Sarnoff Centenary

Within the week the Sarnoff Museum’s Centenary lecture series begins. The lectures start with “Looking Forward from Edison to RCA: Industrial Innovation in Central Jersey” presented by Paul Israel, director of the Edison Papers at Rutgers University, on Tuesday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m.

Just in time for that celebration, we have received yet another E-mail letter taking issue with our account of the invention of color television by David Sarnoff (U.S. 1, November 14, 2001). Herewith the letter, followed by a response from the curator of the Sarnoff Library.

The patent for the first color television was actually obtained by USC physics professor Willard Geer in 1944, one month before RCA. However, when RCA filed for the patent, they sued Willard Geer, but eventually lost and paid Mr. Geer $15,000.

James Campbell

Senior Planner, PB Transit & Rail Systems Inc.

Orange, California

Mr. Campbell refers to the first of Willard Geer’s color television picture tube patents, and the date that he filed it. It does not surprise me that the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) challenged the patent, or that they bought it when the USPTO granted it. The sum is not very much, and larger corporations try to keep their options open when multiple inventors are thinking along similar lines.

Because it was unclear whether RCA Laboratories’ shadow-mask cathode-ray tube, first demonstrated publicly in April 1950, would hold up as the best approach to electronic color TV, RCA joined the Technicolor Company in June to underwrite fabrication and testing of the Geer tube at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 1950-51. When RCA’s staff continued to refine the shadow-mask cathode-ray tube and concluded that Geer’s tube was much more complex to operate than the inventor hoped, RCA ended the SRI project.

SRI did, however, enjoy a visit and speech on innovation by RCA chairman David Sarnoff in 1951 for its fifth anniversary, and 46 years later returned the favor by accepting the donation of the Sarnoff Research Center, now Sarnoff Corporation, from General Electric.

Alex Magoun

Curator, David Sarnoff Library

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