Saturday, April 14, 2012

David Sarnoff alerted the world of the Titanic disaster.

From a transmitter perched upon the roof of the old Wannamaker's Department Store in Astor Place, Lower East Side bred media pioneer David Sarnoff, who Time called the "Father of Broadcasting," made history by relaying up-to-the minute news of the tragic ocean liner sinking.

Russian-born David Sarnoff (1891–1971), immigrated to the Lower East Side with his impoverished family at about nine years old. Like many neighborhood youths at the turn of the century, he bypassed an education to help support his family by selling newspapers, before teaching himself English and getting a job as an "office boy" at the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company as a teenager.

sarnoffBy 1908, the technically gifted and ambitious young Jewish immigrant rose to the position of junior operator for the company. While on the job on April 14, 1912, he received the message that would change his life, and the future of media broadcasting: "S.S. Titanic ran into iceberg, sinking fast." The young engineer quickly relayed the message to the press and other ships in the vicinity of the incident, then remained at his post for seventy-two hours straight during the crisis, broadcasting live updates to the world. It was the first "news broadcast" of its kind, and Sarnoff earned the respect of colleagues throughout the industry.

In 1913, Sarnoff was promoted to chief inspector of the Marconi Company. By 1915, he was elected secretary of the newly established Institute of Radio Engineers. In April of that year, the organization held a meeting at the old Luchow's restaurant on East 14th Street, where he spoke alongside special guest Nikola Tesla, who touted the benefits of wireless radio transmissions.1

Sarnoff was the man who introduced the idea of a "radio music box," utilizing Tesla's wireless technology. The invention, which we take for granted in the 21st century, would have made the radio a household item by 1915 -- however it was not taken seriously initially.

The project received a boost after General Electric created the RCA company in 1919, and purchased all of the Marconi Company's assets. Sarnoff's new bosses invested in the idea and commercial success looked promising. Though Sarnoff realized, in order to get a "Radiola," as it was called, into every household in America, they would have to provide original content that appealed to the masses. So on July 2, 1921, he arranged the radio broadcast of a prizefight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. The historic event was a huge success. Within the next three years, the company sold $83.5 million worth of household radios at a whopping $75 per unit. That was about two weeks worth of the average factory worker's salary... yet it was the "must have" item of the era and millions sold (original I-phone?)

On November 22, 1922, an historic conversation took place via wireless radio, when Sarnoff sent out the following transmission across the world from an auditorium at 29 West 39th Street: "How's the weather?" Within 45 seconds, an operator in London responded, "Raining, mild." Ten seconds later, Norway chimed in with "Overcast, mild." Over the next few minutes responses came in from Paris, Berlin and Hawaii.

The widely-reported event was part of a demonstration for members of the New York Electrical Society, who gathered at their headquarters for Sarnoff's presentation. The RCA honcho told the audience that he envisioned a wristwatch sized, personal radio transmitter that could receive "market reports, weather reports and details of championship games"2 -- i.e., the transistor radio.

David Sarnoff Time Magazine coverMost of us would be content with taking credit for bringing one of the most valuable inventions in human history to market, yet Sarnoff was just beginning. In 1926, now general manager of RCA, the communications genius with no formal education created the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), where he experimented with the medium that would come to be known as television. It took until 1941 for technology to catch up with Sarnoff's ambitious visions, but that year NBC began telecasting commercially from local station WNBT.

WWII put NBC's plans on hold, though Sarnoff was not one to sit around idly and wait for the war to end. He served as communications consultant for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who christened Sarnoff a brigadier general. He was then referred to affectionately as "the General" throughout the rest of his career.

David Sarnoff retired from RCA just a year before passing away in 1971. His accomplishments in television during its most formative years are legendary. In 1998, Time magazine declared Sarnoff the "Father of Broadcasting."3

1.  "Wireless Neutral Feast," New York Times, April 25, 1915
2. "To London and Back in 45 Seconds by Radio," New York Times, November 23, 1922
3. "Father Of Broadcasting DAVID SARNOFF" by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, Time, Monday, December 7, 1998