Delaware Public Media

History Matters: David Sarnoff Library collection

Jan 31, 2014

History Matters digs into the Delaware Historical Society’s archives each month to explore connections between key people, places, and events in history and present-day news.

January’s History Matters visits the David Sarnoff Library collection at the Hagley Museum and Library to examine one man's impact on communication technology.

“Work and live to serve others, to leave the world a little better than you found it and garner for yourself as much peace of mind as you can. This is happiness.” - David Sarnoff

History Matters: David Sarnoff collection

Delaware Public Media visits the Hagley Museum and Library to delve into the David Sarnoff Library Collection. (Producer/Videographer/Editor: Ben Szmidt):

Hagley Museum is in the process of cataloging the papers and other materials from the long-time RCA president. It received the collection in 2009 when the Sarnoff Library in Princeton, New Jersey closed.

David Sarnoff was born in Belarus in 1892 and came to New York City when he was 9 years old. Sarnoff began his career in media shortly after arriving, realizing that he could make good money as a newspaper distributor. In 1906, Sarnoff's father became incapacitated by tuberculosis, so he took a job with Marconi Wireless as a telegrapher. Little did Sarnoff know that this would start a life long career in electronic communication.

Sarnoff quickly rose within Marconi, rising from telegrapher to commercial manager within 13 years. In that time period, General Electric bought Marconi's American radio operation and turned it into the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It was with RCA that Sarnoff was able to realize his dream of turning radios, then only used by major businesses, into a powerful mass communication tool.

"He thought that there ought to be a radio in every person's home," said David Burdash, Project Archivist at the Hagley Museum and Library. "He knew just enough science to be able promote it very well. He was a cheerleader for RCA."

Sarnoff continued to rise through the ranks of RCA until he became president in 1930.

Sarnoff's military career is perhaps as impressive as his business career. Sarnoff served in both World War I and World War II, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General. He led the signal corps and was part of President Eisenhower's communications staff.

"He preferred to be called General Sarnoff," said Burdash. "Many of the records after the 1940s were directed toward 'The General' at RCA and everybody knew where they would go."

One of Sarnoff's most notable characteristics was that he saved everything from his business and military careers.

"He was infatuated with what people thought about how he prepared for each and every event that he attended," said Burdash.

After Sarnoff's death, his personal collection was combined with other technical documents and kept at the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton, NJ. When the library closed in 2009, the 3,000 linear feet of documents was donated to the Hagley Museum and Library, which is using a $291,000 grant it was recently awarded to finish cataloging the collection within three years.

"Something that has influenced the 20th century so much should not be neglected," said Burdash. "These records are not only a tale of RCA but a tale of the world. Everything to what's being done today is based on what he thought about radio."

This piece is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.