Saturday, September 22, 2007

Did David Sarnoff Squeeze Crosley Out of the History Books?

In the preceding posting I referenced David Sarnoff with regards to Powel Crosley, Jr. not making it into mainstream history. I feel that David Sarnoff is in part responsible for Crosley not being remembered. Sarnoff, head of RCA, was a man known vindictiveness and his efforts in trying to rewrite history. And Crosley once defied him and won in a landmark struggle that affected the entire radio industry.

Consider Sarnoff and his ego. He was a man who spent his life striving to compensate for his poor immigrant origins (he demanded the Army title of “General” in exchange for helping with the war effort). A man willing to lie on the historic record (the disproven tale of his “heroism” in connection with handling telegraph messges from the sinking Titanic, for example). A man willing to steal intellectual and pehaps other property (the Edwin Howard Armstrong tragedy), and badger and hound a foe to death (Armstrong again).

Consider Crosley. He came from less-than-humble origins, but also knew poverty. Crosley was wilfull and hard-headed like Sarnoff. He and Sarnoff were acquainted from the very earliest days of commercial broadcasting, beginning with the Hoover radio commission in the early 1920s. Crosley was one of the founders of the NAB (sans Sarnoff).

I suspect that Crosley and Sarnoff may well have locked horns at different points during the annual meetings of the Hoover Commission, but the real conflict began when Powel and Lewis Crosley figured out that they simply had to use the famous Armstrong circuit in their radios, or face being demolished by the competition. RCA controlled the patent and was not granting any new licenses for its use--especially not to the Crosley Manufacturing Company. After all, the Cincinnati manufacturer had caught RCA and the associated Westinghouse and General Electric off-guard and grabbed most of the early consumer market low-cost Crosley sets.

Powel first tried getting past the block by contracting with an Armstrong patent licensee (the Tri-City Manufacturing Company of Iowa) to build Crosley sets with the Armstrong circuit included. Three weeks later, Powel learned that an Armstrong-licensed radio manufacturer was for sale--in his hometown of Cincinnati, yet. Powel jumped at the opportunity, paying $40,000 for the Precision Equipment Company.

Crosley brought Precision’s “Ace” line of radios into his production facilities and began turning out Crosley and Ace sets, paying royalties to RCA all along. Ace was phased out over the next year. In the meantime, Sarnoff and other RCA executives took exception to Crosley, not an original, direct licensee of their patent, using the technology. So RCA filed suit. Crosley won the suit in 1927, earning the emnity of Sarnoff forever, and giving Sarnoff motivation.

What I believe may have happened is that Sarnoff used his connections with the press (he was on the spot with most of it in New York) to keep the spotlight off Crosley as much as possible. He outlived Crosley by a decade, and was in an excellent position to give the chroniclers of radio history his version of the story. How else can you explain the man who built most powerful commercial broadcast station ever, who sparked the massive consumer demand for radios and programming that marked the beginning of the broadcast industry--and more--not the history books?


Tom Bartlett said...

Like you, I had followed the career of Armstrong and his tragic ending. Thanks for the information, I was not aware of the Crosley connection with Armstrong. Any suggestions for further research and/or reading about the Crosley-Armstrong connection?
Many Thanks,
Tom Bartlett

Michael A. Banks said...

One line of research I want to follow is just going through about 10 years (1924 through (1934) of radio trade magazines. The library in Cincinnati has a good collection, but I have only looked thorugh a few issues of two titles. I did this with aviation magazines and was able to piece together useful information that wasn't directly related. This also helps isolate when they might have been at the same place at the same time. I know they were on at least one committee together on the early Hoover commission.

I'd say read anything biographical about Sarnoff, too--especially old articles. And have a look for employees who left Crosley for RCA (engineering and management). Some may still be around and open to interivews.

Steve Scherer said...

There's a good book, "The Last Lone Inventor" that covers the life of Philo T. Farnsworth and his struggle with Sarnoff.

I enjoyed your Crosley book.