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More About Sarnoff, Part One

Photo of Marconi 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.

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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.

Drawing of the Wireless Telegraph
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.

Photo of the U.S.S. Titanic 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 the S.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 and power.

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.

Photo of an Early RCA Television Broadcast
By 1920, entertainment broadcasting had made its debut on numerous amateur stations, and on KDKA in Pittsburgh, the nation's first licensed station. Still, radio had yet to make the leap from the realm of the hobbyist and into the average home. That was not until a broadcast on the night of July 2, 1921, pushed radio forward with the force of a locomotive. And the man who brought America that broadcast was RCA's new general manager, David Sarnoff.

Sarnoff had correctly gauged the public's huge interest in the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. So he arranged for the fight to be broadcast live by RCA. The event drew hundreds of thousands of listeners. The public got its first real taste of what a radio broadcast could be. Sales soared and Sarnoff came off looking like a visionary.

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