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RCA Corporation - Lehman Brothers Collection

RCA Corporation

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By the end of World War I, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America was the only company in the United States that was equipped to operate transatlantic radio and telegraph communications. Since Marconi was entirely owned by a foreign company—the British Marconi Company—the U.S. government wanted to establish a domestic company with such capabilities. At the prompting of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the undersecretary of the navy, General Electric (GE) formed a privately owned corporation to acquire the assets of American Marconi. In 1919 the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was incorporated, and within a month it had acquired those assets.

GE was the major shareholder of RCA and the two companies cross-licensed their patents on long-distance transmission equipment. A year later, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) bought into RCA and also cross-licensed patents with the new company. In 1921 Westinghouse also joined the ranks of asset holders of RCA; in exchange for selling Westinghouse radio equipment to the public, RCA was permitted access to Westinghouse patents. RCA entered into the broadcasting field that same year with its transmission of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1924 RCA transmitted the first radio-photo, a portrait of Secretary of State Charles Hughes. This transmission was made from New York to London and back to New York. Two years later, RCA formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). At this time, RCA began selling components manufactured by the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1927 RCA introduced the first Radiotron tube. This radio tube was the first to operate on alternating current, thereby eliminating the need for batteries—a crucial step in the development of mass-produced electric radios. A year later GE perfected a system of recording sound on film, which it called the RCA Photophone. RCA Photophone, Inc., was merged with the Film Booking Office of America (FBO), a movie production company, and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain.

The following year RCA purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company. The trademark of the Victor company, a dog staring at an old phonograph above the caption "His Master's Voice," was also purchased by RCA and became one of the most famous trademarks in marketing history. In 1930 the company began experiencing legal problems concerning its monopoly status. The Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against RCA; at the end of the battle RCA retained all of its patents, but GE, AT&T, and Westinghouse were forced to sell their interests in the company. By this time RCA's various businesses included broadcasting, communications, marine radio, manufacturing and merchandising, and a radio school. The year after it became an independent company, RCA moved into its new headquarters—the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center in New York City.

RCA greatly expanded its high-technology research department during the Depression. The company made its first public television broadcast at the New York World's Fair in 1939. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved RCA's television system in the spring of 1941, but World War II halted further development of commercial television. RCA was also affected by a 1941 FCC investigation that decided that NBC, which operated two networks (the red and the blue) was a monopoly. Two years later the less-profitable blue network was sold to Edward Noble and became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). RCA profited immensely from the war, when it began its long association with the Defense Department. RCA switched production to military electronic equipment such as tubes for radio, radar, and microwave communications.

After the war, the company resumed the production of radios and commercial tubes and turned to its television research once again. The NBC radio network expanded into television, and in 1946 the first television network linked NBC facilities in New York City, Washington, Philadelphia, and Schenectady, New York. Television became commercially available that same year when RCA introduced the world's first mass-produced television set, which sold for $375. The entire electronics industry underwent a fundamental change with the birth of the transistor in 1948. RCA quickly entered the semiconductor field and developed new types of transistors. The company eventually applied this new technology to military and commercial electronic products, data-processing systems, and aerospace production.

Color programming did not become available to the public until 1954. RCA developed a color system that was compatible with the existing black-and-white TVs. The company's main competitor, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), also developed a color system. Although the CBS system produced a higher-quality picture, it was not compatible with existing sets. The FCC approved only the CBS system since the relatively small number of television sets in American homes made incompatibility a fairly insignificant consideration. In 1953 the FCC reversed this decision, since RCA had greatly improved its picture quality and the number of sets in American homes had significantly increased.

During the late 1950s RCA ventured into satellite equipment. In December 1957 the first successful satellite radio-relay equipment was launched into space aboard an Atlas missile. In the following years RCA developed a number of satellites for the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). One such project, completed in 1962, involved six weather satellites and a ground-based complex for televised observation. The following year the Relay communications satellite was put into orbit. This satellite transmitted TV pictures between the United States and Europe and linked Latin America to the United States by radio. RCA also planned and coordinated the construction of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. This radar defense system stretches across the Canadian Artic and was intended to warn the United States of impending missile attack from the Soviet Union.

By 1966 sales of color television sets industry wide rose to $3 billion a year. During this decade RCA continued production of home television sets and came to dominate the camera industry with its best-selling TK-44 camera. The first live pictures transmitted from outer space to earth were recorded by a miniature RCA camera carried aboard the Apollo 7 flight, and the first words broadcast to the earth from the moon were transmitted by an RCA-manufactured radio backpack carried by Neil Armstrong. At the end of the decade the Radio Corporation of America officially changed its name to the RCA Corporation.

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