David Sarnoff epitomizes the American saga of "rags to riches." He rose to become a giant in the field of telecommunications after immigrating to America from Russia with his family.
He was born in a Jewish community outside of Minsk, Russia, in 1891, to Lena and Abraham Sarnoff. He was the oldest of five children. His father departed alone to the United States in 1900. His mother, who wanted him to be a scholar, sent Sarnoff to his uncle, a rabbi, where for five years he studied the Talmud for 15 hours a day. In 1905, he and his family joined his father in America.
Two days after he arrived, he was selling newspapers on the street, an endeavor he soon expanded into a news stand. He supplemented his income by singing as a boy soprano in a synagogue choir. His father died when Sarnoff was 15, at which time he had to leave school to take a job as a messenger boy for Commercial Cable Company.
While working, he studied hard and brought himself a telegraph so that he could get a job as an operator. He was hired by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company as an operator, and utilized their technical library to further his studies in telecommunications.
Sarnoff then went to work as an operator for John Wannamaker, who had built a powerful radio station on top of his New York store. It was on April 14, 1912, that Sarnoff made a name for himself. He was alone at his telegraph when he picked up a message that the ocean liner TITANIC was sinking after running into an iceberg. He remained at his telegraph for the next 72 hours, receiving and sending out the names of the survivors. Marconi Wireless Company rewarded him by making him an inspector and instructor at their institute.
Sarnoff submitted the idea of transmitting music and voice over the air waves, demonstrating the concept in 1921 when he borrowed a Navy transmitter and helped give a blow-by-blow account of the Carpentier- Dempsey world championship fight. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) management, which had put up $2,000 for this venture, made him a vice-president. Sarnoff came up with the idea of having combination phonograph and radio sets in one cabinet, which made tremendous profits for RCA.
He was a television pioneer and had a demonstration of this new technology in 1939. Sarnoff was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Army Signal Corps Reserve in 1924 and was promoted to full colonel in 1931. He was called to active duty in 1944 and was General Eisenhower's communication consultant in World War II.
Sarnoff was commissioned a brigadier general for his World War II service and received many decorations, including the French Legion of Merit.
In July 1947, Sarnoff was elected chairman of RCA. He pursued his pioneering in television until he saw the successful use of color. Sarnoff was the recipient of many honors in peacetime, too. He was on the board of directors at the Metropolitan Opera Association and Chatham Square Music School and was a trustee of New York University and Pratt Institute. David Sarnoff will be remembered as the pioneer in American communications.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America: 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour “Sy” Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.