Thursday, November 8, 2007

David Sarnoff: Method, Motive, and Opportunity

I have written elsewhere--online and off--about some of the fast ones that David Sarnoff pulled during his career. He rewrote history to cast himself as a "hero" of the sinking of the Titanic. He stole the most important patent in radio, Edwin Howard Armstrong's super-regenerative circuit, from the inventor. Later, he tried to take over FM, another Armstrong invention. When that failed, he ruined Armstrong by deft political manipulation--and Armstrong committed suicide.

(Perhaps Armstrong would have taken a dive from a skyscraper anyway, but with what Sarnoff pulled on him, one can't help but wonder if Sarnoff was the last straw.)

Sarnoff also beat Philo Farnsworth out of his television patent. And he tried to knock Crosley out of the radio business--but failed. When RCA lost its lawsuit against Crosley Radio, the suit claiming that Crosley was using the Armstrong patent without license--when Crosley really owned a license and was paying royalties per the standard schedule--it must was one of the greatest failures of Sarnoff's career.

With his ego, Sarnoff must have been mortally offended. But there was more. Crosley had not only "stolen" form Sarnoff and outmaneuvered him in the halls of justice; he had succeeded where Sarnoff failed. Seven years before Crosley introduced the Harko, the radio that sparked the radio revolution in 1921, David Sarnoff had tried to get his superiors at RCA to bring out a low-cost radio and do what Crosley ended up doing.

But Sarnoff was rejected. And so while Sarnoff was worrying over phonograph sales and juggling patents, Crosley was fulfilling the role of the Prometheus of radio that Sarnoff had wanted. Hence, it was Powel Crosley and not David Sarnoff who started the radio revolution.

To add insult to injury, Crosley was the reason that the radio patent pool was established--leaving Sarnoff bereft of something he had stolen.

But there was nothing David Sarnoff could do about it--or was there? How is it that Powel Crosley, Jr. almost disappeared from history? Crosley, the man who built the most powerful commercial radio station in North America? The creator of one of the first 100 radio stations in the U.S., a man who consistently led in breaking the barriers to higher power for more than a decade, and who almost single-handedly established the market for radios and touched off the broadcast industry.

It makes no sense that a man of such achievement could simply be forgotten. But neither Crosley nor his creations are mentioned in most radio histories. Historians seem to ignore Crosley's accomplishments, including his place as the biggest radio manufacturer in the world. Powel Crosley, Jr. inventor, ace marketer, pioneering broadcaster, automaker, and so much more is referred to as an inventor in a garage in the most celebrated chronicle of the Radio Age, Empire of the Air, by Tom Lewis. And Crosley is not mentioned at all in the Ken Burns documentary based on that book. (I do recommend the book; the diminuation of Crosley's importance aside, Empire of the Air is a book that every technology and history enthusiast ought to read.)

Not that I blame Tom Lewis, or Ken Burns. I believe that they, like other historians, were not aware of Crosley's importance. This and Crosley being ignored by others may well be an after-effect of David Sarnoff's revenge. Sarnoff, well-known for his ego and today for rewriting history, may well have "helped" Powel Crosley, Jr. disappear from the rolls of radio history--until the beginning of the 21st Century, when I began writing Crosley.

How could Sarnoff have anything to do with it? Well, he was firmly ensconced at the center of the media industry--New York. He outlived Crosley by a decade, and he had the contacts to persuade journalists and book writers to omit Crosley from history. It is easy to see him squeezing out revenge for Crosley having bested him.

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