When Dick Solomon, the alien high commander in 3rd Rock from the Sun, declares, "God bless television," he is merely reflecting the feeling of most earthlings: that television is the most influential medium of the 20th century.
While some people critique its content, no one debates television's power. It is the window through which we see reality, as well as the window that permits us to escape from it. This season the average American family will watch the box more than 50 hours a week.
So it is nearly impossible to imagine that it was less than 60 years ago, in 1939, when David Sarnoff told a crowd of curious viewers, "Now we add sight to sound." Sarnoff went on to say, "It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in the troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind. This miracle of engineering skill which one day will bring the world to the home also brings a new American industry to serve man's material welfare...[Television] will become an important factor in American economic life."
And how. On that fateful day in 1939, with America recovering from its greatest depression and war rumbling in the distance, Sarnoff gave the world a look into a new life. Not only was he instrumental in creating both radio and television as we know them, he was also nearly clairvoyant in seeing how each medium would develop. He regarded black-and-white TV as only a transitional phase to color and even predicted the invention of the VCR. His stubborn pursuit of technology turned his employer, Radio Corp. of America, into a powerhouse in less than a decade.
Sarnoff was born in Uzlian, Russia, in 1891 (the year the electron was christened; he often bragged they were born the same year) and traveled steerage to New York nine years later with his family. Knowing no English, he helped support his family by selling newspapers and with other small jobs. At 15 he bought a telegraph key, learned Morse code and, after being hired as an office boy for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America, became a junior operator in 1908.
Then, like so many people in the communications business, he was at the right place at the right time. On April 14, 1912, Sarnoff was working at the Marconi station atop Wanamaker's department store when he picked up a message relayed from ships at sea: "S.S. Titanic ran into iceberg, sinking fast." For the next 72 hours, the story goes, he remained at his post, giving the world the first authentic news of the disaster. Did someone say CNN?
Sarnoff's technical ability propelled him quickly through the ranks at Marconi, and in 1915 he submitted an idea for a "radio music box" at a time when radio was mainly used in shipping and by amateur wireless enthusiasts. He believed his device would make radio a "household utility" like the piano or phonograph. "The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless," he wrote in a memo. It was regarded as commercial folly. But he would soon have another opportunity to find backing for his idea. After the Great War, in 1919, RCA was formed by General Electric to absorb Marconi's U.S. assets (including him).