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RCA Corporation
FateTaken-over by General Electric and broken up
Headquarters United States
Key people
David Sarnoff, first general manager

RCA, formerly an acronym for the Radio Corporation of America, is now a trademark owned by Thomson SA through RCA Trademark Management S.A., a company owned by Thomson. The trademark is used by two companies, namely Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Thomson SA (the owner of the RCA name), which licences the name to other companies like Audiovox for products descended from that common ancestor.

Prior to RCA

During World War I the patents of the major companies involved with radio in the United States were consolidated to facilitate the war effort. All production of radio equipment was for the military. The seizure of the assets of British-owned Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America by the United States Navy and the cooperation between General Electric, United Fruit, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, AT&T & RCA laid the groundwork for the National Broadcasting Company, NBC.

History of RCA

File:RCA original logo.png
Original RCA logo, revived by BMG for sound recordings after it bought GE's interest in the record company. Unlike this picture, it was colored red. It was affectionately known as "the Meatball" to RCA insiders.

RCA was formed in 1919 as a publicly held company owned by General Electric, which had a controlling interest in the company. From its later actions the intent was likely to form a holding company that would use various legal means to attempt to monopolize the radio business. David Sarnoff was named General Manager, under the GE chairman Owen D. Young, who had originally founded the company.[1]

RCA's charter required it be mostly American-owned. RCA took over the assets of American Marconi, and was responsible for marketing GE and Westinghouse's radio equipment. It also acquired the patents of United Fruit and Westinghouse, in exchange for ownership stakes. Later on the company went on a patenting and licensing binge, patenting the superheterodyne concept. Some of their early radios had their guts hidden in "catacombs" to prevent reverse-engineering.

By 1926, RCA had grasped the market for commercial radio, and purchased the WEAF and WCAP radio stations and network from AT&T, merged them with RCA's own attempt at networking, the WJZ New York/WRC Washington chain, and formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

In 1929, RCA purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, then the world's largest manufacturer of phonographs (including the famous "Victrola") and phonograph records (in British English, "gramophone records"). The company then became RCA-Victor. With Victor, RCA acquired New World rights to the famous Nipper trademark. RCA Victor produced many radio-phonographs. The company also created RCA Photophone, a sound-on-film system for sound films that competed with William Fox's sound-on-film Movietone and Warner Bros. sound-on-disc Vitaphone.

RCA began selling the first electronic turntable in 1930. In 1931, RCA Victor developed and released the first 33⅓ rpm records to the public. These had the standard groove size identical to the contemporary 78rpm records, rather than the "microgroove" used in post-World War II 33⅓ "Long Play" records. The format was a commercial failure at the height of the Great Depression, partially because the records and playback equipment were expensive. The system was withdrawn from the market after about a year. (This was not the first attempt at a commercial long play record format, as Edison Records had marketed a microgroove vertically recorded disc with 20 minutes playing time per side the previous decade; the Edison long playing records were also a commercial failure.)

In 1930, RCA became a crucial and key tenant in the yet to be constructed landmark building of the Rockefeller Center complex, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which from 1933 became known as the RCA building, now the GE Building. This critical lease in the massive project enabled it to proceed as a commercially viable venture.[2]

Old television test pattern, created by RCA in 1939 and widely used until color television gained in popularity.

In 1939, RCA demonstrated an all-electronic television system at the New York World's Fair and developed the USA's first-ever television test pattern. With the introduction of the NTSC standard, the Federal Communications Commission authorized the start of commercial television transmission on July 1, 1941. World War II slowed the deployment of television in the US, but RCA began selling television sets almost immediately after the war was over. (See also: History of television) RCA labs was closely involved in RADAR and radio development efforts in support of the war effort. These development efforts greatly assisted RCA in their Television research efforts.

RCA was one of the leading makers of vacuum tubes (branded Radiotron) in the USA, creating a series of innovative products ranging from octal base Metal tubes co-developed with General Electric before World War II to the transistor-sized Nuvistor used in the tuners of the New Vista series of television sets. The Nuvistor tubes were a last hurrah for vacuum tubes and were meant to be a competitive technology for the relatively newly introduced transistors. RCA also partnered with Tung-Sol to produce the legendary 6550 hifi vacuum tube. Their power in the marketplace was so strong that they effectively set the selling prices for vacuum tubes in the USA. A look at their competitor's price lists shows them to be identical to RCA's, from 1940 through 1970 at least. In spite of this, the company had to completely switch over to making solid-state television sets by 1975.

Antitrust concerns led to the breakup of the NBC radio networks by the FCC, a breakup affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. On October 12, 1943, the "NBC Blue" radio network was sold to Life Savers candy magnate Edward J. Noble for $8,000,000, and renamed "The Blue Network, Inc". It would become the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1946. The "NBC Red" network retained the NBC name, and RCA retained ownership.

In 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor, the cornerstone was laid for a R&D Facility, RCA Laboratories, located along Route 1 and just north of New Jersey Rte 571 in Princeton, New Jersey. It was in this facility that myriad innovations and key technology such as color television, the electron microscope, CMOS based technology, heterojunction physics, optoelectronic emitting devices, Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs), video cassette recorders, direct broadcast television, direct broadcast satellite systems and high-definition television would be invented and developed during ensuing years. (After 1988, the facility would be known as Sarnoff Corporation, a subsidiary of SRI International.)

In 1949, RCA-Victor developed and released the first 45 rpm record to the public, answering CBS/Columbia's 33⅓ rpm "LP".

RCA Television Tape machine

In 1953, RCA's all electronic color-TV technology was adopted as the standard for American color TV; it is now known as NTSC (after the "National Television System Committee" that approved it). RCA cameras and studio gear, particularly of the TK-40/41 series, became standard equipment at many American television network affiliates, as RCA CT-100[3] ("RCA Merrill" to dealers) television sets introduced color television to the public.

In 1955, RCA sold its large appliance operations to Whirlpool Corporation. As part of the deal, Whirlpool was given the rights to market "RCA Whirlpool" appliances through the mid-1960s.

Due to their rarity and technological significance, RCA Merrill/CT-100 (and other early color television receivers) are highly sought-after collectibles. Attic "relics", especially with an RCA emblem, should be assessed by several knowledgeable and trustworthy antique radio or television collectors prior to acquisition.

Despite the company's indisputable leadership in television technology, David Sarnoff in 1955 commented, "Television will never be a medium of entertainment".

RCA was one of the eight major computer companies (along with IBM, Burroughs, Control Data Corporation, General Electric, Honeywell, NCR and UNIVAC) through most of the 1960s, but abandoned computers in 1971.

RCA was a major proponent of the eight-track tape cartridge, which it launched in 1965. The eight-track cartridge initially had a huge and profitable impact on the consumer marketplace. However, sales of the 8-track tape format peaked early on as consumers increasingly favored the compact cassette tape format developed by competitor Philips.

Sunset Years

In many ways the story of RCA is the story of David Sarnoff. His drive and business acumen led to RCA becoming one of the largest companies in the world, successfully turning it into a conglomerate during the era of their success. However in 1970, at 79 years old, Sarnoff retired and was succeeded by his son Robert. David Sarnoff died the next year; by some accounts, much of RCA's success died with him.

During the 1970s, RCA Corporation, as it was now formally known, ventured into other markets. Under Robert Sarnoff's leadership, RCA diversified far beyond its original focus on electronics and communications. The company acquired Hertz (rental cars), Banquet (frozen foods), Coronet (carpeting), Random House (publishing) and Gibson (greeting cards). Despite this diversification, or perhaps because of it, the corporation was plagued by financial problems.

Robert Sarnoff was ousted in a 1975 boardroom coup by Anthony Conrad, who resigned a year later after admitting failing to file income tax returns for six years. Despite maintaining a high standard of engineering excellence in such fields as broadcast engineering and satellite communications equipment, ventures such as the NBC radio and television networks declined. Forays into new consumer electronics products, such as the innovative but technologically obsolescent SelectaVision videodisc system, proved money losers.

SelectaVision was abandoned in 1984, in a tremendous and very public write-off of several hundred million dollars. Its chief competitor, videotape, held two key advantages: recordability, and lower cost. (Some also claim that easy viewing of pornographic and erotic programs in private was an important factor in favor of the VCR. RCA was unwilling to produce CED discs with adult content, allegedly reducing demand for the CED system.) VCRs quickly took a dominant market share, and did so at an inauspicious time, just as the market for publicly traded equities was growing rapidly. RCA could not take part in that field, and its better-managed competitors showed superior performance in these years.

In 1984, RCA Broadcast Systems Division relocated from its Camden, NJ location to the site of the RCA antenna engineering facility in Gibbsboro, NJ. Over time, all of the broadcast product lines developed in Camden were terminated or sold off. Most of the buildings at the Camden site were eventually demolished, save for the original RCA Victor buildings, having been declared national historical buildings.[4]

At the ripest moment, conditions led to RCA's takeover by GE in 1986 and its subsequent break-up. GE sold its 50% interest in what was then RCA/Ariola International Records to its partner Bertelsmann and the company was renamed BMG Music for Bertelsmann Music Group.

GE sold the rights to make RCA and GE brand consumer electronics products, notably television sets, to the French Thomson Group, in exchange for some of Thomson's medical businesses.

RCA Laboratories was transferred to SRI International as the David Sarnoff Research Center, subsequently renamed Sarnoff Corporation. Sarnoff Labs was put on a five year plan whereby GE would fund the labs activities 100% for the first year. That funding declined to zero or near zero after the 5th year of Sarnoff Labs operation. This required the Sarnoff Labs to change their business model to become an industrial contract research facility.


At present, the RCA trademark is used by two companies for products descended from RCA Corporation:

The historic Nipper Building (RCA Building 17) in Camden, New Jersey, which was converted to luxury apartments in 2003, is one of a few remaining buildings that once housed the vast RCA Victor complex
Although it is not original, the Nipper stained glass remains illuminated atop the "Nipper Tower" in the former Building 17. This photograph was taken from the inside of the "Nipper Tower".

Thomson and BMG bought those assets from General Electric, which took over the RCA conglomerate in 1986 and kept RCA's NBC broadcast television interests (GE sold off the NBC Radio Network and the NBC-owned radio stations). Initially, GE continued to control the RCA trademarks (including the rights to the His Master's Voice trademark and the dog Nipper) which were then licensed to Thomson and Bertelsmann. Thomson eventually bought the RCA trademarks in 2003[5] subject to the perpetual license GE had issued to Sony BMG's predecessor.

In 2002, Thomson and the Chinese company TCL formed a joint venture for the production and distribution of television sets and related consumer products. [6] [7]

In December 2006, Thomson SA agreed to sell its consumer electronics accessory business, including rights to use the RCA name for consumer electronic accessories, to Audiovox[8]

On October 16, 2007, Thomson SA agreed to sell its consumer electronics audio video business outside Europe including the worldwide rights to the RCA Brand for consumer electronics audio video products[9]

Although Bertelsmann AG was new to the RCA family (though the creation of Sony BMG is similar to that of EMI more than 70 years earlier), Thomson started as the French subsidiary of Thomson-Houston Electric, a company which later evolved into General Electric.

Due to their popularity during the golden age of radio, their manufacturing quality, their engineering innovations, their styling and their name, RCA antique radios are one of the more sought-after brands of collectible radios.

The historic old RCA Victor Building 17 in Camden, New Jersey, was redeveloped in 2003 as a high-rise luxury apartment building.[10][11]


  • 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which anchors the Radio City district of Manhattan, was originally named the RCA Building. Two years after the merger, the name was changed to the GE Building, and the neon signage at the top was replaced.

See also