Consumers decide who wins in
competitive markets. Nobody did a better job positioning his company to win than David Sarnoff. Unlike other phono-industry leaders
presented on this site, Sarnoff was not an inventor, an engineer,
or scientist. He was a tough, pragmatic businessman who had
the vision to anticipate opportunities and he had the strength to
capitalize on those opportunities. Like Edison, he had little
formal education and admits that he
was particularly weak in math,
nonetheless he was a mastermind
technology and business.
What is the business pioneer of Radio and Television and the 45
RPM Record Player doing on the PhonoJack website? Didn't David Sarnoff commoditize
the AM radio which contributed to the demise of
Following Thomas Edison, I believe nobody made a greater impact
in the home entertainment industry than David Sarnoff because he
forsaw and executed on the business opportunities in radio,
and televisions. If you think Edison faced
incredible business battles, 'you ain't heard nothing
yet' until you research Sarnoff.
For a short video about David,
please click here.
Nobody can be successful unless
he loves his work. David Sarnoff
Sound Off about Sarnoff
There is some 'negative press'
concerning Sarnoff and his business battles with inventors in radio, television
technologies. No doubt some of this bad press is warranted as
Sarnoff focused on protecting his Customers, Employees
and shareholder Owners, the hallmark of an effective Chief
Executive Officer (CEO). Through one of RCA Victor's most robust
growth periods, the development, manufacturing, marketing and sales
of the "Victrola 45", Sarnoff, Chairman of the Board
relied on an effective leader and manager, Frank M. Folsom who
was President of Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
One camp says Sarnoff and RCA 'stole'
intellectual property such as Edwin H. Armstrong's Frequency
Modulation FM technology; another camp says RCA infringed on patents owned by Lee
deForest, the self-styled 'father of the radio. No objective researcher of Sarnoff would
characterize him as a thief or
"ruthless, arrogant bully who stepped on and stole from others" as
described by some of his detractors, biographers who have failed to
research this complex businessman. If you read Sarnoff, you'll
decide which authors
have an agenda or ax to grind. It's popular to pick on Sarnoff,
particularly now that he is gone.
As I am not an author or biographer and have
no financial interest
or other connection in telling the Sarnoff story, I don't have to be objective; I like
him! For those who are into bashing Sarnoff and/or Edison,
describing how they 'stole' invention, I suggest you carefully
research before you speak, their work is well-documented. It's
fun to pick on 'the big guy' but you better do your homework.
Speeches and music from The Lizette &
David Sarnoff Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary 1917-1967 were recorded on
July 4th 1967 at the St. Regis Roof · New York City. The 33.3
LP album has speeches from friends and family that give some
interesting insight. It's clear that his best friend was his
wife Lizette whose thank-you speech included the oft-told story
about how she met David, when she was a young immigrant girl who spoke only
French (she still had a very strong French accent in '67) and a
young immigrant, American raised boy who spoke only English.
She quips, "well what else could we do?". She says, her parents were suspicious of
David, the boy who talked about hearing noises, music from the air.
David's son Bobby gave what sounded like a
rehearsed, business-like speech that also included some oft-told
tales. None of the "Dad, I love you stuff". In fact, none of the
speeches had warm accolades that you might expect to
hear at a 50th Wedding Anniversary. It's sad and telling that from the thousands of
present and former employees in the RCA organizations, time at the
podium was given to the artist who painted the gift portrait of
David and Lizette. Even today, it's easy to get caught up
in a fiery debate (usually on-line) about how David and RCA and the
FCC were all a bunch of...., well never mind. A kinder
categorization is to call David and RCA the Gates and Microsoft of
In 1999 televised interview son, Thomas W.,
younger brother to Bobby and Edward, was then a successful
television executive. He spoke highly about his dad and proud
of his achievements. He said, "he was a good father to me and
Father of Television" although somewhat remote because of he was
wrapped up in his work and career but he loved us and he was very
attentive to us. David provided well for his family; each of
his sons graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover MA, each went on
to graduate from college (Brown, Harvard and Princeton) and each
later served in the US military.
Sarnoff's life and his long list of accomplishments is well documented.
remember him kindly as technology's champion for broadcast
communications, having steadfast faith in science and technology for
the benefit of man. He was a tough, courageous business leader with
exceptional imagination and definitiveness of purpose. When
others got excited about a new discovery or technology, David got
excited about the business venture and the practical use and
application of the technology.
To learn more, read David Sarnoff, a
biography by Eugene Lyons also Sarnoff: An American Success
by Carl Dreher and The General, David Sarnoff and the Rise of the
Communications Industry by Kenneth Bilby. Dreher and Bilby
have captured the essence of Sarnoff. Given
the opportunity, Sarnoff who took an active role in helping write his
legacy, would have deleted some of the text in these books that
presented some of his 'weaknesses'.
For a controversial perspective, read Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made
Radio by Tom Lewis, a story of three geniuses in early radio,
Sarnoff, DeForest and Armstrong, how they invented, built and
battled and how Sarnoff won it all. David
was a good public
speaker and consummate story teller who didn't deny some of the
folklore that followed him, in fact he amplified some it.
Lewis' book is a well-written
documentary with some fictional accounts but presents accurate historical content that
spans the first half of the 20th century. Personal attacks on
Sarnoff and nay saying diminishes
the author's good work. Nonetheless, a must read!
In his book, The Last
Lone Inventor- David Sarnoff vs Philo Farnsworth, Evan I.
Schwartz, distorts some truths about Sarnoff. The author does
great research but undermines his hero
Farnsworth and his own good work, as his writing style screams a liberal, anti-Sarnoff
agenda. Schwartz wastes no time in Chapter One with personal
attacks, comparing Sarnoff's belly to Babe Ruth's "but the girth is not noticed as it's
disguised by fine tailored suits." He
writes "Sarnoff smoked
He says Sarnoff flip flopped politically to preserve
his own self interest. Schwartz' recipe sprinkles in some old Joe Kennedy, Jack and Ted
and aligns Sarnoff with Nixon, Khrushchev, McCarthyism and
Republicans adding a shot of Russo-phobia, blended with greed, deceit
and arrogance. Look for this $1.00 priced book in Amazon's used
book section; it's not likely to earn a second printing. Maybe
it will become a collectable work of yet another author who for some
reason is ticked off at David Sarnoff.
is a classic 'rags to riches' story, a Horatio Alger tale with a
spin. Sarnoff researchers and biographers have all the ingredients of a
great American epic- an immigrant boy, sold newspapers, telegrapher,
marries an immigrant gal, successful family, rose from office boy to Chief Executive Officer
and Chairman of one of
the most successful companies ever- RCA.
I hope to learn more about Sarnoff, this
fascinating, controversial 'love him or hate him' businessman and to explore how he helped bridge the 78
RPM acoustic and amplified phonograph to a completely new recording
format, medium and appliance the RCA Victor 45 Victrola Record Player. Sarnoff's time
on this web site picks up where Eldridge Reeves Johnson left, shortly after
Johnson sold his interest in Victor Talking Machines (VTM) to
(J & W Seligman) who in turn sold
VTM to RCA.
The will to persevere
is often the difference between failure and success. Sarnoff
Sarnoff, a brief biography
David Sarnoff (1891–1971), was a Russian-born American broadcasting executive, who sponsored many innovations in the field of radio and television.
David was born in Uzlian, near Minsk, now Belarus. His father
Abraham, first emigrated to New York City to earn money to later bring his
wife Leah, David and two brothers. At his
seventeen (1906), David was employed as an office worker by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company and soon became a telegrapher. He advanced rapidly and in 1915
he presented his idea for a radio receiving set to the company.
← David Sarnoff
with Guiglielmo Marconi, life-long friends.
In 1919 he became commercial manager of the Radio Corporation of America when
RCA absorbed the Marconi company (and Sarnoff). Within two years, he
was appointed general mangers. In 1926 he organized the National Broadcasting Co., the first permanent broadcasting network, as part of RCA. He became president of RCA in 1930, serving until 1947, when he became chairman of the board. During World War II he served as chief of communications under General Dwight D. Eisenhower
who later became U.S. President, and in 1944 Sarnoff was awarded the rank of brigadier general.
Sarnoff served as chairman of RCA until 1970, at the age of 79, succeeded by his son Robert W. Sarnoff (1919–97).
He died the following year. There are a few fundamental lies
that seem to follow Sarnoff and re-emerge from time to time.
First, David wouldn't mind being called extremely wealthy or a
communications technology tycoon; he was not. Although he
enjoyed the 'good life' associated with being a successful CEO of
a very successful American company, he did not personally benefit or
accumulate the level of wealth that typically is earned by some CEOs
via stock and other compensation.
Next, it is unfortunate that David Sarnoff, CEO of RCA which owned
NBC is often accused of being one of the secret Jewish Media Moguls
along with Paley at CBS and Goldenson at ABC. This old rubbish
is now routinely spewed forth from organizations such as
Radio Islam in no less than 18 languages. It's ironic that
the very medium (freedom of speech via radio) which Sarnoff
so strongly supported is now used against him by extremists who if
given the opportunity would take this
freedom away. To those who in the name of any organized
religion, claim David 'as one of us', don't, he
To Research Sarnoff
One of best sources of accurate, objective information can be found on-line at
The David Sarnoff Library (DSL) which
to the study and understanding the library's namesake. The best personal source of objective research about
David Sarnoff is Alex Magoun, PhD, Curator & Executive Director of David Sarnoff Library.
Sadly, the DSL is being shut down and is in transition at this time.
Almost 2000 boxes of archival collections has been moved to the
Hagley Library in Wilmington, Delaware. Another 150 boxes and
many artifacts have been moved to The College of New Jersey, the old
InfoAge Science-History Center and Museum in
Wall, NJ has received more than 200 boxes of RCA broadcast equipment
and manuals, paintings of Marconi and Sarnoff and other equipment.
Additional equipment and artifacts are being delivered to the New
Jersey State Museum and the Camden County Historical Society who
will no doubt be excellent stewards of these valuable American
artifacts from one of America's greatest families of companies, RCA
Dr. Alex Magoun says,
"There are few more inspiring stories than that of an immigrant who
takes advantage of our freedoms of opportunity and expression to
improve himself and lead others in the creation of new technologies
and industries that add to those freedoms." Alex'
research is forthright and he speaks the truth as he has discovered it after having
tediously studied the extensive DSL holdings including thousands of notebooks,
business correspondence, reports, publications, photographs and
other RCA and Sarnoff artifacts.
There are several web sites that present information about the
period during which the Victor companies were merged into RCA
Victor. For some highlights of developments taking place in Camden,
here for a short video.
Sarnoff is directly responsible for the successful marriage of
the phonograph and radio. Sarnoff may not have developed the
idea, but he did develop the business. Early in 1921, Sarnoff invited
executives from the Victor Talking Machine Company (VTMC) to visit with him
at his home where he and his team gave a private demonstration of an
instrument that combined the latest technology from Victor and RCA.
It's reported that Victor officials were impressed with the
technology but not the matrimony. At that time, many from the
phonograph industry (including Thomas Edison) believed the delivery of music to the
home by radio was a passing fad. They could not see how the
listening audience would accept music that had been chosen for them
by somebody else when most people had been accumulating their own record
It's interesting that later in the early 1950's when there was
similar debate about the Long Play
(LP) Album at 33.3 RPM versus the single 45 RPM record;
the merged RCA/Victor teams believed customers would prefer their choice
of single records rather than an LP having selections chosen by
someone else. They believed customers wanted
their own 11 record stack of 45
singles. This is why
the 45 RPM format easily won the teenage market.
As Sarnoff pressed on, it became clear that Victor did not want to merge with or be acquired
entered into negotiations with the Brunswick Co. After several
years of discussions and negotiation Victor finally gave in to the joint-development of a phonograph-radio instrument
be sold under the His Master's Voice logo, later RCA Victor.
As Sarnoff lead the negotiations, he downplayed the value of
Victor's 'content' the extensive record library for which RCA's NBC
would have to pay royalties and also Victor's manufacturing facilities
for which RCA would incur higher manufacturing costs. My guess
is that Sarnoff and RCA sat on the sidelines until investment
bankers (Seligman & Speyer) who in January 1927 acquired Johnson's
interest in VTMC. It was no secret that Victor's revenues and
profits were declining quickly.
By March 1929, RCA had controlling interest in
Radio-Victor and VTMC and completed the acquisition a year later.
Sarnoff wins again. Sarnoff and RCA won fair and square. Sarnoff
convinced RCA's board that the company should begin accumulating
ownership in the publicly traded Victor stock that had been recently
offered in the open market. RCA paid a share price premium but
ultimately was richly rewarded for making this very
What is not obvious in RCA's acquisition of VTMC is the
complicated board room negotiations lead by Sarnoff, sometimes via
third parties and his accepting interim business engagements and
agreements until he got what he wanted. Sarnoff representing
RCA and its shareholders successfully convinced General Electric who
owned 30% and Westinghouse who owned 20% to give RCA owning 50%,
complete control of the new RCA Victor under Sarnoff's leadership.
can be successful unless he loves his work. David Sarnoff
The Format Wars
There are several written accounts concerning Sarnoff's
involvement in the introduction of the RCA Victor 45
Victrola. Although the historical
time period (from 1939) leading up to and including the
battle of the LP and 45 (to 1949) is not that long ago,
there is so much disagreement as to what really happened.
The following chart helps set the stage.
||LP, 10 & 12"
|Record Changer Price
|needle size 78: 3.0mils
||.5 - .7 mils
||4 mins. x 10 stack = 40 mins
||23-30 mins. side
|78 rpm, Victor, 1901
||45 rpm RCA Victor 1949
||33.3 rpm, Bell Labs 1920
One of the more popular narratives which describes the
war between the RCA Victor 45 RPM format and the Columbia
33.3 RPM LP format was told
by CBS' Edward Wallerstein.
Click here to see Edward's story.
Wallerstein, a former RCA employee had an ax to grind! His
story was told only after Sarnoff's death.
For a more objective story having less CBS bias, check
out the article written by Steve Kelsay on behalf of
Click here to see Steve's story.
It's no wonder that there is so much Sarnoff
bashing when you read the anti-Sarnoff sentiment from some
books described above. It's fashionable to
pick on the big guy, IBM, AT&T, RCA, Gates, Microsoft,
soon Apple, without having to present concrete evidence or
arguing the facts. For
example, his fans claim Philo T. Farnsworth invented television, but he died
broken and broke after battling RCA for
more than forty years. Farnsworth claimed RCA had pirated
his technology and robbed him of fame and fortune.
His supporters say "Edwin Armstrong created FM, but
Sarnoff decided to shelve the idea and
let folks live with chronic AM static". Armstrong
wouldn't throw in the towel and in 1940, he convinced the
FCC to award licenses for FM
stations. Unfortunately, Armstrong became mired in a tangle
of lawsuits. Even worse, "his patents on FM expired in 1950," at which
time the radio industry, lead by RCA exploited his technological innovations.
Depressed and financially ruined, Armstrong, committed suicide in 1954.
So it's no surprise that Sarnoff is blamed for Armstrong's death.
Interesting that Armstrong who vehemently claimed he was
'done wrong' by RCA and Sarnoff, earned a significantly
greater number of shares of RCA stock when RCA purchased his
technology, than RCA's CEO, Sarnoff during his entire career
Big Bad RCA vs. Big Bad CBS
It's interesting that David
Sarnoff generally receives no credit and no blame for the
introduction of the RCA Victor 45 RPM record format and
business. There is some Sarnoff bashing from executives
left RCA to join CBS. One story frequently told but
never substantiated describes how Sarnoff yelled at his
staff during and after a visit to CBS' private demonstration
of it's new 33.3 RPM LP format. This is simply not
true, in fact CBS' Wallerstein who arranged and conducted the
demo describes a more positive and professional response and how CBS was surprised that RCA (Sarnoff) not only had no
interest in CBS's proposal to share technology, share
content (RCA Victor's massive recording library) and share
the market but was later shocked that RCA was able introduce a
competitive offering so quickly. It's now no secret
that RCA had previously researched the micro-groove and
developed the 45 rpm format and prototype record players.
Sarnoff smartly responded in classic Sarnoff style.
He took the more difficult, but financially rewarding path
to compete head on with CBS, a brilliant move. Sarnoff
clearly saw a serious competitive threat coming from
CBS; there was no doubt in his mind that the LP would be a
substantial winner. Another weak-kneed CEO might have
capitulated and taken an easier path; Sarnoff made a
confident, courageous decision to launch the RCA Victor 45
skunk works project, Madame X.
Again, RCA didn't develop the
45 record format and player in response to Columbia's
introduction of the 33.3 rpm LP. In the June 1949
RCA Engineers, Carson, Burt and Reiskind published this in a
"About 17 years ago, there began a program aimed at a
fundamental improvement in the reproduction of recorded
music. Unhampered by any previous restrictions,
attempt was made to develop an ideal method of bringing
recorded music into the home. Factors of cost and
convenience to the customer, playing time, record life,
freedom from distortion and numerous technical
considerations were established with the "ideal" being the
objective. Some nine years of research and
experimentation culminated in a new record playing means
which, after eight more years of testing and refinement,
finally emerged in a record changer and record to be
discussed in this paper".
Why was Sarnoff courageous? What challenges was
RCA facing at this time?
- The FCC had just dealt RCA a serious blow by approving
CBS's color TV format;
- Sarnoff got the FCC to reverse that
'favorable CBS' decision three years later in 1953.
- RCA previously tried and failed with an LP format in 1933.
Was the technology now ready?
- 45RPM Project
Madame X was kept secret well after Christmas to
sustain 'old product' revenues.
- RCA had to deliver a reliable competitive product
in high volume within six months
- Shortly after introduction, the 45 RPM format looked like it would be a failure.
- RCA was losing its 'royalty compensated' artists to Columbia and others.
- Columbia attempted to neutralize
RCA's 7" 45 with a 7" Microgroove LP.
- Within one year, Columbia began pressing records in the 45 RPM format.
- Shortly thereafter Sarnoff agreed to start pressing in the LP format.
- When the Korean war
started, it negatively impacted RCA's cost & supply of
By 1987 when an article written by Chris Willman of the
Los Angeles Times declared the official end of the 45 RPM
single, there was no more format war or debate that
Sarnoff's business decision to launch one of the most
successful consumer products ever was economically sound.
As the wafer thin, aluminum-coated polycarbonate compact
disk (CD) had begun to take serious market share by 1983, it
became clear that the 45 RPM vinyl format would be moved aside
to a new very limited market of audiophiles.
So a new battle begins.
The next generation of audiophiles is now 'growing up' with the
latest .mp3 player devices, digital sound technology and surround
sound that makes you hit the floor because you hear a helicopter
directly overhead in your living room. Perhaps you too have golf-ball-size speakers from
Bose or Sony that give you next generation stealth sound
Some audiophiles argue new digital devices still don't have the
amount of 'analog data' that is stored on vinyl and
say compression algorithms have redefined base. Is that a base
drum, base fiddle, an explosion, just what is that
instrument? Perhaps your CD, DVD and Blu-ray Disc music
collection will deteriorate from the effects of atomic force
microscopy and molecular-level failure. Perhaps vinyl enthusiasts
will someday routinely listen to untouched vinyl records optically read music.
To see some early stage technology that bridges the RCA
Victor 45 RPM RP-190 record changer, the most reliable
changer ever made with current generation audio technology
check this product, a
continue reading about RCA Victor click here, or
to see the Victrola 45 Collection click here.