Reeling from years of severe stress, Farnsworth suffered a nervous breakdown and was bedridden for several months before the war. Afterward, he and Pem relocated to Fort Wayne, where his new factory began volume production of television sets. But time ran out. Farnsworth’s key patents expired in 1947, just a few months before TV began a sudden, rapid proliferation from just 6,000 sets in use nationwide to tens of millions by the mid-1950s. RCA captured nearly 80 percent of the market, while Farnsworth was forced to sell the assets of his company to International Telephone and Telegraph, an industrial conglomerate that quickly decided to exit the commercial TV business.
Farnsworth’s story is tragic, but he wasn’t the only casualty of Sarnoff’s delay tactics. In the late 1940s, Sarnoff sued to prevent CBS from broadcasting in color-a technology both RCA and CBS were racing to develop-on the grounds that it would disrupt the market for black-and-white television. In 1951, the Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of CBS. By then, RCA had seeded the market with millions of its black-and-white sets. Meanwhile, in RCA’s labs, Sarnoff launched a crusade to devise an even better system for color, so as to control the all-important standard for transmission and marginalize the CBS format. A main bragging point was so-called backwards compatibility. Only RCA color broadcasts could be translated for viewing on the RCA black-and-white sets that most people had. If viewers wanted to watch CBS color broadcasts, they had to buy a special adapter for $100. It was similar to the unique position Microsoft would hold many decades later, when it would be the only company that could create a format, Windows, that could execute older MS-DOS programs.
When the FCC and the National Television Standards Committee made RCA’s color transmission standard the official one, Sarnoff took out full-page newspaper ads declaring his “great victory.” Like the first version of Microsoft Windows, however, RCA color wasn’t a big seller initially. But Sarnoff kept at it until the marketplace came around. So by the time RCA entered into a landmark consent decree with the Justice Department in 1958, agreeing to license its color TV technology freely to anyone for a reasonable price, the color war was over and RCA had crushed the competition-again.
As Sarnoff steamrolled his competitors, he rewrote history. RCA took every opportunity to trot out Zworykin as “the father of television.” Philo T. Farnsworth became the answer to an obscure trivia question. “The RCA public-relations department did a number on us,” says Pem Farnsworth. Both Sarnoff and Farnsworth died in 1971, and the contrast couldn’t have been greater. Farnsworth was broke, severely depressed and largely forgotten; Sarnoff was celebrated as a pioneer and visionary-and who could argue?
Like many moguls, Sarnoff believed that his actions were justified. “Sarnoff saw his monopoly power as a force for good,” says Magoun. “He took it very seriously. He hired the best engineers and took their word as to what was the best approach. Yes, he made enemies. But even if we say he did trounce people, it wasn’t as explicit as some would assert.” No doubt, the same could be said about Bill Gates. The subtle undercurrent in both Gates’ story and Sarnoff’s has to do with the control of innovation. Each man was known to appropriate ideas and technologies developed elsewhere, delaying their dissemination while his company tried to perfect them. But did consumers suffer because of this? While competitors would no doubt disagree, those who defend the moguls argue that it’s beneficial to have one company control the pace of innovation. “Why do we assume that the more rapid the innovation is, the better it is for the consumer?” asks Magoun. “Why do we want endless, uncontrolled change in the way we live our lives?”
And that leads us to the overarching parallel between these two eras. The government spent 28 years trying to rein in RCA, and has pursued the Microsoft matter for more than a decade already. In both cases, the defendants used the intervening years to expand greatly the scope of their dominance. Which goes to show that the technology monopolist has one all-powerful force working to his advantage. Not ingenuity or technological superiority. Not legal firepower. Not even money. Unless it is somehow taken away by force, what the monopolist has on his side is time.