General Sarnoff leads the pack

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

“On April 14, 1912, David Sarnoff was listening casually to the routine flood of dots and dashes [on the wireless],” according to a passage in his official 1966 biography. “Suddenly he was stung to startled attention. The message was dim and far away and choked by static, but be deciphered it notwithstanding. It was coming form the S.S. Olympic in the North Atlantic, 1,400 miles away: `S.S. TITANIC RAN INTO ICEBERG. SINKING FAST.”’
As the evening progressed, the story goes, Mr. Sarnoff, the 21-year-old Russian emigre in charge of the New York City branch of Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless company, became the focal point of much of the news of the sinking ship. The evening was to teach the future general a valuable lesson: When you marry outstanding technology with great content, the result could be combustibly powerful.
By 1915 Mr. Sarnoff came up with the idea of a wireless device that brought music into the home. The world would later call the devices radios. By 1926 he was in charge of broadcasting at RCA and was one of the company’s movers and shakers behind the formation of NBC that year. He later became president and then CEO of RCA.
In his capacity as chief of RCA, he was made a brigadier general in World War II. Ever after, people called him General Sarnoff because that’s what he liked to be called.
Under his tutelage, RCA married “sight to sound,” as Mr. Sarnoff once famously said, and introduced us to the TV age.
That he was a broadcast visionary is without question, though some felt he was only really interested in programming as a way to sell radios and TV sets. He died on Dec. 12, 1971.