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Electronic Treasures of the David Sarnoff Collection

Rare artifacts from the Golden Age of radio and television are featured in a new exhibition

1 min read
Electronic Treasures of the David Sarnoff Collection
Photo: Suzanne Kantak

Photo: Suzanne Kantak
David Sarnoff’s garrison cap, RCA employee ID badge, military decorations, appointment orders:  Neither a scientist nor an inventor, RCA chairman David Sarnoff nevertheless oversaw the development of the technologies that came to define the information age. Under his leadership, RCA organized the first radio broadcasting network, perfected black-and-white and color television, and established a research center in Princeton, N.J., that made crucial contributions to digital computing, integrated circuitry, and flat-panel displays.

Born in what is now Belarus in 1891, Sarnoff was a fervent patriot of his adopted country. Upon hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he sent a telegram to the White House: “All our facilities are ready and at your instant service. We await your commands.”

RCA scientists and engineers went on to make major advances in military radar and sonar, as well as mobile broadcasting equipment. Dwight D. Eisenhower recruited Sarnoff to coordinate all radio traffic for the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944. In December of that year, Sarnoff was made a brigadier general, as indicated by the sterling silver star on his garrison cap. From then on, he would be known as “General Sarnoff” or “The General.”

The history of the Radio Corporation of America is in many ways the history of 20th-century American innovation. From the company’s founding in 1919 to its sale in 1986, the RCA name was synonymous with products that shaped how Americans lived and worked. Long before the rise of Silicon Valley, RCA Laboratories, in Princeton, N.J., was at the center of the nation’s consumer electronics industry, harnessing the creative impulses of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians to systematize the invention of new technologies.

In October, a new exhibition highlighting RCA’s rich history opens at the College of New Jersey, in Ewing. It draws from the more than 6000 artifacts that the college inherited after the David Sarnoff Library—RCA’s main technical archive and museum—closed in 2009. (The IEEE Foundation funded a new study center connected to the exhibition.) The installation covers the development of radio, television, and broadcasting, as well as RCA’s work in liquid-crystal displays, electron microscopy, solid-state physics, and computers.

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Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford
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Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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