From crystal radios to color television: Sarnoff and RCA

The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry, by Kenneth Bilby. New York: Harper and Row. 326 pp. $20.95. Perhaps the most startling revelation in Kenneth Bilby's biography of David Sarnoff is a simple stating of fact: Sarnoff was neither the founder nor the owner of RCA.

So certain was Sarnoff's rule, so predominant his presence as the embodiment of the communications industry during its rise from crystal sets to color television, that both within and beyond the company, Sarnoff is routinely accepted as the man who began RCA, the company that remained at the cutting edge of communications innovation throughout his 50-year rule. Unknowing senior executives within RCA continue to cite him as the company's founder, their assertions echoed in many quarters of the press.

In truth, RCA was founded by the US government in the nervous days after World War I. General Electric was about to option exclusive rights to a powerful new radio transmitter to British Marconi. Concerned that such a valuable piece of communications technology was to be in foreign hands - even friendly foreign hands - the Navy persuaded General Electric to instead create a subsidiary company that would control wireless communications in this country. Part of the deal was a buy out of American Marconi; the new company was christened the Radio Corporation of America, and together with the rest of the American Marconi staff, the fledgling RCA acquired the services of 28-year-old David Sarnoff.

It would be another decade before Sarnoff became the company's president, but he began to shape the company from its first days, implementing a five-year-old vision for ``home radio,'' putting together a string or ``network'' of stations that would ultimately grow to be the National Broadcasting Company.

In the 1930s, his vision for radio a reality and RCA now independent from its parent, General Electric, Sarnoff turned his boundless energy to his next vision: television. He ``had come to view the new medium ... as a force of nearly preternatural dimensions,'' writes Bilby, ``life-transforming in its impact. And increasingly he saw himself as destiny's instrument for bringing it to America and the world.''

Sarnoff fulfilled his destiny with a mix of technological wherewithal and hard-nosed business acumen, inspiring inventors and others close to him at the same time he was driving them to exhaustion.

Bilby was one of those close to Sarnoff; for 20 years he was RCA's corporate vice-president and Sarnoff's traveling companion and confidante. Bilby passes it all on to the reader in a gentle prose style sprinkled with a pleasing mix of classical metaphors and references.

Bilby is a Sarnoff admirer: ``on the broader canvas of leadership of an emergent technology, Sarnoff assumes enduring, even heroic proportions.'' He nevertheless gives a full airing to Sarnoff's many critics - who accused him of forcing his will upon the industry in the attempt to create a monopoly for RCA - and to the preening, self-glorifying mein that manifested itself in Sarnoff's insistence that subordinates call him ``General'' (service as a communications adviser to Eisenhower in the months before D-Day had earned him the rank of brigadier general in the Army Reserve) and his shameless solicitation of honorary degrees and plaques.

Bilby probably fixes Sarnoff's significance best with a fetching bit of irony in a pair of postscript chapters on the general malaise of RCA after Sarnoff's departure in the late '60s and this year's $6 billion takeover of the company by original parent General Electric. RCA succeeded because of Sarnoff's ``visceral judgments and perceptions,'' because he ruled from the heart and not from charts, because he was never reluctant to sacrifice short-term profits on the altar of long-term research. But business today has changed. In the acquire-or-be-acquired corporate mayhem of the '80s, the mantle of management has passed to investment bankers and number-crunchers whose vision extends no further than the next quarterly earnings statement; and no company embodies this more than the new GE-RCA monolith. Were David Sarnoff alive today, there would almost surely be no place for him in the company he had shepherded to greatness.

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