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The Sarnoff Collection

The Department of Communication Studies initiated the transfer of David Sarnoff Library inventions to The College of New Jersey.



Great Expectations: How “Titanic” Burst the Wireless Technology Bubble

“Innovations in Crisis Communication” panel commemorates 100th anniversary of Titanic sinking, showcases Titanic-related memorabilia from career of RCA’s David Sarnoff

He grew up in a Russian shtetl and planned to become a rabbi, but moved to America instead. As a young telegrapher, he was among the operators who received the Titanic’s original SOS message. During World War II, he earned the rank of general as a communications advisor for Eisenhower.

As the head of Radio Corporation of America, he oversaw the development of the transistor, color television, electron microscope, LCD and music synthesizer, and conceived of mass media as we understand it today.

David Sarnoff had something like a real-life Forrest Gump experience, and starting in April, his life story will be on display in Roscoe West Hall.

In 2009, the College and the Sarnoff family negotiated the transportation of part of the David Sarnoff Library from its home at the former RCA headquarters in West Windsor — from whichSarnoff Corp., which manages the space, has decided to evict it — to the second floor of the College’s old library. John Pollock, chair of communication studies, said thecollection is slated to open late April and described the acquisition as a great opportunity for the College.

This electron microscope — the first, according to John Laughton — will appear as part of the David Sarnoff collection in the old library. (Photo courtesy of John Laughton)

“Before there was a Silicon Valley, there was a New Jersey,” he said. “New Jersey was an incubator for all kinds of technological innovation from the mid-19th century on. Sarnoff is a major part of that story. He’s basically the Henry Ford of the whole radio industry in America.”

The collection includes an array of technologies developed by Sarnoff’s RCA in addition to biographical photos and memorabilia. According to Pollock, the arrangement stemmed from a casual conversation with a Swarthmore College classmate — Rosita Sarnoff, the entrepreneur’s granddaughter.

When she learned of Pollock’s position and asked if the College might host the museum, he said, “I tried to wait a nanosecond (before responding yes).”

The interest soon became department-wide and a number of communication studies professors traveled to see the collection… [Pollock] decided to write directly to Carol Bresnahan, provost and executive vice president, and then-Vice President for Advancement John Marcy about the proposal.

“I was bowled over,” Bresnahan said of her first visit to the Library. “I had no idea there was this incredibly richcollection in the history of technology so closely tied to New Jersey and just up the road.”

The Sarnoff museum was divided into two parts: the College’s collection includes early liquid crystal displays, radios and television, an electron microscope and signed photographs from Thomas Edison and U.S. presidents, among other artifacts, while the bulk of the Library’s papers and development plans will be kept by the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del.

The Sarnoff family chose the College over such interested institutions as the Smithsonian and the Henry Form museum, Polluck said, largely because of the College’s capacity to show items year-round and to a wide range of visitors, including children.

Bresnahan said a busy institution like the Smithsonian would not have had the space to show the collection intact and on a regular basis.

“We were able to say to the family, not only can you keep the collection in N.J., where it belongs, but we can create a space, with your help, that allows us to keep the collection more or less on full display,” she said.

Those involved said the museum will provide opportunities for learning across disciplinary boundaries. With seminal devices like RCA’s electron microscope and its first color televisions, they said, the collection has historical links to fields as diverse as science, engineering, marketing, sociology and journalism.

John Laughton, who joined the College as dean of the school of Arts and Communication after discussions with the Sarnoffs had begun, defined the collection’s cultural significance to the state.

A new David Sarnoff museum, scheduled to open April 1, will include a variety of RCA prototypes and memorabilia, like this vintage telephone. (Photo courtesy of John Laughton)

“New Jersey doesn’t have the best name when it comes to publicity,” he said. “People talk about New Jersey, they talk about ‘Jersey Shore,’ but there are so many other things that have to do with the contributions that this state has made in the developing technologies of the world and this is a good example of it.”

According to Laughton, it has been “estimated at being a collection worth millions of dollars but really, it’s hard to put a number on what the value is … clearly, its value is in the fact that it’s the only intact collection of thehistory of radio and television that you’ll find in one place.”

The College will be working accordingly to accommodate the collection.

“A project that ends up being this big is going to entail some additional fundraising and additional support,” Laughton said.

With the help of the Sarnoff family, who donated the collection’s contents and contributed to the space development, the College is almost finished its initial refurbishing of Roscoe West Hall’s 1968 wing, where thecollection will be housed. The College had previously allotted $400,000 for renovations to the vacant library wing, and “Sarnoff-specific” improvements — including item display, storage and security — will cost about $35,000, said Matthew Golden, vice president for College Relations and Advancement. The Sarnoffs raised about $70,000 for the effort, he said, “but we are not yet sure whether that will fund part of the renovation or be used to create an endowment that supports future needs as they arise.”

Since no funding for the museum will come from the state, Laughton said, its organizers are currently forming a fundraising committee to further develop the presentation.

Alex Magoun, who curated the Sarnoff museum in West Windsor, is serving as a consultant and will join theCollege as an adjunct next semester.

Laughton said a “town meeting,” open to students, staff and faculty, is being planned for February and will allow members of all the College’s schools to contribute their ideas for the collection’s overall vision.

“In many ways, it kind of links the sciences, the engineering, the humanities and the arts,” he said. “All of them have some piece of this collection.”


This article was written on November 17, 2010 by Matt Huston, News Editor of the Signal