David Sarnoff

David Sarnoff is the father of broadcasting. Sarnoff was a Jewish immigrant who became his family’s breadwinner at age 15. He worked as a Morse Code operator, rising up the ranks to become a supervisor. Eventually, he transitioned to radio to transmit messages over long distances.

Early radio technology was for point-to-point communications, like a long-distance walkie-talkie. AT&T used it for long-distance telephone calls and companies communicated with ships. Sarnoff saw radio as a one-to-many technology, beaming entertainment and news directly into houses. The idea was a breakthrough.

GE acquired Sarnoff’s employer, American Marconi, and renamed it the Radio Corporation of America, RCA. Sarnoff proposed that RCA focus on broadcasting. They ignored him until his broadcast of a boxing match, in 1921, proved wildly popular. Interest was strong and drove the sales of radios. Other RCA executives then understood that content would drive radio sales.

Early Radio

There were early sporadic radio broadcasters but most were banned during WWI on national security grounds. After the war ended, in 1919, broadcast networks began to spring up all around the US. The US issued commercial broadcast licenses throughout the 1920s.

One of the first uses of radio voice broadcasts was education. Tufts College professors broadcast lectures in 1922. Other colleges followed.

Commercialization began in earnest when RCA spawned the first real network, the National Broadcasting Company, NBC. They began broadcasting in 1926, using telephone lines to connect multiple stations. William Paley created the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) the following year. In 1939, antitrust regulators forced NBC to spin off the “Blue Network,” a second network they owned. The spun-off company renamed itself the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

These three networks dominated radio and television broadcasting for about 50 years until cable television became popular.

Radio Goes Global

Radio manufacturers in the United Kingdom recognized the need for content to drive radio sales. There were radio stations but they were sporadic low-quality affairs. To encourage high-quality content they formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).

Around this time, radio broadcasts popped up in major cities in the world. Radio Paris launched in 1922. German radio went online in 1923 but was seized by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels a decade later. Goebbels created modern electronic propaganda and his core methods are still in use today. Furthermore, Germany broadcast propaganda to neighboring countries who responded by broadcasting their own anti-fascist messages to Germans.

In the US, broadcast networks were primarily advertising supported. Radio manufacturers benefitted from the availability of content paid for by businesses advertising goods and services. In contrast, radio sales drove manufacturers to fund the BBC. Advertising was seen as a nuisance and eventually dropped. The first head of the BBC, Lord Reith, declared that radio broadcasting is a public service, not a commercial product. Most countries throughout the world started with the European public service model but, to some extent, transitioned to the US commercial model. Conversely, the US government-funded and launched a television network, the Public Broadcasting Service, in 1970.


Eventually, RCA moved into television (see the television entry) and NBC, CBS, and ABC became national US television networks. A smaller network, DuMont, tried unsuccessfully to compete. It was shuttered as a network in 1956 though the surviving stations recreated a new broadcast network, Fox Broadcasting Company, in 1986.

FM Radio


In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” cathode ray tube. However, by his own admission, saw no use for it in radio.

During his time at Columbia, Armstrong worked with Audion tubes and realized they could recycle a radio signal, amplifying it by sending it repeatedly through the tube. Further, by reversing the process, Armstrong could amplify the reception of a radio signal as well.

de Forest, by his own admission, was focused on using the tube to amplify telephone signals. He had no interest in radio signals.

Patent War

Companies licensed the tube from both Armstrong and de Forest then fought one another. AT&T initially supported de Forest whereas RCA supported Armstrong. At one point, due to licensing, Armstrong was the largest shareholder in RCA. But RCA eventually decided to side with de Forest, abandoning Armstrong, who continued his lawsuits.

Litigation continued with de Forest losing all the early rounds. Eventually, he appended his initial tube patent to focus not specifically on radio waves but, more generally, on electricity, and won.

The definitive Supreme Court opinion issued in 1932. The third Supreme Court decision in the case, issued two decades after the patent applications were filed, suggests the Court was exhausted by the ongoing litigation. The Court reasoned the patent holder is whomever first makes a thing, not who innovates various uses from it (a position that would change, later, as the law and the Court changed). There is an undertone that Armstrong and de Forest should have settled the case long ago and cross-licensed the technology.

FM Radio

During this time Armstrong extended uses for the tube, inventing FM that had much cleaner sound than AM. Armstrong offered the FM patent to his old friend Sarnoff, who had risen to become CEO of RCA and creator of the National Broadcasting Corporation. Sarnoff saw FM as an enormous breakthrough but, during the Depression, did not think buyers would pay for new receivers and did not want to incur the expense of new transmitters.

RCA had first right of refusal for the technology but failed to strike a deal. Eventually, Armstrong commercialized his radios, selling $5 millions of RCA shares and created a company to compete with RCA and its broadcasters. His company had $2M/year in revenue but was spending as much on expansion.

With never-ending patent battles, and no money left ー and obsessed on the court cases ー his wife of 31 years left him on Jan. 1, 1954. He soon after committed suicide at age 63. The case did not definitively end until Oct. 9, 1967, after a Supreme Court forced the last settlement, by Motorola.

Besides FM radio, Armstrong also invented the Superheterodyne receiver, that used a series of filters to more accurately and cleanly tune into a radio station.


Before Farnsworth, there were various types of mechanical TV that used spinning disks (Nipkow disks) and electrical transmitters, none of which ever gained traction. John Logie Baird invented the most widely known mechanical TV.

Electrical Television

Farnsworth had a small group of innovators, who invested $25,000. They eventually told him to give up so he and his team ー he was self-taught, but his co-innovators were from top schools, including MIT ー worked for free. On Sept. 7, 1927, they managed to televise movement of a single line. They followed up by televising movies a mile. Their lab was in LA.

Farnsworth invented electronic television and filed for a patent Jan. 7, 1927. Farnsworth received two patents in Aug. 1930, one for the camera and another for the receiver.

Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin was working for RCA bigwig David Sarnoff (see Armstrong) on the east coast. Farnsworth had an initial investment of $100,000 and virtually unlimited future funding. Eventually, Zworkin requested a visit to Farnsworth’s lab.

RCA Steals Farnsworth’s Technology

Farnsworth’s motives for allowing them in were unclear; historians speculate they thought Zworkin and RCA (or Westinghouse, his prior employer) would license his technology and patents rather than insist on buying the company. Significantly, Farnsworth did not want to sell his company. In April 1931, Sarnoff visited Farnsworth’ lab.

Notwithstanding no real IP, Zworkin had filed a patent in 1923 for an unfinished television. Eventually, in 1935, patent examiners declared Zworykin’s application did not describe a workable innovation leaving Farnsworth the sole patent holder for television.

Indeed, Sarnoff didn’t care and simply ignored the patents. Eventually, WWII eventually started and no television sets were sold. After the war, RCA licensed the patents for $1 million plus a royalty, though the patents were close to expiration. Farnsworth, the innovator of television, never made money from television and died, poor, in 1971.