David Sarnoff Research Center recordsCreation: 1899-2008 Creation: Majority of material found within 1942-1995
The David Sarnoff Research Center (DSRC) in Princeton, New Jersey was the central research organization for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1942 to 1987. Following GE’s acquisition of RCA in 1986, the DSRC was donated to SRI International as a contract research laboratory. Renamed the Sarnoff Corporation in 1997, it was integrated into SRI in 2011. The records document the pioneering research of its scientists and trace the history of the organization from its establishment into the twenty-first century.
- Creation: 1899-2008
- Creation: Majority of material found within 1942-1995
- Sarnoff Corporation (Organization)
- Radio Corporation of America. David Sarnoff Research Center, Princeton, N.J (Organization)
990 Linear Feet
The David Sarnoff Research Center (DSRC) in Princeton, New Jersey was the central research organization for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1942 to 1987. Following GE’s acquisition of RCA in 1986, the DSRC was donated to SRI International as a contract research laboratory. Renamed the Sarnoff Corporation in 1997, it was integrated into SRI in 2011.
The pioneering work of scientists at the DSRC included the inventions of color television and liquid crystal displays (LCDs), the co-invention of high-definition television (HDTV), and numerous improvements in an array of fields relating to electronics.
For the history of RCA, see the historical note for accession 2069, RCA Corporation records: http://findingaids.hagley.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/2069.xml
Before RCA Labs
Research in electronics and related fields was critical to the success of RCA throughout its history. Its work in radio and television was performed at an assortment of different laboratories in different organizations until research was centralized in 1941-1942.
Although RCA was only formed in October 1919, its first laboratory was established before the end of the year by Harold H. Beverage in a tent at Riverhead, Long Island. This became the center for radio reception research, while radio transmission research was conducted at the nearby Rocky Point laboratory founded in 1920. Research in radio terminal equipment was carried out by a third laboratory in Manhattan that was established around this time.
RCA entered into manufacturing with the acquisition of the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey in 1929 and General Electric’s tube plant in Harrison, N. J. the following year. Also in 1930, RCA established the License Laboratory in Manhattan.
At the start of the 1930s, RCA now had four physically and organizationally separate major research units: the RCA Communications, Inc. laboratories in Riverhead, Rocky Point, and Manhattan; the RCA Victor Company in Camden; the RCA Radiotron Company in Harrison; and the License Laboratory (later the Industrial Service Laboratory) in Manhattan.
The initial steps to consolidate research were made at the end of 1934 and beginning of 1935. First, the RCA Victor Company and RCA Radiotron Company became divisions of the newly established RCA Manufacturing Company. This was followed by the appointment of Ralph R. Beal as Research Supervisor (later Research Director) with responsibility for coordinating RCA research.
Despite these efforts, leading figures at RCA were dissatisfied by an organization where the manufacturing and operating units controlled the research groups. This made it very difficult for teams to conduct long-term research when they were judged on their contributions to the short-term goals of the production units.
At the end of 1940, Otto S. Schairer sent RCA President David Sarnoff a proposal for the establishment of RCA Laboratories as a central research organization. In addition to addressing RCA’s organizational problems, the proposal recommended the construction of a central laboratory facility in Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton was selected mostly because of its convenience to the existing RCA plants in Camden and Harrison, as well as company headquarters in New York City.
On March 5, 1941, General Order S—56 established RCA Laboratories under Vice-President Schairer. All four major research groups were made part of the new organization and most teams were slated to move to Princeton.
Construction of the new Princeton laboratories began in the summer of 1941 and the facility was dedicated on September 27, 1942. In 1951, it was renamed the David Sarnoff Research Center (DSRC) in honor of David Sarnoff, RCA’s longtime head.
Founded in the midst of the Second World War, RCA Laboratories initial work focused on military electronics, especially opto-electronics, high frequency tube design, and acoustics. This led to immediate applications in radar, radio antennas, and infrared scopes. Particularly important was the image orthicon tube (nicknamed “immy”), a major breakthrough in television cameras and for which the “Emmy” award was named.
In the post-war period, research increasingly shifted from electronics development to fundamental research into electronic materials. When Bell Labs announced the invention of the transistor in 1948, RCA Laboratories quickly realized that it would have a profound impact on electronics. By the end of the decade, the Labs were investing substantial resources into solid state technology research and would continue to do so into the 21st century.
Despite this shift, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Laboratories lead the successful development of the all-electronic compatible color television system (NTSC).
In order to focus on long-term research without neglecting support of the product divisions, RCA Laboratories established what were variously called resident, satellite, or affiliated laboratories. These were labs established at the DSRC by product divisions to improve research coordination with RCA Laboratories. The product divisions provided the funding and technical direction.
The first such lab was created by the transfer of the RCA Tube Division’s Microwave Advanced Development Group from Harrison, New Jersey to the DSRC in December 1956. The number of satellite laboratories peaked at eleven in 1962. In 1972, the remaining labs were merged into RCA Laboratories, with the exception of the small Materials and Display Device Laboratory. Around the same time, a new model of satellite laboratory was implemented with the establishment of the Solid State Technology Center. In this model, RCA Laboratories created laboratories that were located at, and reported to, the product divisions. RCA Labs cooperated with planning and monitoring the research projects.
During the 1960s, a research team led by George H. Heilmeier developed the first liquid crystal displays (LCDs). At the same time, other teams made breakthroughs on lasers and holography.
Attempts to apply these revolutionary advances were handicapped by the increasing demands from senior management and the product divisions for support of advanced development. In particular, RCA’s disastrous foray into the general purpose computer business led to massive losses and forced the DSRC to devote substantial resources to increasingly desperate attempts to shore up RCA Computer Systems until RCA sold the unit in 1972.
Even with the sale, the poor economic climate of the 1970s limited the DSRC’s ability to pursue long-term exploratory research. In 1974, such work accounted for only 7% of its overall research efforts.
This was partly due to the decision to develop the RCA VideoDisc, the largest RCA Labs research effort since color television. In this system, video was recorded on vinyl discs much as audio had been for decades. This was a remarkable technological achievement, as video data requires vastly more storage space than audio data. Released commercially in 1981, the VideoDisc was abandoned as unable to compete with VHS in 1984.
Despite the focus on VideoDisc, the DSRC continued to innovate in other fields during the 1970s and 1980s. A few examples are the successful application of charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to television cameras to vastly decrease the size and complexity of the devices, new efforts in satellite communications in cooperation with RCA Americom, and major improvements in integrated circuit manufacturing.
Transition to Contract Lab
On December 11, 1985, GE announced that it had agreed to acquire RCA for $6.3 billion. This unexpected announcement rocked the staff at the DSRC, who were well aware that GE already had a central research facility that overlapped in many areas. Even after the merger was officially completed on June 9, 1986, it was unclear whether the DSRC would have a role in GE.
After more than a year of uncertainty, GE announced the donation of the DSRC to the non-profit research organization SRI International on February 5, 1987. Now the David Sarnoff Research Center, Inc., it became a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary of SRI on April 1.
Although GE guaranteed $250 million in research contracts over the first five years, they also retained rights and royalties to all DSRC intellectual property, worth more than $250 million in annual revenue. Starting almost from scratch, the DSRC had to transition from an organization that rarely spent more than a quarter of its efforts on contract research, to one that depended entirely on such work.
Under the terms of the SRI/GE agreement, the DSRC was given five years to become self-sustaining. This was accomplished and the company (renamed the Sarnoff Corporation in 1997) was profitable from 1993 to 1998, but always by slim margins. Despite a loss in 1999, they appeared to have turned the corner in 2000 thanks in large part to the substantial equity in the over twenty tech spinoffs created during the 1990s.
During the 1990s, the DSRC championed the information revolution, which fit in well with its long-term strengths in consumer electronics, communications, computing, and video. Biomedical research also became a major focus during this time.
Like many high-tech firms, the Sarnoff Corporation was badly hurt by the collapse of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, annual revenue increased from $130 million in 1998 to $450 million in 2008.
In 2011, the Sarnoff Corporation was fully integrated into SRI. The David Sarnoff Research Center continues to operate as one of the principal SRI research facilities.
The David Sarnoff Research Center records are arranged in twenty-eight record groups:
1. President's Office records
2. Acoustical and Electromechanical Research Laboratory records
3. Administration records
4. Biotechnology and Materials Laboratory records
5. Communications and Computing Systems Laboratory records
6. General Research Laboratory records
7. High Definition and Multimedia Systems records
8. Information Technologies Laboratory records
9. Manufacturing and Materials Research Division records
10. Physical Electronics Research Laboratory records
11. Solid State Research Division records
12. Television Research Laboratory records
13. VideoDisc Systems Research Laboratory records
14. Charles M. Burrill papers
15. Douglas Dixon papers
16. Larry J. Giacoletto papers
17. Nathan Gordon photographs
18. Philip M. Heyman papers
19. R. Kenyon Kilbon collection
20. Bernard J. Lechner papers
21. Michael J. Lurie papers
22. James R. Matey papers
23. Jan A. Rajchman papers
24. Brown F. Williams files on the photovoltaics program
25. Audiovisual recordings
26. Lab notebooks
27. Progress reports
The David Sarnoff Research Center records are arranged in twenty-eight record groups:
- President's Office records
- Acoustical and Electromechanical Research Laboratory records
- Administration records
- Biotechnology and Materials Laboratory records
- Communications and Computing Systems Laboratory records
- General Research Laboratory records
- High Definition and Multimedia Systems records
- Information Technologies Laboratory records
- Manufacturing and Materials Research Division records
- Physical Electronics Research Laboratory records
- Solid State Research Division records
- Television Research Laboratory records
- VideoDisc Systems Research Laboratory records
- Charles M. Burrill papers
- Douglas Dixon papers
- Larry J. Giacoletto papers
- Nathan Gordon photographs
- Philip M. Heyman papers
- R. Kenyon Kilbon collection
- Bernard J. Lechner papers
- Michael J. Lurie papers
- James R. Matey papers
- Jan A. Rajchman papers
- Brown F. Williams files on the photovoltaics program
- Audiovisual recordings
- Lab notebooks
- Progress reports
Scope and Content
The David Sarnoff Research Center records document the pioneering research of its scientists and trace the history of the organization from the establishment of RCA Laboratories in 1941 through its transformation into an independent contract research laboratory in 1987 and into the 21st century. Pre-1941 RCA research is also documented, particularly in the R. Kenyon Kilbon collection (Record group 19).
Making up the bulk of the collection, the detailed and highly technical lab notebooks (Record group 26) are potentially the most valuable, but also the most difficult to use. Researchers are encouraged to use the progress reports (Record group 27) as a guide to which notebooks may be of interest. The reports themselves are invaluable for gaining a broad understanding of the DSRC’s research efforts.
Records from the President’s Office (Record group 1) provide insight into the challenges of managing a research laboratory in a corporate setting and then as an independent contract research laboratory.
Extensive audiovisual recordings (Record group 25), the large photographic collection of the Photo Studio (Record group 3, Series IX), and the subject files of the Public Affairs Department (Record group 3, Series X) deepen our understanding of the DSRC’s history.
RCA and the DSRC played key roles in the invention of television and its subsequent development, including the creation of high definition television (HDTV). Material relating to early work can be found in the General Research Laboratory records (Record group 6) and the Physical Electronics Research Laboratory records (Record group 10), while HDTV research is documented in the High Definition and Multimedia Systems records (Record group 7) and the Bernard J. Lechner papers (Record group 20).
Given RCA’s origin as a communications company, it is not surprising that the collection includes extensive documentation on communications research, particularly in the Communications and Computing Systems Laboratory records (Record group 5).
The pioneering work in acoustics by Harry F. Olson and his team is documented in the Acoustical and Electromechanical Research Laboratory records (Record group 2).
The development of electron optics and electron microscopy is well documented in the papers of James Hillier (Record group 1, Series II) and John H. Reisner, Jr. (Record group 13, Series III), as well as the Physical Electronics Research Laboratory records (Record group 10).
RCA’s research in optical recording technologies, which ultimately produced the ill-fated VideoDisc system is documented in the records of the Manufacturing and Materials Research Division (Record group 9) and the VideoDisc Systems Research Laboratory records (Record group 13), as well as the papers of Robert A. Bartolini (Record group 11, Series I) and James R. Matey (Record group 22).
Computer pioneer Jan A. Rajchman’s papers (Record group 23) provide insight on the early days of computer research, while Joseph A. Weisbecker’s papers (Record group 11, Series VII) show developments in hardware and software and the beginning of the age of personal computers and computer games. The papers of Edward C. Fox and Charles M. Wine (Record group 7, Series II and V) bring the story into the 1990s with the unsuccessful attempt to create a virtual reality video game system.
Existence and Location of Copies
This collection contains material from the Manuscripts and Archives Department (M&A) and the Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department (AVD). Box prefixes indicate which department holds an individual file or item.
Boxes M&A 127-846, M&A 1061-1064, and M&A 1283-1313 are stored offsite. Please contact the Manuscripts and Archives Department at least 48 hours in advance of research visit.
Language of Materials
In 2009, along with the rest of the archival collections of the David Sarnoff Library, the David Sarnoff Research Center records were donated to the Hagley Museum and Library.
- RCA Corporation (Organization)
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- David Sarnoff Research Center records
- Daniel Michelson and Kenneth Cleary
- Description rules:
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description:
- Script of description:
- The collection was processed with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant.