David Sarnoff

About Us
Thomas Alva Edison
Edison Phonographs
Edison Collection
Columbia Graphophones
Emile Berliner
Eldridge R Johnson
Victor Talking Machines
William Barry Owen
David Sarnoff
RCA Victor 45 Victrola
RCA Victor 45 Collection
Ristau Brothers
Ristaucrat Collection
Shows, Clubs, More

Message Box





We connect phonograph and gramophone enthusiasts!

David Sarnoff

   David Sarnoff

                                                                         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 phonographs? 

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, phonographs 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.

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 in technology and business. 

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 and communications 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 today. 

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. History will 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 fat' cigars". 

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.   

Sarnoff's life 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 investors (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 (18911971), 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.

Sarnoff w/Marconi 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 hisDavid Sarnoff son Robert W. Sarnoff (191997).  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 wasn't.  

To Research Sarnoff
One of best sources of accurate, objective information can be found on-line at The David Sarnoff Library (DSL) which was devoted 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 library.  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 Victor.

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, NJ
click 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 libraries.

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 by RCA.  Consequently, RCA 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 which would 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 risky investment. 

What is not obvious in RCA's acquisition of VTMC is the complicated board roomPainting David Sarnoff 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. 

Nobody 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.
Company RCA Victor Columbia
President Sarnoff Paley
Format 45, 7" LP, 10 & 12"
Introduced April 1949 June 1948
Record Changer Price $12.95 intro $9.95 intro
needle size 78: 3.0mils .5 - .7 mils 2.5 mils
Playing time 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

Format warsOne 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 Downstairs Records 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 of the 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 there. 

Big Bad RCA vs. Big Bad CBS RCA Victor J2 record changer RP-190
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 that 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.

LP 45 and CD recordingAgain, 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 formal paper:  "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 vinyl.

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 delivery.

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 PhonoJack invention.       

To continue reading about RCA Victor click here, or to see the Victrola 45 Collection click here.


Boston, MA  USA