Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat It?



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B. Broadcast Television


Wu’s history of the introduction of television in the US also revolves around Sarnoff, and it may provide the best example of the Cycle. But the smoothness of Wu’s account, like his history of radio, is facilitated by deemphasizing certain aspects of the historical record. Wu begins with a familiar history of the invention of television, focusing on the struggles of three inventors—John Logie Blair, Charles Francis Jenkins, and Philo T. Farnsworth—to bring their devices to market in the 1920s and 1930s (pp 136–37, 139–42, 148–51).

At first, television appeared to be the perfect Schumpeterian disruptive technology, poised to replace radio (p 135). But television took two decades to reach a mass market, a fact that incenses Wu. He holds radio mogul David Sarnoff primarily responsible, framing the story as a clash between naïve inventors and a rapacious capitalist. As the head of RCA, Sarnoff used all of his influence to retard and control the adoption of the new medium. Sarnoff, Wu suggests, did not want to kill radio’s new competition. He was experienced enough to see that television was an unstoppable force, possibly even an opportunity (p 139). Rather than futilely trying to eliminate the new medium, Sarnoff did everything that he could to ensure that when television eventually reached the US market, it would do so as an extension of his “empire of the air,” as Lee de Forest called it.67 To achieve his victory and control the new medium, Sarnoff publicly disparaged television as an “experimental” technology, and he successfully coaxed the FCC to label it as such (pp 138–46).

Wu inveighs against the FCC’s efforts to block the introduction of television, and he invokes Friedrich Hayek to ask, “How can government possibly have enough information to know when something as unpredictable as a technology is ‘ready?’ . . . [S]ome measure of regulation by the government was, of course, to be expected. But even this fact cannot justify a total freeze on commercial television lasting two decades” (p 145). In contrast to his condemnation of the FCC, Wu yearns for the open period of “permissionless innovation” that existed briefly when Herbert Hoover gave out ad hoc radio licenses as the secretary of commerce (p 145).

As alternatives to the US’s lack of action, Wu points to launches of television in Germany and England in the 1930s, and he speculates about the television innovation that might have been had Sarnoff and the FCC not intervened (pp 147–48). Instead of a vibrant television industry in the 1920s, however, America saw Sarnoff reveal RCA’s plans to introduce television at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, erasing the decades of inventors and inventions that had come before (pp 151–53). In this particular incarnation of the Cycle, Sarnoff-as-Kronos successfully ate his children and lived on as his own successor (or something like that). Farnsworth had some small revenge when he forced RCA to pay a licensing fee to use his television patent, but by then Sarnoff had effectively taken control (p 153). And even so, Wu acknowledges that television never enjoyed the amateur, noncommercial phase typically associated with his conception of the Cycle (p 154).

This is the neatest and one of the most compelling stories in the book. Indeed, master storytellers Aaron Sorkin and Ken Burns have told this story themselves in other works.68 But it is also a story that overlooks some important history in order to paint an emotional picture of personal battles. It also tends to overread current issues back into history. (For example, the phrase “permissionless innovation” that Wu uses to talk about early television actually comes from Vint Cerf, as Wu acknowledges (p 145).) What Wu fails to mention in his reveries about the lost possibilities for TV in the 1930s, is that television had very limited success as a commercial medium in Europe before the Second World War. In Germany, the Nazis feared that television in homes might lead to private mockery of Hitler.69 In Britain, only 20,000 television sets were sold before the outbreak of World War II.70 It is possible that without opposition from Sarnoff and the FCC, television technology would have found a successful market in the US. But it is also possible that the capital, infrastructure, and cultural acceptance might have lagged, as they did in Europe.

Wu’s great-man theory of history erases the complex and fascinating process of innovation and diffusion. Blair, Jenkins, Farnsworth, and Sarnoff are all clearly central figures in the development of television. Innovation, however, requires technology, capital, and culture to come together. Moreover, the television inventors did not come out of nowhere. They built on the many inventors who experimented with cathode ray tubes both privately and under the auspices of large companies like Bell Labs and Western Electric. The economic effects of the Great Depression and World War II are also important elements to the story to which Wu alludes only briefly (pp 146, 147, 154). Stories of great men make for great dramas, but they also require a belief in social vacuums that do not really exist.





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