David Sarnoff papersCreation: 1871-1983
David Sarnoff (1891-1971) was the iconic leader of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for most of the company's history. For many years the only Jewish executive in the communications field, Sarnoff was highly influential in the development of radio and television. The focus of the David Sarnoff papers is the original David Sarnoff Collection assembled by Sarnoff to celebrate his career. However, the papers also include the extensive photographic, publicity, and administrative files created by his staff at RCA and a substantial audiovisual component.
- Creation: 1871-1983
- Sarnoff, David, 1891-1971 (Person)
124 Linear Feet
General Physical Description (AVD portion only)
(AVD portion only) 4089 photographic prints : b&w ; 8 x 10 in. 57 photographic prints : color ; 8 x 10 in. 75 photographic prints : b&w ; 8.5 x 11 in. or larger. 914 photographic prints : b&w ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller. 4 photographic prints : color ; 8.5 x 11 in. or larger. 96 photographic prints : color ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller. 181 transparencies (slides) : color ; 35mm. 27 glass plate negatives : b&w and color ; 3 x 4 in. 125 contact sheets : b&w. 26 contact sheets : color. 12 photocopies : b&w ; office paper. 69 facsimiles : b&w. 146 negatives : b&w ; 8 x 10 in. 287 negatives : b&w ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller. 1 negative : color ; 8 x 10 in. 3 negatives : color ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller. 147 photographic negatives : b&w ; 120. 22 negatives : b&w ; 35 mm. 50 photograph albums : 11 cloth and 17 leather. 8 videocassettes (U-Matic) : 3/4 inch. 17 videocassette (VHS) : 1/2 inch. 7 videocassettes (Digital Betacam). 1 videocassette (Betacam SP). 121 sound cassettes : analog. 16 sound cassettes : digital. 1 album : b&w ; 20 pages, 12.5 x 14 in. 1 album : 14 x 15 in. 26 sound tape reels. 2 1" video reels. 61 sound discs : analog, 33 1/3 rpm. 42 reels : sd., b&w & col. ; 16mm. 1 bank note. Papers, pamphlets, correspondence, and ephemera.
David Sarnoff (1891-1971) was the iconic leader of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for most of the company's history. For many years the only Jewish executive in the communications field, Sarnoff was highly influential in the development of radio and television.
David Sarnoff was born on February 27, 1891 in the Jewish shtetl of Uzlian near the Russian city of Minsk. His father moved to New York City in about 1895 and was able to save enough money to allow the rest of the family to join him on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1900.
Sarnoff joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America as an office boy in September 1906. In December, he met the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) and with astonishing rapidity gained his confidence and support. Sarnoff was soon promoted to a wireless operator and served in various roles at shore stations in Massachusetts and New York and aboard ships.
In late 1912, Sarnoff was promoted to radio inspector for the New York District and became an instructor at the Marconi Institute. Within a year he was made chief radio inspector and assistant chief engineer for the entire company.
The experienced cable executive Edward J. Nally (1859–1953) became the Marconi Company’s general manager in 1914. Unfamiliar with the wireless side of operations, he relied heavily on the expertise of his energetic and ambitious deputy. Before the year was out, Sarnoff had added the title of contract manager to his position.
In 1915, Sarnoff wrote his famous "Radio Music Box" memo to Nally, which represented a revolutionary shift in the conception of radio. Rather than seeing wireless as a means for one-to-one communication, he imagined it as one-to-many. However, it would not be until the early 1920s that Sarnoff was in a position to implement his ideas.
When the Marconi Company established a Commercial Department in 1917, Sarnoff was appointed as its manager. He was still in that position when the Marconi Company became part of the new Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919.
Radio Corporation of America
For purposes of brevity, the history of RCA will only be touched on in passing. For an excellent overview of the company's history, see the historical note to the RCA Victor Camden/Frederick O. Barnum III collection (http://findingaids.hagley.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/2069.xml).
Sarnoff became a promoter of having RCA expand into the domestic field in opposition to President Nally and others who wanted to stick to international communications. Chairman Owen D. Young (1874-1962) sided with Sarnoff and subsequently made him lead the negotiations with AT&T, Westinghouse, and the United Fruit Company to create the RCA patent pool.
This success, as well as Sarnoff's increasingly close relationship with Young, resulted in his appointment as general manager in 1921. Barely two months later, he signaled his view of RCA's future by orchestrating the famous broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight.
Made a vice-president in 1922, Sarnoff was passed over in favor of General James G. Harbord (1866-1947) as successor to President Nally at the beginning of 1923. However, Harbord's lack of subject knowledge and hands-off management style prevented any conflict with his hard-driving subordinate. The result was that Sarnoff was increasingly responsible for the strategic operations of RCA, as well as its day-to-day management.
By this time, RCA was faced with mounting public opposition to its patent monopoly, as well as the difficultly of enforcing its patent rights. In late 1923, Sarnoff proposed, and persuaded RCA to implement, the idea of providing patent licenses to other companies for a small percentage of the retail cost of the product.
As RCA's fortunes, and stock price, soared upwards in the mid to late 1920s, Sarnoff proved his adroitness as a negotiator. In 1926, after a complex dispute between AT&T and RCA over radio broadcasting, he successfully negotiated a deal resulting in the creation of NBC in 1926.
Two years later, Sarnoff proposed the takeover of the Victor Talking Machine Company. This deal, which turned RCA into a manufacturing power in its own right, was delayed as Sarnoff spent five months in Europe as Young's assistant on the Committee of Experts, which had been formed to address the German war reparations crisis that was crippling the German economy. He played a key, although then unnoticed, role in the protracted negotiations that resulted in the celebrated "Young Plan" (also known as the "Dawes Plan").
The 1929 stock market crash ruined RCA's stock price and the assets of Chairman Young. Likely as a result, Young stepped down as chair in favor of President Harbord. Sarnoff, who had gotten out of the stock market before the crash, was elected as RCA’s third president on January 3, 1930. Now possessing the title to match his control of RCA, Sarnoff was faced with the daunting task of guiding RCA through the Great Depression.
Less than six months into his presidency, Sarnoff was faced with a formal anti-trust complaint by the Department of Justice against RCA. After a year and a half of complex legal maneuvering and negotiations, Sarnoff convinced General Electric and Westinghouse to sell their holdings in RCA to settle the dispute. The result of this was not only the independence of RCA, but the removal of the last constraints on Sarnoff's freedom of action within the corporation.
Although RCA recorded its first ever losses in 1932 and 1933, Sarnoff was unfazed. He correctly judged that the market for radio remained strong and he also had another technology in mind. In 1929, Vladimir K. Zworykin (1888-1982), then at Westinghouse, had approached Sarnoff with his ideas on television development. Although mechanical television systems had been successfully demonstrated in the 1920s, Zworykin argued that only an electronic system could solve the technical obstacles to widespread introduction. Sarnoff eagerly backed Zworykin's research and became a frequent visitor to his laboratory at RCA Camden.
Two years before Zworykin and Sarnoff met, Utah inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971) had patented an electronic pickup tube that functioned on different principles. In 1932, he successfully filed an action with the Patent Office against RCA on the grounds that its system was subject to his patent. After RCA's appeal was rejected in 1936, Sarnoff attempted to buy Farnsworth out, but the latter wisely refused and demanded that RCA license the patents from him. Unwilling to jeopardize the introduction of television with lengthy legal proceedings, Sarnoff agreed. The result was a system that Sarnoff believed would create an entire new industry.
Despite these successes, the widespread introduction of television would not happen for another decade. Until 1941, a complex and extremely bitter dispute over national technical standards for broadcast and reception roiled the industry. Although Sarnoff dramatically inaugurated NBC's television service at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, declaring "Now we add radio sight to sound," he was unable to convince the public to buy television sets that might not meet a future national standard. The settlement of the standards dispute in RCA's favor two years later would have lasting implications, but the entrance of the United States into the Second World War again delayed television’s arrival.
Sarnoff had entered the U. S. Army Signal Corps reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 1924 and been promoted to colonel in 1931. During the war, he was called up three times for active service. The first two occasions were relatively brief periods in 1942 in Washington and Philadelphia. In March 1944, he was assigned to the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) in England and tasked with overseeing press communications and broadcasting for the invasion of France. Widely praised for his leadership, Sarnoff also established a close friendship with the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969).
His most notable additional service after the invasion was the reestablishment of Paris's communications links with London and New York. Sarnoff was rewarded with a promotion to Brigadier General in November 1944 and was subsequently invariably referred to as "The General" by RCA staff.
Returning to civilian life in December, Sarnoff laid the groundwork for RCA’s shift to peacetime mass production of television sets, which began barely a year after the Japanese surrender. In 1947, the terminally ill James G. Harbord resigned as chairman of the board and Sarnoff was elected as his replacement. Soon afterwards, Sarnoff turned over the position of president to Frank M. Folsom (1894-1970), but kept the title of CEO, as well as strict control over the company. Before long, Sarnoff became embroiled in a series of disputes over color television that were even more heated that the pre-war standards debates.
There were actually two separate controversies over color television. The first was the CBS attempt to leapfrog monochrome television by introducing a mechanical color system in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite winning FCC approval in 1951, the CBS system failed from a number of factors, including its inexperience with manufacturing, the outbreak of the Korean War, and RCA’s successful demonstration of a prototype electronic system.
When RCA started mass producing color televisions in 1954, it ran into an unexpected obstacle. Nobody wanted to buy them. This was the second controversy, which pitted a grimly determined Sarnoff against waves of criticism from the media, industry, and government. For six years, RCA was alone in manufacturing color televisions and each year it lost money on them. However, the corner was turned in 1960, when RCA, just barely, made a net profit on color. The next half decade was perhaps Sarnoff’s finest hour, as RCA made massive profits over a runaway demand for color televisions and competitors belatedly attempted to jump into the field.
Sarnoff’s triumph in color television was his last major contribution to the industry. During the 1950s, he had become increasingly focused on his role as a public figure. He had always been a prolific writer and speaker on communications and other science issues and now expanded his subject matter to include subjects as diverse as the Cold War, education, law, and religion. Sarnoff also began seeking out honorary degrees and other awards, eventually amassing dozens of the former and hundreds of the latter. In 1967, he established the David Sarnoff Library at RCA’s David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton to house his writings, memorabilia, and awards.
In 1966, he stepped down as CEO in favor of his son Robert W. Sarnoff (1918-1997), but remained actively involved in RCA’s affairs. A serious attack of shingles in 1968 essentially ended David Sarnoff’s career. Now bedridden, he continued to insist on regular briefings from RCA staff and refused to step down as chairman of the board until the end of 1969. Now honorary chairman, Sarnoff remained hospitalized until his death on December 12, 1971.
The David Sarnoff papers are arranged in four series:
I. David Sarnoff Collection
II. News and Information Department files
III. Communications Technical Group of New York City records
Scope and Content
The focus of the David Sarnoff papers is the original David Sarnoff Collection assembled by Sarnoff to celebrate his career. However, the papers also include the extensive photographic, publicity, and administrative files created by his staff at RCA and a substantial audiovisual component.
In contrast to the documents and photographs, which have a clear distinction between the original collection and later additions, the origins of the audiovisual material is poorly documented. They are there therefore described separately, but most were probably part of the original David Sarnoff Collection.
The David Sarnoff Collection series consists of hundreds of bound volumes of documents and photographs documenting his career in electronics. Through his writings and speeches, as well as extensive press clippings and biographical material, this series shows not only what Sarnoff did, but how he wanted to be remembered.
The accession numbers on files in this series were assigned by the David Sarnoff Library. The two separate listings for books and items were combined in a new numbering system in October 1973. The relatively few items using the later system are identified with the prefix “N” before the accession number.
The Chronological biographies subseries contains hundreds of biographical articles, books, and interviews about David Sarnoff. These range from the major biography by Eugene Lyons to brief articles from the Yiddish press.
The Writings, speeches, awards, and publicity subseries subseries contains Sarnoff’s writings and speeches on a wide range of topics, including not only technology and other science issues, but also subjects as diverse as the Cold War, education, law, and religion. Sarnoff’s numerous awards and honorary degrees are also well documented. In contrast to the broad topics documented in the General scrapbooks subseries, this subseries covers individual events and writings.
The bulk of the Topical Biographies subseries consists of the massive sixty-two volume hagiography of Sarnoff written by his longtime associate Elmer E. Bucher. The subseries also includes several volumes relating to the Wisdom Society’s unauthorized biography of Sarnoff and shed light on that strange incident.
In contrast to the individual events and writings documented in the Writings, speeches, awards, and publicity scrapbook subseries, this subseries covers broad topics, such as Sarnoff’s military service, his work on committees and boards, his correspondence with prominent (and not so prominent) individuals, and RCA records.
The News and Information Department files consist primarily of photographs and publicity material on David Sarnoff. It also includes some of Sarnoff’s notes and drafts of his speeches and writings, as well as administrative files relating to the David Sarnoff Collection and David Sarnoff Library.
The administrative files maintained by the News and Information Department help document the creation and support of the David Sarnoff Collection and the David Sarnoff Library. Also notable are the drafts and source material for Looking Ahead: The Papers of David Sarnoff.
The News and Information Department’s publicity files consist mostly of clippings and press releases relating to David Sarnoff. However, some files, especially the early ones, also include Sarnoff’s notes and drafts for his speeches and writings.
To avoid duplication, files that are supplemental to those in the David Sarnoff Collection series are not listed in the inventory of this subseries. As a result, the inventory below encompasses the events and writings that Sarnoff did not decide to include in the collection he created at the David Sarnoff Library.
This small series contains extensive drafts, background material, and meeting records documenting the work of the Communications Technical Group of New York City.
This collection consists of 178 transparences (slides), 55 films, 50 videos and 162 sound recordings dating from 1936 to 1978. These materials document the life and career of David Sarnoff as well as events that include his wife, Lizette Sarnoff. Film in the collection are primarily 16mm (except for four 35mm films), the video is made up of 1” video reels, VHS, U-Matic, Betacam SP and Digital Betacam videocassettes and audio recordings are on a variety of formats including reels, cassettes, DATs and phonograph records.
The Audiovisual series was arranged into six sub-series: Biographies, Compilations, Events, Press & Media Coverage, Speeches and Travel. All materials including film, video and audio are distributed within these sub-series chronologically except for the Compilations sub-series which is alphabetical.
The Biographies sub-series is made up of audio cassettes that are duplicate copies from the David Sarnoff Phonograph Record collection. The first program, "Around the World in Stereophonic Sound" tells the story of recorded sound and refers to David Sarnoff in connection with His Service upon the Sinking of the S.S. Titanic. "The David Sarnoff Story" is a biography of Sarnoff that was produced by LIFE magazine and presented at the 100-Year Association of New York. Also included is “Strive & Succeed”, a biography created for Sarnoff’s 40th anniversary with the company.
The Compilations sub-series includes a record of Sarnoff’s career, a 10 volume set of films and phonograph records which includes various award ceremonies and speeches, his trip to Israel and versions of “Birth of an Industry” and “The David Sarnoff Story”. The original collection of film and phonograph albums were presented in individual albums. A book describing the contents of all the materials and one album containing a film can was included in this sub-series for historical purposes. There are several video copies for each film volume, including VHS, U-Matic and Digital Betacam. There are also multiple copies of the phonograph albums, including cassette and DAT versions (which are arranged individually within the various sub-series). The series also contains 3 film to tape transfers that contain transfers from various 16mm films in the collection.
The Events sub-series is made up of various events that occurred in the life of David and Lizette Sarnoff. The series contains films of award presentations highlighting Mrs. Lizette Sarnoff and her work with Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University that include celebrities Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. There is a videocassette copy of this event as well the Sarnoff’s 50th Wedding Anniversary, Sarnoff’s visit with President Truman and the funeral of David Sarnoff. Also included here are many tribute and award ceremonies given for Sarnoff by organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Overseas Press Club and a tribute by President Lyndon Johnson. The sound recordings contain events saluting Sarnoff and various luncheons and ceremonies at which he often gave remarks.
The Press & Media Coverage sub-series includes film and audio created for and by the media. Sarnoff makes a statement from his desk in a film made for the Army Reserve entitled “This is Reality”. There are a couple of local television interviews and the “Sarnoff/Ubell Interview”, where General Sarnoff sits with Earl Ubell of CBS-TV on the lawn of the David Sarnoff Research Center as a backdrop for their interview. There are also sound recordings of interviews and presentations to the press.
The Speeches sub-series consists of the many speeches David Sarnoff gave throughout his career. Of note is the “Birth of an Industry” speech given at the 1939 World’s Fair about the creation of television. Also included is “Early Bird Satellite”, a talk Sarnoff gives on his predictions for satellite technology.
The Travel sub-series primarily contains several versions of a film depicting a tour of Japan & China taken in 1960 by David Sarnoff, his wife, Lizette and the Mazur’s (friends of the Sarnoff’s). A sound recording of narration that accompanies a slide presentation from this trip (dated October 11-November 1, 1960) is also included. Home movie footage of a trip taken to Scotland dating from 1936 which shows a view from the boat and various people in Scotland. Press Coverage of General Sarnoff on a Trip to Hong Kong from 1967 and another of Sarnoff receiving the key to Tokyo is the subject of two films.
Several of the films have been digitized for viewing and it is noted if a surrogate exists.
Some of the video material is on Digital Betacam videocassettes which cannot be viewed at this time.
Existence and Location of Copies
View selected items online in the Hagley Digital Archives.
This collection is open for research.
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.
Film material is housed in cold storage and must reacclimate prior to viewing (Film Cans 1-47). Please contact the Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department at least 48 hours in advance of research visit.
Some items under copyright to RCA Trademark Management SAS.
Language of Materials
In 2009, along with the rest of the archival collections of the David Sarnoff Library, the David Sarnoff papers were donated to the Hagley Museum and Library.
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- David Sarnoff papers
- 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.