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  • Val Anderson

David Sarnoff; A rags to riches story

The Footfalls of History

In 1919 when countries were picking up the pieces of the Great War, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and others were concerned about communication between countries. Up until that time British owned Marconi of America ruled the airwaves. They moved to make sure wireless radio communication in America was American owned. When the Great War broke out the US government took temporary control of Marconi’s America division.

The government, especially the Navy, initiated a series of negotiations before Congress could return commercial status to Marconi of America after the war ended. They pushed, prodded, and persuaded, an American owned commercial company, General Electric (GE), to take over the development of radio. GE agreed and formed the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). And Marconi of America was no more. RCA became official 17 October 1919. President Wilson appointed Admiral Bullard to sit at all RCA board meetings, creating a relationship that would be unheard of today. David Sarnoff, the commercial manager for Marconi of America, became RCA’s General Manager. [i]

Sarnoff had sold newspapers to help support his family at the age of nine. They were Russian-Jewish immigrants who fled the poverty of their village for the golden promises of the “Land of the Free.” Left behind was their generational support system. They buried their pride and survived New York’s East Side often clinging to life thanks to David’s newspaper sales. David became street smart, outwitting his newspaper boy competitors, but he never lost his moral compass to the temptations of New York’s east side slum or to Hell’s Kitchen.[ii] Abraham Lincoln was David Sarnoff’s hero; his picture was always on the wall of his office along with Marconis. He lived his life knowing that he too could become great if he applied himself in a land that rewarded hard, honest work and smart minds.

He Americanized himself as quickly as humanly possible—working from 4 A.M. until school opened, then again after school. He studied at night and ignored the wounds of a lost childhood. He did not finish high school.

By the time he was thirteen, he was his family’s sole supporter. “The dread of remaining an ahmorets [ignorant man] was always under the surface of my consciousness. Often it came to the surface. I jelled in a determination to rise above my surroundings. Instead of selling newspapers, I thought, I shall one day write for them. I’ll be a reporter, and then an editor, maybe a publisher.”[iii] And then mistaking a telegraph company for a newspaper office, he walked into history and became a “Coni man.” By the time he was 30; he’d been named General Manager of RCA and was destined to become a very rich man.

On 7 December 1941, David Sarnoff sent a radiogram to President Roosevelt:

All our facilities and personnel are ready and at your instant service. We await your commands.” And RCA was ready. As far back as 1939, the companies priorities had been shifted to military applications—radar, radio improvements, and navigation systems. “Radio is more than a strong arm of defense, Sarnoff claimed, It is a powerful weapon of offense…it guides… watches over the convoy…protects the fleet…is the ear and voice of the fighter plane and the tank…and it is possible that television-directed weapons seem to be of the greatest importance.”[iv] RCA would take the lead on personal communications devices like handheld walkie-talkies, loudspeakers for ships, microwave transmission, and automated factory devices to take the place of men on the line. It supplied the Army and Navy with specialized training and the British with jamming equipment to name but a few of the innovations and expertise that helped to win the war. Sarnoff thrived on innovation and research.

When General Eisenhower requested the best communications expert in the country in preparation for D-Day, Washington sent him Sarnoff. For by then he knew more about the world of communications than any man on the planet. James M. Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy at wars end, would thank RCA, “Among the companies which gave our fleet the power to attack, yours has been pre-eminent.”[v]

Sarnoff never lost sight of the principles that guided him to success. In a public address in 1956, he cautioned:

“Because more and more of the chores of living are turned over to machines, there is a danger that thinking and feeling may also be mechanized and standardized, which is to say dehumanized. We may forget that there can be no electronic computers for setting standards of human probity, for measuring the great inherited truths, for differentiating between Good and Evil—that there can be no mechanical substitutes for conscience and compassion”—food for thought in our emerging world of AI.

Photograph google images

[i] Department of Communication, Radio Corporation of America, The RCA Family Circle, 20th Anniversary, 1919-1339, first page.

[ii] Lyons, David Sarnoff, a biography.

[iii] Lyons, David Sarnoff, a Biography, 37.

[iv] Lyons, David Sarnoff, a Biography, 233.

[v] Lyons, David Sarnoff, A Biography, 235.

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