Although his formal secular education was limited to attending elementary school, David Sarnoff (1891-1971) combined expert knowledge, visionary business acumen, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a near-maniacal ambition to command a vast radio and television empire. Seizing the opportunity to control the then unfettered airwaves, he created the first coast-to-coast radio network and he transformed the world into a “global village.”
Renowned as the Father of American Television, Sarnoff was unquestionably the greatest visionary in the history of broadcasting as he virtually single-handedly developed RCA and NBC into the first great mass-communications conglomerate and singularly pushed the development of television from the initial experiments in the early 1920s to commercial feasibility. His contributions were such that while praising the “exceptionally large” contribution of Jews to the development of wireless in a 1931 interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy, singled out Sarnoff for his work in radio, characterizing it as “amazing.”
At a time when the standard approach to radio communications was “from point-to-point” (i.e., from one person to another), Sarnoff was the first person to see the potential of radio as a “point-to-mass” media where one broadcaster could speak to many listeners, and he transformed radio from an exclusive realm of the transportation communications industry and hobbyists into a media for the masses.
As a young man in 1916, he presented a memo to the head of the Marconi company proposing “radio music boxes” that could broadcast music, news, sports, lectures and entertainment into people’s homes, but his superiors considered his idea of commercial radio for entertainment purposes to be “a hair-brained scheme.” On June 2, 1921, he borrowed a Navy transmitter and broadcast the boxing match between the victorious Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, which drew a then-incredible 300,000 boxing fans listening on their homemade radio sets and essentially launched mass commercial radio. Four years after RCA launched NBC in 1925, Sarnoff became its president.
Under Sarnoff’s leadership, RCA and NBC commenced regularly scheduled electronic television transmissions and NBC became the first radio chain in the country. The first broadcast, which he introduced from the RCA pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (see exhibit), featured a speech by President Roosevelt (the first electronic broadcast by a president) and was seen by a whopping 1,000 viewers watching on the 200 television sets owned in the New York City region at the time.
Sarnoff was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Signal Corps Reserve (1924) and was promoted to full colonel in 1931. Called to active duty during World War II, he served as General Eisenhower’s communications consultant, for which he was decorated with the Legion of Merit (1944) and was commissioned a brigadier general (1945). He was thereafter known as “General Sarnoff,” a title that he insisted others use to address him.
Born David Sarnow in Uzlian, a small Jewish village near Minsk in Belarussia, Sarnoff spent much of his early childhood as an outstanding Talmud student in cheder and, beginning at a very young age, he sang in the synagogue choir to help supplement his impoverished family’s income. His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Privkin, was determined that his little Talmudic prodigy pursue a life in the rabbinate, so he sent young David to Korme to study with his grand-uncle, the leading rabbinical authority of the city. However, though raised in the strictest Orthodoxy, Sarnoff later decided that the constraints of rigid adherence to his faith were unduly onerous, so he turned to Reform Judaism, and his interest in religion in general became relatively unimportant. Nonetheless, he always credited his incredible drive, powers of concentration, keen analytical mind, and ability to overcome fatigue to his early years of Talmudic study.
Sarnoff’s father, an itinerant trader, immigrated to the United States and worked to raise funds to bring the family to America. Two days after Sarnoff arrived in New York in 1900 knowing no English, he was selling Yiddish newspapers on the Lower East Side, an endeavor he soon expanded into his first business, a newsstand. Moreover, as a gifted cantorial singer, he continued to supplement the family income by performing as a male soprano in a neighborhood synagogue choir while attending school at night.
When his father died in 1906 of tuberculosis, however, he had to leave school to become his family’s sole supporter as an office boy at the Commercial Cable Company. His lack of formal education always haunted him, but it also served to motivate him to achieve greatness: “The dread of remaining an am ha’aretz (a euphemism for “uneducated Jew” or, worse, an ignoramus) was always under the surface of my consciousness. I jelled in a determination to rise above my surroundings . . .”
His employer refused him three days unpaid leave for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and fired him only a few months after he had commenced work. Adding to the family’s economic problems, his voice broke just prior to performing for the High Holidays that year and his family was left with no source of income. He joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America as a messenger boy and taught himself how to use the telegraph key on his own time. In 1911, he installed and operated the wireless equipment on a ship hunting seals off Newfoundland and used the technology to relay the first remote medical diagnosis from the ship’s doctor to a radio operator ashore, and he later famously demonstrated the first use of radio on a railroad line, the Lackawanna Railroad Company’s link between Binghamton and Scranton.
By 1914, he had risen to contract manager at Marconi, and in 1919, when it was absorbed by RCA, he became its commercial manager. He rose quickly through the ranks at RCA, becoming its general manager in 1921, vice president in 1922, president in 1930, and chairman of the board in 1947. However, it was while working at Marconi in 1912 that one on the greatest legends in communications history was born.
As Sarnoff tells the story, he was alone at his telegraph on April 14, 1912 – which he operated for John Wannamaker, who had built a powerful radio station atop his New York store – when he picked up a distress call from the Titanic that the mammoth ship had run into an iceberg and was sinking. He was acclaimed a public hero for notifying the authorities, remaining at his telegraph for the next consecutive 72 hours, coordinating the rescue effort, and receiving and transmitting the names of survivors. The story received broad coverage in the mainstream media and was prominently featured by the New York Times in Sarnoff’s obituary:
His real first step on the rise to fame and considerable fortune was taken the night of April 14, 1912, the night the Titanic crashed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Mr. Sarnoff had the monotonous job of manager of an experimental wireless station installed by John Wanamaker on the roof of his department store at Ninth Street and Broadway . . .
The young telegrapher quickly notified the authorities and the press, and for the next 72 hours, he sat constantly before his equipment, straining to make out the dots and dashes coming from the Carpathia and other rescue ships. In those days of weak signals, primitive circuits and howling atmospheric interference, it was immensely difficult to receive messages accurately. President William Howard Taft ordered all wireless stations on the Eastern Seaboard except Mr. Sarnoff’s shut down to facilitate receipt of messages.
However, there is ample evidence that the entire story is a fiction perpetrated by a self-promoting Sarnoff.
First, even with the worldwide extensive coverage given to the Titanic disaster, there was not a single contemporary account in the media of Sarnoff’s “heroism” and, in fact, he did not tell the story until an interview with American Magazine in 1923, more than a decade after the event took place. Second, the Titanic sank on Sunday night in New York City, when the Wanamaker’s Department store was closed. Third, the Marconi Company had actually closed the Wanamaker’s station to prevent it from interfering with its four more powerful coastal stations and, in fact, there was no single wireless operator or station that controlled the air traffic related to the Titanic. Fourth, the telegraph machine at Wanamaker’s was too small and weak to have received the Titanic signals at that distance.
According to some contemporary critics, what most likely happened was that when the news broke from newsboys hawking special editions on the street, Sarnoff ran to his telegraph station, where he did manage a squad of telegraph operators for the next three days. Many of the very purveyors of the myth have now recanted the story; for example, in a 1987 article in Radio Recall, Catherine Heinz, the former director of the Broadcast Pioneers’ Library in Washington, D.C., declared that her own Sarnoff 1971 obituary, which had repeated the Sarnoff-Titanic story, was false. Nonetheless, as even a cursory perusal of the internet will show, the fable persists, even though the story has been authoritatively debunked.
Even after abandoning his Orthodoxy, Sarnoff always acknowledged the existence of a governing higher power, but he rejected the idea of hashgacha pratit, the belief in a personal G-d overseeing individuals and the world. He believed that it was futile to discuss whether Jews were a race or merely a group of co-religionists and, in an illuminating 1960 interview with a reporter for The Jewish Journal, he provided an excellent definition of antisemitism and how he saw his responsibilities as a Jew:
The essential Jewish identity is worth preserving because it is an influence that conditions the formation of a better type of human being. Jewish ethics, morality, and wisdom are constructive influences. This does not mean that all Jews are angels, or that they are generally better than other peoples. As we know ourselves, there are bad Jews, just as there are bad non-Jews. The trouble is, however, that whenever they encounter a bad Jew, most non-Jews tend to draw a general conclusion and accuse all Jews of corruption . . . Every individual Jew must therefore assume responsibility for the honor of the entire Jewish people and realize clearly that improper conduct on his part may be damaging to all Jews by encouraging antisemitism.
As a Jew whose lot has fallen to be in the public eye in America, I always remember this responsibility . . . Let us hope that further progress, further enlightenment, and broader humanism will abolish these conditions and bring about a time when non-Jews will cease to make distinctions in their minds between Jews and non-Jews.
Like many people, Sarnoff’s interest in Judaism was rekindled when he became severely ill towards the end of his life with a mastoid infection. He sought visits with the rabbis of Temple Emanuel, where he served as a synagogue official, and he found solace in reading the Talmudic passages of his youth in Uzlan and Korme. However, his wife, Lizette Herman, to whom he had been introduced by their matchmaking mothers in synagogue, decided not to bury him in a Jewish cemetery and, instead, he was interred in a Judeo-Christian cemetery in Westchester County.
Unlike William Paley, who sought to hide his Jewish roots, Sarnoff bristled at the slightest hint of antisemitism, always making clear who he was and where he came from. Maintaining that antisemitism was “a fact of my life,” he believed that his application for a Commission with the U.S. Navy during World War I was rejected because of antisemitism, and he attributed many of his problems at General Electric to antisemitism. He never hesitated to speak out publicly and firmly against anti-Jewish hate, and he refused to accept awards or speak at organizations and clubs with Jewish exclusionary policies.
Infuriated by Nazi antisemitism, Sarnoff began regular travel to Washington after Kristallnacht to meet with branches of the armed forces to plan RCA’s integration into the American defense buildup and, in a meeting with FDR in 1941, he advised the president that RCA stood ready to convert its plants to serve the needs of war production. He turned his studios into a training center for civilian defense workers and the cathode rays that he had designed for television became instrumental in radar and other sensing devices used in the war effort. He also helped Jews to escape Nazi Germany to the United States.
The only aspect of the development of radio that disappointed him was having Telefunken of Germany as among RCA’s first licensees, thereby giving the emerging Third Reich an early television capability: “Very often, the products of science and technology that promise so much for mankind have been perverted to evil uses. Hitler and radio is a perfect case, but I firmly believe that nobody can or should try to halt progress.”
In 1952, Sarnoff, then president of NBC, accepted an invitation from Eliezer Kaplan, Israel’s first Minister of Finance, to come to Israel to discuss building a local vacuum tube factory there. He offered his services to Ben Gurion to help Israel in general, and its military in particular, to establish its own national television broadcasting system. Emphasizing that Israeli television would facilitate the dissemination of the Zionist message and make a major contribution to the ingathering of Jewish exiles, he added that he would assist in fundraising for the ambitious project if Israel would agree to a joint venture between the Israeli military and NBC.
In a July 29, 1952, address at a special ceremony held at his honor at The Weizmann Institute, to which he was elected its first Honorary Fellow, Sarnoff stated that he was impressed by scientific advances in Israel and predicted that television service between the United States and Israel will exist within five years. In a press conference at the Ministry of Communications in Jerusalem, he opined that four strategically placed television stations in Israel could blanket the Jewish State so as to provide television reception across the entire country. Minister of Communications David Zvi Pinkas prematurely announced that the new Israeli government broadcasting center would be dedicated to Sarnoff.
The proposal was enthusiastically embraced by Shimon Peres, then the Defense Ministry’s director-general, but Ben Gurion rejected the offer with a terse reply that “Israelis are people of the book. We don’t need television.” Ben Gurion’s keen opposition to television was likely shaped by his initial encounter with the medium when he visited his son’s family in London earlier in 1952. He was dismayed when his grandchildren didn’t budge from staring mindlessly at the hypnotizing television images instead of rushing to greet and hug him. He viewed television with contempt as a philistine and anti-intellectual contrivance that would Americanize the socialist Jewish state, promote rampant consumerism, and interfere with the emerging national culture of the young country.
According to Tasha Oren, author of Demon in the Box: Jews, Arabs, Politics, and Culture in the Making of Israeli Television (2004), Israelis were also concerned that television would feminize Israeli soldiers, dumb down Israeli citizens, present anti-Zionist ideas, prevent immigrants from being absorbed into Israeli culture, and jeopardize national security. The Knesset took action to discourage Israeli citizens from even owning television sets by, among other things, imposing a draconian 300 percent tax on them.
Sarnoff ended up not being much of a prognosticator when it came to his predictions for Israeli television, which did not make its initial appearance until 1966 as a part-time educational service for schoolchildren. The first general Israeli broadcast, which aired on May 5, 1968, featured only educational programming and news in the early morning and evenings, with dead air in between. According to Oren, the 1967 Six-Day War played a seminal role in Israel’s decision to permit national television broadcasts. In marked contrast with the Egyptian army, Israel permitted foreign correspondents covering the war to accompany Israeli troops everywhere and, as a result, Israel became the source of all news regarding the war and the government came to understand the importance of the medium.
In 1949, Sarnoff donated the first electron microscope in Israel to the Weizmann Institute in honor of Chaim Weizmann’s 70th birthday and, in 1952, he received the award of an honorary membership at the Institute for his contributions to advancing the science of electronics. Ever conscious of the Holocaust, he implored Israel to create “a reservoir of scientific knowledge and talents” to replace “the great repository of Jewish scholarship” and science destroyed by the Nazis. Exhibited here is the original parchment with a dedication from the Weizmann Institute to Sarnoff,
A longtime friend of Weizmann’s, Sarnoff later became the first recipient of the “Weizmann Award in the Sciences and Humanities” at a dinner attended by 1,200 leaders in science, business and public affairs (1966).
Finally, in this February 24, 1963, correspondence on his RCA letterhead, Sarnoff thanks publisher Robert Speller for forwarding a copy of the book The Mission of Israel, which was compiled by Israeli journalist, UN correspondent and Chagall expert Jacob Baal-Teshuva. Essentially a homage to Israel that includes articles, speeches and statements regarding the mission and successful accomplishments of the Jewish state, contributors included five heads of state, four prime ministers, and other distinguished figures, including Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, Martin Buber . . . and Sarnoff.