Broadway play spotlights man who brought radio to the masses

by Robert Kahn

Newsday (MCT)

22 January 2008

Jimmi Simpson, left, as Philo T. Farnsworth and Hank Azaria, as David Sarnoff, co-star in "The Farnsworth Invention," Aaron Sorkin's drama about the race to invent television. (Ari Mintz/Newsday/MCT) 

In Broadway’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” broadcasting pioneer David Sarnoff is celebrated as the earliest and most fervent backer of a new technology: television.

Long before popularizing the small screen, though, Sarnoff - who founded the National Broadcasting Company and headed its parent, RCA - brought radio to the masses, using Suffolk County, N.Y., as a hub for the world’s most mammoth wireless network. This was when “wireless” was synonymous with radio, not cell phones or BlackBerries.

Sarnoff’s legacy on Long Island today is a 2,000-acre nature preserve in the pine barrens that once was home to a necklace of 410-foot steel antennae and now, in an unlikely coda to a technological life, provides shelter for hog-nosed snakes and red-tailed hawks.

“The Farnsworth Invention,” from writer Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”), centers on the conflict that pitted Sarnoff against Philo T. Farnsworth, the “boy genius” who invented television as a high school student in 1927. Their legal battle, which raged through the post-Depression era, became known as one of the tragic examples of an industrial force using its might to crush a more legitimate patent owner.

Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant to the Lower East Side, was considered a boy genius himself, having been credited with picking up and deciphering the message that the Titanic was sinking while working as a telegraph operator for the Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company, a progenitor of RCA.

It was during his time as the “assistant traffic manager” at Marconi Wireless that Sarnoff had the idea for a “radio music box,” a device that would bring radio into the homes of America.

Sarnoff’s imprint on Long Island was made shortly after World War I, when the U.S. Navy realized the significance of having an American-owned overseas communication system. By then a general manager at RCA, the executive authorized the funding for what became “Radio Central” in Rocky Point. The 6,000-acre site included a research and development lab, and an administration building that connected to a series of land-consuming long-wave radio towers.

Construction began in 1920 on the main building, a Spanish-style villa meant to evoke a Hollywood mansion. Radio Central began operations on Nov. 5, 1921, on a signal from President Warren Harding, who formally opened the station by sending a radiogram from Washington addressed to all nations.

The site evolved into the world’s largest and most powerful wireless transmitting station, with two 200-watt Alexanderson alternators operating 24 hours a day and towers 1,000 feet apart and stretching across more than 2 miles.

A transmitting station necessitated a receiving station, so Sarnoff ordered that built, about 10 miles east on 2,000 acres in Riverhead, N.Y. That former receiving station is now the David A. Sarnoff Preserve in the pine barrens, named after the executive, who died in 1971 at age 80.

Historic messages were channeled through and transmitted from Radio Central: the “hot line” phone connection between the Kremlin and the White House went through the offices, as did the signals from Adm. Richard Byrd’s “Little America” broadcasts from Antarctica.

RCA Laboratories had research offices on both properties; Riverhead, in particular, was a site of early microwave research. Out of such research came models, and it’s recognized that the first model for the radio antenna that sat atop the Empire State Building was developed in Rocky Point just after World War II, says Bob Lundquist, 77, a retiree who during the 1960s and `70s was an engineer at the Rocky Point station.

“Sarnoff was the guiding light of Radio Central,” says Lundquist. “He had the dream to get this thing up and running as soon as possible.”

The use of the Rocky Point and Riverhead properties as antenna fields peaked in the late 1940s and `50s, but by the time satellite communications became prevalent, their usefulness had steadily declined, says Natalie Aurucci Stiefel, a member of the Rocky Point Historical Society and author of the book “In the Shadow of the Radio Towers.”

By the early 1960s, most of the original long-wave towers that had stood at Radio Central were dismantled and removed. The Riverhead facility closed in 1975 and Rocky Point shut down three years later.

In 1978, RCA began considering donation of the two swaths of land for some worthwhile purpose. The state Department of Environmental Conservation started negotiations to make an acquisition, says DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren.

The process was finalized that September, with the technology giant agreeing to gift both properties to the state for $1.

In 1993, the New York State Legislature enacted the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, to preserve the region’s natural resources. Both the Sarnoff Preserve and Rocky Point property are in the “core preservation” area, which provides the highest level of protection.

The pitch pine and scrub barrens provide a rich habitat for more than 30 species of butterfly, birds of prey, snakes and the Eastern box turtle.

The pact to donate the properties stipulated that RCA had to remove any equipment that could be an attractive nuisance to children. The company did so, mostly. But scattered among the brush on the land now known as the Rocky Point Natural Management Area is a reminder of the past and Sarnoff’s presence on Long Island: debris from two steel antennae, brittle with rust, lying along the bike trail.

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