Electronic Treasures of the David Sarnoff Collection in IEEE Spectrum

Sarnoff Collection

Radiola No. 26 (c. 1925). Photo by Suzanne Kantak

September 30, 2013 - Ewing, NJ

By Benjamin Gross

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. The stories it reveals highlight the challenges of managing complex technical projects and the effects of social, economic, and political trends on industrial research and development.

About Benjamin Gross

Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia, wrote about RCA’s attempts to commercialize the liquid-crystal display in IEEE Spectrum’s November 2012 issue. He returns this month to describe artifacts from the Sarnoff Collection, objects that “illustrate the evolution of telecommunications through the 20th century,” he says. “The Sarnoff Collection is one of the great treasure troves of American electronic history.”

Link to IEEE Spectrum

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