On the evening of April 14, 1912, the young Mr. Sarnoff heard faint wireless reports of the sinking of the Titanic. He was one of a number of wireless operators who reported details of the tragedy to the newspapers, and Mr. Sarnoff would later claim that he was the only operator permitted to remain on the air after U.S. President William Howard Taft ordered others to remain silent (in order to quell conflicting reports sent on overlapping signals).
As early as 1915, Mr. Sarnoff proposed to Marconi the idea for a household fixture called a "radio music box"—at a time when radio was still called "the wireless" and its use was primarily limited to shipping news and the amusement of amateur wireless enthusiasts. The idea was rejected.
In 1919, General Electric Co. absorbed the U.S. assets of Marconi and established the Radio Corp. of America. Mr. Sarnoff was appointed general manager in 1921 and, on Jan. 3, 1930, the 39-year-old became president of RCA. In 1932, the U.S. Justice Department forced GE to divest RCA on grounds of monopoly and restraint of trade.
RCA began manufacturing radios for the home in the 1920s, and in 1926 formed the National Broadcasting Co. to sell radio sets. NBC itself consisted of two networks—the Red and the Blue—each fed from its own New York flagship station, WJZ and WEAW, respectively, which RCA acquired when it bought the broadcasting assets of AT&T Corp. The two networks launched in simulcast on Nov. 15, 1926.
Although programming was not Mr. Sarnoff's primary focus, he had even less interest in advertising. When he first broached the idea of a radio network in 1922, he saw it as a "nonprofit" public service; he found the idea of ad-funded radio to be outrageous and believed that manufacturers of radio sets should own and operate stations. Profits from selling sets, not advertising, would pay for programming.
However, the costs proved too high, and, surprisingly, listeners were receptive to advertising, especially if it saved them from having to pay for broadcast services. By the time NBC was launched, it was ready to sell airtime to advertisers.
Even as Mr. Sarnoff built a radio empire, he was looking ahead to the potential of TV and, as the 1930s arrived, RCA moved ahead with the development of an electronic TV set. Mr. Sarnoff kicked off RCA's TV broadcasting efforts with a flourish on April 30, 1939, by televising the opening of the New York World's Fair. That year, NBC began regular service, broadcasting from the top of the Empire State Building.
But there were serious problems facing the fledgling medium. For one, NBC's quality was lacking. Also, for a nation still struggling to get out of the Depression, the cost of a TV set—as much as $600—was prohibitive.
In addition, Mr. Sarnoff's radio archrival, William S. Paley, chief of the Columbia Broadcasting System, had no interest in advancing the new medium since his network did not manufacture TV hardware and TV was seen as a potential threat to radio.
Finally, there were no TV broadcast standards; they would not be set by the Federal Communications Commission until 1941.
The advent of World War II brought the development of TV to a halt. Mr. Sarnoff turned the resources of his company to such wartime areas as radar and sonar, and the RCA chief became a communications consultant to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mr. Sarnoff left the service in 1944 with the rank of brigadier general in the Army Reserve Corps. "The General" would brandish that title with pride for the rest of his years at RCA.
Mr. Sarnoff, who was appointed chairman of RCA in 1947, faced the postwar years with a new competitor. Citing antitrust concerns, the FCC in 1941 ordered NBC to divest itself of one of its networks. NBC contested the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. In 1943, it sold the less popular Blue Network for $8 million to Edward J. Noble, manufacturer of LifeSaver candy; the network would become the American Broadcasting Co.
After the war, with peacetime and prosperity sweeping the land, TV boomed. RCA introduced black-and-white or monochrome, TV on a large scale. But Mr. Sarnoff saw monochrome as a transitional phase to color and this notion set the stage for a great battle between Messrs. Sarnoff and Paley.
In 1940, CBS Laboratories developed a "mechanical," as opposed to electronic, TV system that achieved excellent color images. CBS applied to the FCC for acceptance of its color system. However, CBS' technology would render all existing electronic, monochrome sets obsolete since they would not be able to receive the color images.
Mr. Sarnoff urged a hesitant FCC to hold off for six months, by which time RCA would have an electronic color system that could be received by both color and b&w sets. But the FCC went ahead and adopted CBS' system in September 1950. In the ensuing struggle, Mr. Sarnoff again fought all the way to the Supreme Court.
War interfered again that year, with the Korean conflict hurting the introduction of CBS' sets. In 1953, CBS abandoned its color efforts as "economically foolish" in light of 25 million incompatible b&w sets in use at the time. On Dec. 17, 1953, the FCC adopted standards along the line of those proposed by RCA. These standards for electronic TV became the basis for every new color TV system adopted throughout the world.
In 1955, Jules Herbuveaux, manager of NBC's Chicago station, WNBQ (later WMAQ), persuaded Mr. Sarnoff to convert the facility to full color broadcasting as a means to promote the sale of color sets. On April 15, 1956, WNBQ became the world's first all-color TV station and Mr. Herbuveaux and retailer Sol Polk dramatically increased the number of color sets in operation in Chicago. It was a business model Mr. Sarnoff slowly expanded nationwide.
Although not a showman at heart, Mr. Sarnoff realized the value of content to promote TV. NBC was allowed to pour big sums into star-studded programs that produced a growing market for TV sets. For example, RCA color TV sets showcased Walt Disney-who was lured away from ABC-in what became the long-running NBC Sunday evening series "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color."
Mr. Sarnoff had built a multibillion-dollar corporation by the time he retired from RCA in 1970 and was succeeded by his son, Robert. But in the following years, RCA suffered from the onslaught of Japanese competition in the manufacturing of TV sets and from its overdiversification into such far-flung areas as rental cars, greeting cards and food.
David Sarnoff died in his sleep on Dec. 12, 1971, at the age of 80.
Born in Russia, Feb. 27, 1891; emigrated to the U.S., 1900; named general manager, RCA, 1921; helped create the first radio network, NBC, 1926; named president of RCA, 1930; helped launch the first U.S. TV network, NBC, 1940; pushed for new color TV standards that were accepted by the Federal Communications Commission, 1953; retired as chairman of RCA, 1970; died Dec. 12, 1971.