This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
THE TITANIC AND DAVID SARNOFF
DAVID SARNOFF'S TITANIC LIE THAT STILL REFUSES TO GO AWAY
(From Radio Recall, August 2012)
With the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the liner Titanic, the myth of David Sarnoff's
supposed role in it is once again afloat. Surf the Internet and you can find literally hundreds of stories reaffirming that little David, as a wireless operator for the Marconi Company, picked up the faint signals from the sinking ship, and for 72 hours stayed at his board, relaying the information
on the survivors.
Sarnoff first concocted this
outrageous falsehood in a 1923
interview with a writer for the
American Magazine. From there
the story spread around the
globe and it now appears in
hundreds of different sources, web sites, and
books. One would assume that the OTR
community would be aware the story is pure bunk,
but an Informal survey of OTR fans reflects that one
third of them think it's true, another third know it's
myth, and the remaining third are uncertain.
In the interest of truth and justice, we are here
reprinting an article from a 1987 RADIO RECALL
article by Catherine Heinz, the former Director of
the Broadcast Pioneers' Library in Washington, DC.
MYTHING IN ACTION
BY Catherine Heinz © 1986
[Originally publlshed in "Broadcast Pioneers
LIbrary Reports" Fall/Wlnter 1986. Reprinted
by permission of author]
The myths about the reading figures in
American broadcasting die hard and ever so painfully. Surely no myth has ever been given more
grand treatment than the story of young David
Sarnoff hearing over his receiver the message from
the S. S. Titanic that it had hit an iceberg and was
about to sink. In most versions of the story, Sarnoff
stayed at his post, atop the Wanamaker Store in
Manhattan for 72 hours and President Taft ordered
all other wireless stations to shut down, lest they
interfere with Sarnoff's reception.
It's a truly wonderful tale and when I researched
Sarnoff's obituary for The Washington Post, I ran
into the story at every tum. It appeared in many
magazines, including Forbes, Fortune, and Time and authoritative books, including Barnouw's
"Tower of Babel.' And yes, I repeated the tale in my
obituary of Sarnoff, written for The Post after his
death in December 1971.
The story has one major flaw; it isn't true. It
never was true. Carl Dreher, an RCA engineer and
Sarnoff admirer in his little-noticed book, "Sarnoff:
An American Success" proves the story is false.
Dreher established that the rig in Wanamakers was
too small to have received the Titanic signals at that
distance and furthermore, the store was crosed that
day. All of the major New York City papers covered
the Titanic disaster in great detail but Sarnoff was
never mentioned in those contemporary accounts.
The myth was shattered for good with the
publication of the 1986 book, "The General" a
Sarnoff biography by Kenneth Bilby, a Sarnoff
associate of over 20 years. Bilby dutifully tells the
accepted version of the story but then refutes it by
proving that the Wanamaker station was closed
during the Titanic disaster upon orders of the
Marconi Company so it would not intertere with its
four more powerful coastal stations. Bilby
concludes that the facts establish that no single
wireless operator or station monopolized the airtraffic related to the Titanic.
Bilby notes that Sarnoff's first claim to this
bogus heroic deed did not occur until 1923, some
eleven years after the sinking, when Sarnoff told
the story to an interviewer for American Magazine.
No one challenged the deception and the snowball
01 legend began to roll, says Bilby. When Sarnoff
told the story in his later years, Bilby relates, he told
it with such a ring of truth, the lie had become
factual in his inner conviction.