Maxwell, Marconi, and Sarnoff

    When you drive from the main campus of Princeton University to its Forestal campus, you have to go through a section of the highway called "US-1." On your right-hand side, you will see a sign saying "Sarnoff Corporation." Who was Sarnoff?

  • David Sarnoff was born in 1891 in Minsk (Belarus) and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1900. In 1906, when he was fifteen years old, he met in New York a man from Italy named Gugliemo Marconi. Based on vacuum-tube technology, Sarnoff built a company known to us as RCA (Radio Corporation of America), and developed radios and TVs which we use these days. David Sarnoff died in 1971. The Sarnoff Corporation was set up in Princeton as RCA's David Sarnoff Laboratory in the early 1950s. The Laboratory was under the management of GTE after RCA became weak in the 1990s. These days, the laboratory enjoys its own management.

    Sarnoff was responsible for making electronics the inseparable part of our life. He was the president of RCA until 1970. He died in 1971. David Sarnoff was the Bill Gates of the vacuum-tube era. You know of course what Maxwell did. You also know what Marconi did. Let us see how their contributions became relevant to our daily life.

      Photo of Marconi from the public domain (top). Marconi's bust at KDKA, the world's first broadcasting station, in Pittsburgh.

      Marconi's statue in Washington,
      3 km north of the White House.

  • In 1895, without wire, Gugliemo Marconi was able to send his signal to a receiver two kilometers away (in Italy) and 20 kilometers away in 1896 (in England). Marconi did not go to collage. But, when he was a teenager, he studied Maxwell's equations and became determined to test radiation and propagation of electromagnetic waves, while nobody believed he would be successful. He received the Nobel prize in physics in 1909. Needless to say, Marconi was an exceptional experimentalist. He was also an excellent businessman. After coming to the United States in 1900, he established a wireless communication company. He is also responsible for discovering the "ceiling" in the upper-atmosphere which reflects electromagnetic waves, by achieving wireless communication between New York and Australia.

    In addition, Marconi was an expert on women. While doing his business in New York, he had many mistresses. Since he could not entertain all of them at the same time, he had to hire messenger boys who would carry to them flowers and personal notes from Marconi. At the age of 15, David Sarnoff was one of Marconi's messenger boys.

    I am writing this article because many people are asking me why I spent so much energy in maintaining the communication system known to you as I have been fooling around with vacuum tubes when I was in high school. Later, I became interested in short wave radios and was listening to the world. While listening, I was interested in building a strong transmitter to talk to the world. It appears that I have to settle with the internet/web system I am operating for the physics community.

    Let us now get into the main story. Marconi's ideas indeed flourished in the United States. In a relatively short period after coming to New York in 1900, Marconi established a company selling communication equipments to ocean-going ships. His company also handled trans-Atlantic telegraphs. While he was showing his success, three Americans got on the bandwagon. They were Lee de Forest, Howard Armstrong, and David Sarnoff.

  • Lee de Forest was an Edison-type engineer. While he was fooling around with vacuum tubes, he somehow added a grid to one of his tubes. He discovered that the voltage on the grid can change the current from anode to cathode.

    If you are not familiar with vacuum tubes, he was the man who found out why a transistor has to have three prongs, instead of two. De Forest did not understand how his vacuum tubes (triodes) worked, but was able to set up his broadcasting company 20 times, and went bankrupt 20 times (sometimes after bitter court battles). He had to face the disaster after disaster because he did not understand the competition in business.

  • Edwin Howard Armstrong. Lee de Forest's main business rival was Howard Armstrong. He studied under Professor Michael Pupin who was America's No. 1 man on Maxwell's equations at that time. If de Forest gets the credit for inventing vacuum tubes, Armstrong was the first circuit theorist. He had a clear understanding of de Forest's triode while de Forest did not understand his own invention. Thus, Armstrong was able to get ahead by developing circuits where vacuum tubes serve as components. Indeed, Armstrong was the person who developed the concepts and techniques of
    1. multi-stage amplification (called regeneration technique),
    2. heterodyne technique (conversion of a high-frequency radio wave to a different frequency while keeping the signal intact),
    3. FM (you should know the difference between AM and FM).
    Armstrong developed the regeneration technique before World War I, and the heterodyne and FM during the period between WWI and WWII.

  • David Sarnoff was an immigrant from Belarus, and had to deliver newspapers for living before he became Marconi's personal messenger when he was 15 years old. As he grew up, he became Marconi's most trusted manager. Sarnoff was not a scientist, but was able to appreciate Armstrong's inventions. Eventually, Sarnoff hired Armstrong in his own company named RCA (Radio Corporation of America), and used all of Armstrong's inventions for his business purposes. Sarnoff then lost interest in Armstrong and fired him, because he became interested in a new animal called television. After completing the black-white TV, Sarnoff was not satisfied. In 1949, Sarnoff decided to invest 150 million dollars to the development of color TVs. It is my understanding that the color TV was developed in David Sarnoff Laboratory in Princeton.

    After the United States decided to join World War I, all three of the above-mentioned Americans, together with their equipments and labs, became mobilized to the war effort. While this was going on, one of the newspaper companies in Pittsburgh developed the idea of news broadcast using this new wireless communication system. Indeed, the first commercial radio station with regular broadcasting program was Pittsburgh's KDKA station, and this station is still operating. The station covered the U.S. presidential election returns in 1920. Please click here for an image of the transmitter the station used for the broadcast. This 100-watt transmitter was manufactured by Westinghouse Electric Co. and is now in Westinghouse Museum near Pittsburgh.

      I once owned this McIntosh amplifier.
    RCA's David Sarnoff was not an idle spectator. He bought up 26 radio stations in the United States and formed a network called NBC in 1926. It is interesting to note that Sarnoff was not the first one to use radio to broadcast news. He was, instead, interested in music. He was obsessed with the technology of improving radio's sound quality.

    He hired an Italian conductor named Arturo Toscanini to organize the legendary NBC Symphony Orchestra. Sarnoff's obsession to music quality led to numerous hi-fi (high-fedility) sets in the 1950s, such as McIntosh amplifiers. This unit has three transformers. One is for power source. The system operates on 450 Volts DC. The remaining two are for impedance adjustment between output vacuum tubes and the speakers. For music-loving physicists of my age, owning a McIntosh unit was as prestigious as driving a BMW car.

    As a business man, he was always very skilful in using other people's inventions without paying royalties. He used Howard Armstrong's inventions but did not pay him a single penny of royalty until Armstrong's widow won a court battle on this issue.

    In the 1950s, a new revolution started taking place in electronic industry. Transistors!! This revolution is still going in terms of micro-electronics, and continuing toward quantum communication. However, this revolution is possible only because David Sarnoff was able to capitalize Maxwell's theory and Marconi's invention.

    As I said before, I was an electronics bug when I was in my high school, and I was in Korea then. I came to the United States after my high school graduation in 1954. Thus, I can talk about how Japanese and Korean broadcasting industries developed.

  • While Sarnoff was busy in organizing his NBC network in the United States, Japanese installed their first broadcasting stations in Tokyo and Osaka in 1925, with 130,000 and 50,000 listeners respectively. The opening ceremony started with their national anthem, and then speeches by politicians. Then there was a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 by the brass band of Japan's military academy. In 1956, the original broadcasting station became a museum, and I was very happy to visit this place in 1995. I noticed there the 220-watt transmitter Japanese used for there first radio broadcast. This machine was originally manufactured by General Electric Company of the United States for wireless telephones, but was modified by Japanese engineers to a radio transmitter.

    In Japan at that time, military men were becoming stronger, and they were interested in expanding their territory in Asia's mainland. The Korean Peninsula was under their control. They set up a powerful broadcasting station in Seoul in order to talk to Asians in the Asian mainland in 1927. Japanese were indeed quick in establishing their network system called NHK (Nihon Hohio Kyokai = Japanese Broadcasting Association).

  • Japanese were also very quick to see that radio is a very powerful political instrument, and their politicians made heavy investments in electronics for their territorial expansion in South-East Asia. During the Pacific War, the Tokyo Roses provided 24-hour "entertainment" to American soldiers fighting against their Japanese soldiers.

    I was in Korea at that time. In 1945, Japanese went home and Americans moved in. I became interested in electronics while repairing Japanese-made radio sets with American parts. Japanese radios used the vacuum tube numbered "58" for high-frequency amplification, but the American equivalent was "6SK7" with a different filament voltage. Thus, I had to rewind the power-supply transformers. Indeed good old days.

    Of course, my parents were quite happy with the way I was developing my talent, and my father was able to obtain a shortwave radio from an American source in 1951. It was the Hallicrafters model S-38. I then started listening to the world. I was able to pick up the Voice of America programs coming from California. The programs I enjoyed most were Japanese programs. I still pick up Japanese radio programs in my office.

  • During the Korean War period (1950-53), Japanese economy started picking up the pace, and their electronic industry started becoming active and innovative. During this period, Americans started mass-producing tape recorders. In Korea, tape recorders were very expensive, but my high school had one made my an American company called Ampex. I was able to do something with them.

    At that time, the FM stereo was not thinkable. However, Japanese engineers were interested in developing stereo broadcast with two separate AM transmitters. In July 1953, NHK's Tokyo station used its two AM stations (JOAK1 and JOAK2) to broadcast Nejiko Suwa's performance of violin concerto No. 3 by Saint Saens. I do not know how it worked out in Tokyo, but I was in Korea and was able to pick up the program using my shortwave radio. The shortwave version was still monophonic.

    I recorded Suwa's historic performance using the Ampex tape recorder I borrowed from my high school. I often tell this story to my Japanese friends in order to impress them. Why is Ms. Suwa so important? There are three Japanese personalities responsible for reconstructing their morale after the disastrous defeat in the Pacific War. The first one was Yukawa Hideki (Nobel 1949), the second one was Misora Hibari, and the third Suwa Nejiko. Suwa studied in France, and became the first-class world-class violinist in Europe. The performance I recorded was her first one in Japan after her return from France after World War II.

  • Let us hear this concerto to see how beautiful the music is.

Who was Suwa Nejiko?

    I am illiterate in music. I cannot make sense out of those bean sprouts spread over five horizontal lines. Yet, I can put up good music talks when I meet professional singers and players. How is it possible?. Until 1954, I used my shortwave radio to listen to the world. Japan's NHK from Tokyo was my favorite station.

    My Japanese friends become impressed when I tell them about their Suwa Nejiko. Miss Suwa's childhood tutor was a Russian lady who fled to Japan after the Bolshevik revolution. This tutor recommended Nejiko to her Russian colleagues in Paris. While studying there, German troops occupied Paris in 1940. Since Japan and German were allies at that time, there were no reasons for her to be against Germany.

    In fact, she worked for German government and was awarded a violin of historical significance in 1943 by Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's propaganda man) . After the war, she came back to her country. However, Japan was under American occupation, and he Nazi collaboration was not a good personaly history. After the peace treaty of 1952, she became the music star admired by every Japanese, and some Koreans including myself.

    Likewise, I have a tendency to pick up new communication technologies to satisfy my curiosity and achieve my professional goal. These days, the newest technology is the webpage. It is not appropriate to say here what my ultimate professional goal is. However, I am allowed to say what I learned from others. TV commercials can be regarded as pollutions in communication. On the other hand, they became the integral part of communication. Have you seen TV commercials without women? You would agree that I use this technique to attract the viewers. Please visit often because I always update those photos. You will then know what my professional goal in physics is.

  • I enjoyed writing this article. I hope I could write this kind of articles more often. It is my understanding that Russians have a different history of wireless communication. I would like to invite my Russian colleagues to write their version, together with their own experience with communication technologies. I would like to thank Victor Kim, Matteo Paris, and Lev Okun for sending me their commonents.
    Click here for the Russian history of radio communication.

Y. S. Kim (October 2002).
Modified as needed, and last modified December 2010.