David Sarnoff and the “American Way”

Harold Evans is the author of a pretty good (i.e. mostly accurate) account of the history of invention in America, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators.  He wrote this column for the Wall Street Journal last week, which includes this assessment of the contributions of a certain David Sarnoff to the annals of innovation:

An entrepreneur may be the enemy of innovation. David Sarnoff, the black-belt bureaucrat who headed RCA, was a classic entrepreneur, but he was the relentless and unscrupulous enemy of innovation in the introduction of FM radio. He was heavily invested in making AM radios and broadcasting AM through RCA’s National Broadcasting Corporation. So he did his best to sabotage the astoundingly brilliant Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890-1954), inventor of FM, even though he had the right of first refusal of Armstrong’s invention.

Postwar, Sarnoff became a genuine promoter of innovation in pioneering a system of color TV compatible with black and white, defeating the non-compatible electromechanical system pushed by Bill Paley of CBS. But Sarnoff, entrepreneur, also did to Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971), the inventor and innovator of electronic television, what he had done to Armstrong. In the end he had to pay Farnsworth for his groundbreaking patent but then had the gall to claim the credit he did not deserve as "the father" of television. He was certainly an innovator in the creation of a number of myths about himself: Time magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the Century issue (in 2000) still credited him as the innovator of both radio and television.


Generally speaking, articles from the Wall Street Journal are only available online to subscribers, so thanks to blogger  Jose Maria Arrunategui for making this text available.  At least, until the WSJ catches up with him….

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