Marking 85 Years of NBC

The first broadcast was 85 years ago.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011  |  Updated 6:39 PM EDT
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Marking 85 Years of NBC

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It happened 85 years ago.

A man named David Sarnoff founded the National Broadcasting Company. He was an historic figure, a giant in the history of broadcasting. When he died, The New York Times said: “His knowledge and ambition were the driving force behind the development of electronic media and their profound effect on American life.”

In September of 1926, the Radio Corporation of America, spurred by Sarnoff, announced the founding of NBC and its first broadcast was made shortly afterward. David Sarnoff was the man who was considered, because of his dominance of the communications industry over half a century, “virtually the inventor of radio and television,” the Times said.

The story of Sarnoff and NBC are intertwined. Sarnoff was an immigrant from a village near Minsk in Russia. When he arrived in the United States he was 10 years old. On the Lower East Side, where his family settled, David sold newspapers and ran errands for a butcher. He picked up extra money singing soprano in a synagogue.

He started as a $5.50 office boy for the Commercial Cable Company.

He first earned fame on the night of April 14, 1912, when the Titanic crashed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Sarnoff managed an experimental wireless station on the roof of the Wanamaker department store on Ninth Street and Broadway. He intercepted a message in dots and dashes reading: ‘’S.S. TITANIC RAN INTO ICEBERG. SINKING FAST.”

Sarnoff notified the authorities and the press, and then, for 72 hours, he translated the dots and dashes coming in from the Carpathia and other rescue ships. He managed to compile a list of more than 700 survivors; 1,500 passengers perished. Sarnoff’s achievement helped him rise to the top of the Marconi Telegraph Company of America and, ultimately, its successor, RCA, the Radio Corporation of America.

As a broadcast pioneer, Sarnoff was instrumental in the development of radio, and years later, of television. He combined a genius for scientific achievement with a genius for selling. He came up with the idea of a “radio music box” back in the early 1920s. He managed to develop mass production of the home receiver. Around that time he wrote a memo saying: “I believe that television, which is the technical name for seeing as well as hearing by radio, will come to pass in the future.”

He was a man who was way ahead of the game, and he helped give NBC a vital place in broadcast history. He encouraged the development of television, exhibiting it at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I remember seeing it for the first time as a high school kid after standing in line for hours.

He helped develop the technology of black and white and then color TV. His scientific acumen was equaled by his great skill in salesmanship.

I spoke to him once, briefly, after he was leaving a luncheon of some business group near the RCA building. “General,” I asked. “I know you grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and spoke Yiddish. What’s your favorite expression in Yiddish?”

“In your case and in mine,” he replied, “it’s 'toochis offen tisch.'”

Translation: ”Behind on the table.”

This was apparently the way businessmen said: “OK, what will you settle for? Put your final offer on the table.”

Paul Sparrow of the Newseum in Washington told me that Sarnoff was a unique figure in broadcasting history because he saw the potential of combining various stations into networks. “He saw the commercial potential of radio. He anticipated that millions of people would soon be buying radios.”

“He also,” said Sparrow, “anticipated the tremendous growth of radio and TV into a national, and then a global, force. He understood the power of networking, of broadcasting in the realms of arts and music. He helped bring broadcast news along. He understood the potential of cable. He was a genius in many ways.”

And so, as NBC marks its 85th birthday, we can honor ourselves and the man who made much of our history happen.

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