valuable for its predictive glances into the future of electronics and masterful coverage of the history of broadcasting. A biography is Eugene Lyons, David Sarnoff (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Bilby, Kenneth W., The general: David Sarnoff and the rise of the communications industry, New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Dreher, Carl, Sarnoff, an American success, New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1977.

Lewis, Thomas S. W., Empire of the air: the men who made radio, New York, NY: Edward Burlingame Books, 1991.

Sobel, Robert, RCA, New York: Stein and Day/Publishers, 1986.