RCA was formed in 1919 as a publicly-held company owned in part by AT&T and GE. David Sarnoff was named General Manager. By 1926, RCA had grasped the market for commercial radio, and purchased the WEAF and WCAP radio stations and network from AT&T, merged them with RCA’s own attempt at networking, the WJZ New York/WRC Washington chain, and formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
In 1929, RCA purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, then the world’s largest manufacturer of phonographs (including the famous “Victrola”) and phonograph records (in British English, “gramophone records”). The company then became RCA-Victor. With Victor, RCA acquired New World rights to the famous Nipper trademark. RCA Victor produced many radio-phonographs. The company also created new techniques for adding sound to film.
In 1931, RCA Victor developed and released the first 33⅓ rpm records to the public. These had the standard groove size identical to the contemporary 78rpm records, rather than the “microgroove” used in post-WWII 33⅓ “Long Play” records. The format was a commercial failure at the height of the Great Depression, partially because the records and playback equipment were expensive. The system was withdrawn from the market after about a year. (This was not the first attempt at a commercial long play record format, as Edison Records had marketed a microgroove vertically recorded disc with 20 minutes playing time per side the previous decade; the Edison long playing records were also a commercial failure.)
In 1939, RCA demonstrated the first television system at the New York World’s Fair. With the introduction of the NTSC standard, the Federal Communications Commission authorized the start of commercial television transmission on July 1, 1941. World War II slowed the deployment of television in the US, but RCA began selling television sets almost immediately after the war was over.
Antitrust concerns led to the breakup of the NBC radio networks by the FCC, a breakup affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. On October 12, 1943, the “NBC Blue” radio network was sold to Life Savers candy magnate Edward J. Noble for $8,000,000, and renamed “The Blue Network, Inc”. It would become the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1946. The “NBC Red” network retained the NBC name, and RCA retained ownership.
In 1949, RCA-Victor developed and released the first 45 rpm record to the public, answering CBS/Columbia’s 33⅓ rpm “LP”.In 1953, RCA’s color-TV standard was adopted as the standard for American color TV. RCA cameras and studio gear, particularly of the TK-40/41 series, became standard equipment at many American television network affiliates. Perhaps surprisingly David Sarnoff commented in 1955, “Television will never be a medium of entertainment”.
In many ways the story of RCA is the story of David Sarnoff. His drive and business acumen led to RCA becoming one of the largest companies in the world, successfully turning it into a conglomerate during the era of their success. However in 1970, now 69 years old, Sarnoff retired and was succeeded by his son Robert. David Sarnoff died the next year; much of RCA’s success died with him.
RCA was a major proponent of the eight-track tape cartridge, which it launched in 1965. The eight-track cartridge initially had a huge and profitable impact on the consumer marketplace. However, sales of the 8-track tape format peaked in 1974-75 as consumers increasingly favored the compact cassette format.
During the 1970s, RCA Corporation, as it was now formally known, became increasingly ossified as a company. Robert Sarnoff was ousted in a boardroom coup by Anthony Conrad, who then resigned after admitting failing to file income tax returns for six years. Despite maintaining a high standard of engineering excellence in such fields as broadcast engineering and satellite communications equipment, other businesses such as the NBC radio and television networks declined. Forays into new consumer electronics products, such as the innovative but technologically obsolescent SelectaVision videodisc system, proved money losers.
This eventually led to RCA’s sale to GE and its subsequent break-up.