The RCA Story

RCA has always been a solid choice for consumer electronics products, from the first radio sets that swept the country in the early 1920’s to today’s dependable and affordable digital home entertainment products.

Consumers expect RCA to dependable performance and good value, with the brand’s long heritage of introducing home entertainment innovations.

The story of RCA begins with the emergence of wireless communications made possible by the discovery of radio waves and amplification technology in the early years of the 20th Century. What began as wireless telegraphy, sending dots and dashes through the air instead of over wires, grew to become voices and music transmitted and received over the air with the development of more sensitive transmission and receiving equipment.

The Radio Corporation of America – later shortened to RCA – was formed in 1919 with the assets of the American Marconi wireless company and key radio patents owned by General Electric, Westinghouse, and other players. Conceived as a “marriage of convenience” between private corporations and the U.S. government for the development of wireless communication, RCA soon grew in a different direction.

Prior to 1920, most Americans couldn’t even fathom the idea of voices and music coming into their homes over the air. But the availability of free over-the-air music and information fueled tremendous growth with sales of in-home radio sets growing from 5,000 units in 1920 to more than 2.5 million units in 1924.

Initially, the RCA brand was applied to consumer receivers manufactured by Westinghouse and General Electric. Pittsburgh radio station KDKA went on the air with the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election and RCA itself delivered the world heavyweight boxing championship via wireless transmission – a marketing brainstorm of RCA General Manager David Sarnoff.

By the time aviator Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight, some six million radio sets were in use. Surveys indicated that an average of five people listened to each set, making a potential market of 30 million people.

RCA’s Sarnoff saw the potential for a nationwide network, and in 1926 the first national radio network – dubbed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) – was created. The Rose Bowl football game of 1927 was heard coast to coast, thanks to the NBC network.

In 1927, another remarkable development was about to change home entertainment forever. California engineer Philo Farnsworth sent out a signal in a pioneering television experiment. His broadcast sent a picture of a dollar sign through the air. A year later, the president of RCA predicted that Kodak’s newly-developed color film might someday be applied to television.

Radio’s popularity in the U.S. market created new opportunities for RCA, which had been marketing radios built by GE and Westinghouse. In 1929, the three partners consolidated their research and development, manufacturing and marketing. Then, RCA purchased Victor Talking Machine Company and began manufacturing radios and phonographs in Camden, New Jersey.

In addition to acquiring Victor’s manufacturing operations, the merger also brought a famous Jack Russell terrier into the RCA family. “Nipper,” whose image listening to “His Master’s Voice” was prominently featured on Victor’s home phonographs, became the RCA dog. Nipper’s story stretches back to England in the late 1800’s. Scenic artist Francis Barraud of London saw his little dog, Nipper, sitting attentively in front of the talking machine. Barraud was so impressed that he decided to put it on canvas. The alert terrier with an ear cocked to listen to the phonograph was immortalized in a painting that later became the RCA Victor trademark.

In the early 1920s, David Sarnoff publicly speculated on the possibility of “every farmhouse equipped not only with a sound-receiving device but with a screen that would mirror the sights of life.” The idea of television was not new, and mechanical systems had demonstrated crude pictures. But it was Sarnoff’s historic meeting with engineer Vladimir Zworykin that set the stage for RCA’s success at perfecting electronic television transmission and reception. The engineer had already successfully demonstrated his “iconoscope” camera and “kinescope” receiver. Sarnoff sought out the inventor to learn more about his work and ask what it would cost to continue his experiments and develop a marketable system. Zworykin replied “$100,000 and a year and a half.”

Ten years and $50 million later, Sarnoff introduced television service at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Visitors during the fair not only got to see television, they actually brought home wallet cards to prove they’d been “televised.”

Although RCA was not the first on the market with color television, it was the eventual winner in the color TV standards race. CBS had developed an awkward mechanical system for color TV reproduction, but RCA’s all-electronic, compatible color TV system was declared the U.S. standard in December 1953. Promotion of color television broadcasts began within a few weeks. The Rose Bowl Parade was shown in color on January 1, 1954, although few people had access to color receivers.

The first RCA consumer color televisions were produced in March 1954, a 12-inch screen in a box cabinet with a hefty $1,000 price tag. By 1960, there were half a million color TV sets in use, and more than two-thirds of NBC’s prime-time nightly broadcasts were “colorcast” during the 1962-63 season.

RCA later popularized the VHS videocassette format with a home entertainment component that could record up to four hours of television programming. It dabbled in various video disc formats before the introduction of the DVD, which utilizes key digital compression technology developed by company engineers for high-definition TV broadcasting and for the first high-power small-dish satellite system deployed in the U.S.

Today, the RCA brand is found on a variety of entertainment and information products marketed in countries throughout the world. RCA can be found on flat-panel televisions, home and business telephones, audio/video gear, accessories, small appliances, and other products.

Consumers continue to rely on the RCA brand to offer affordable quality, just as the many predecessor companies that played a role in bringing innovations from the lab to the home over the past 90 years.

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