Why could Sarnoff sell Stalin Television
This article was initially published in the January 2016 issue of IEEE-USA InSight
In June 1937, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) engineer Loren Jones arrived in Moscow to fulfill a contract signed 23 months earlier. Jones and five other engineers spent nearly a year installing an electronic television system in the Soviet Union’s capital and transferring electronics manufacturing technologies to factories in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and Voronezh. It’s easy to see why Soviet leader Josef Stalin agreed to this; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was determined to achieve high-tech self-sufficiency. With the purchase of RCA intellectual property, prototypes, and manufacturing techniques, it appeared to reach that goal. The financial benefits to RCA were also obvious. Why would the United States government, however, agree to let RCA sell a technology that the company was about to commercialize to a nation whose explicit ideology avowed the destruction of the American way of life? There were, after all, increasingly obvious military applications of very high frequency and microwave technologies on which television was based. In exploring the motivations of the three parties involved, we can shine some light on the politics of technology transfer that makes such strange bedfellows.
The Soviet Union
Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for thirty years from 1923, a period defined by his shaping of a communist state based on totalitarian terrorism on the USSR’s citizens, deep distrust of capitalist countries, and a drive for economic self-sufficiency. To attain the latter, the Soviets had to come to terms with those same capitalist countries. The first Soviet Five-Year Plan in 1928 led to nearly 300 agreements with western businesses, including RCA, in two years.
By the early 1930s Stalin also had good external reasons for courting the United States and acquiring its latest wireless technologies. The Soviet system was under similar pressures in the early 1930s as western political economies. Stalin needed increased communication of the regime’s message to a largely illiterate population and some reward for the suffering of the proletariat. Broadcasting would also help unify the ethnic groups of the Soviet empire. The Second Five-Year Plan called therefore for a network of “huge radio centers” to unite the state’s populations through short-wave radio transmitters. The Soviet people would listen on eight million radios; community centers would provide “television and phototelegraphy increasing the size of images to that of a full newspaper page.” Yet between 1932 and 1933 production of broadcast radio receivers in the Soviet Union dropped 25 percent to 22,200.
The Soviet interest in RCA’s work in television is understandable given the state of its own research. Purges sent television pioneer Boris Rosing to a forestry institute in Archangel, where he died in 1933. Ten television labs focused on the theory and mathematics of electron behavior while patents for photoelectric surfaces followed earlier applications in the West. None of this resulted in electronic television. Instead, stations in four cities transmitted video using electromechanical discs. Thus when RCA’s Vladimir Zworykin, a protégé of Rosing’s, announced the electronic video camera that his team had developed, Soviet authorities naturally invited him back to the USSR.
RCA’s relationship with the Soviets began in 1928 with a contract that would connect the USSR with the rest of RCA’s global radiotelegraphy network. In January 1931 the 25-year-old Jones made his first visit to the Soviet Union. Alexander Mintz, director of the Radio Research Laboratory of the Ministry of Communications, escorted him for lectures to radio engineers in Moscow and Leningrad. Jones’s chief memories were however of the bitter cold, the starvation apparent in Moscow’s streets, and the frustrations of dealing with hotel staff.
By 1932, the agreement had disintegrated, the Soviets unable to pay for equipment it had ordered. RCA was also in financial trouble, having lost money in 1933 for the third consecutive year. It laid off 4,000 of 22,000 employees, and cut the pay of the rest—including president David Sarnoff. From a peak of 60 employees to commercialize Zworykin’s television system, his staff was cut to ten.
In June 1933, however, Zworykin introduced his electronic television camera tube, the Iconoscope. He spoke at the Institute of Radio Engineers’ (IRE) annual meeting and gained front-page coverage in the New York Times and publication in European journals as well as the IRE’s Proceedings. That summer, he toured Europe and the Soviet Union to promote the breakthrough and that fall two Soviet lab directors visited the RCA Victor plant in Camden. There they watched live, 243-line, flicker-free video on Zworykin’s bright and focused Kinescope cathode-ray tube (CRT) at a time when Russians could watch only 30 dimly flickering lines in a frame.
In 1934 Zworykin returned to the Soviet Union, where the head of the communications trust proposed that RCA install a television transmitter and some receivers, which Zworykin relayed to Sarnoff. Sarnoff’s thoughts are hard to know because he never spoke publicly about this episode. With the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, he became a champion of anti-communism, but a decade earlier he wrote of his concerns about Adolf Hitler. The prospect of Soviet access to television and its military applications that Sarnoff and Zworykin began discussing with the U.S. military was less disturbing if the USSR also used the technology against a common enemy. The contract would also pay for an airplane for aerial television research in New Jersey. There were economic angles to consider as well. Since the division had not turned a profit since 1930, Soviet income would make a considerable difference to RCA Victor’s bottom line. Finally, the development of a Soviet system based on the one RCA was field-testing offered RCA’s engineers more experience in producing the system.
Nine months of negotiation resulted in a contract signed in RCA’s boardroom in the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center in July 1935. The Soviet Union paid RCA $2.9 million for its services and patents, as well as the costs for building and shipping 180 tons of 343-line television equipment from the RCA Victor factory. It covered radio and television as well as phonographs and disc records, electron tubes, motion picture sound technology, remote controls, and production equipment. The expenses of the fifty engineers that Glavesprom, the low-power electrical industry directorate, would send to RCA’s facilities and those of the five RCA engineers overseeing the installations in the USSR were not included.
The United States
New president Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in November 1933. He also signed a resolution deferring over $600 million in tsarist debts while overlooking the state subversion of Stalin’s Comintern. Before the Depression, the Soviets had been one of the United States’ ten largest economic partners. The USSR seemed to offer an alternative model of economic success, a market for the products of American factories, and a counterweight to the Axis dictators of Germany and Japan. The Commerce, State, and War Departments finished approving the deal on December 3. None of the armed services had funds to underwrite RCA’s work on radar or television and they ensured that certain radar-related patents were withheld from the deal. Sarnoff discussed it with Roosevelt a few days later.
The RCA team arrived in Moscow in June 1937, shortly after seven members of the Red Army’s general staff were executed and two of the Soviet signatories to the RCA contract were “gathered.” Jones found that of “the many Russian television engineers . . . we knew well in Camden . . . we have seen only three.” None of them invited the Americans to their homes for the informal exchanges that smooth a technical transfer. The Russian Radio Trust’s comments on damaged equipment also showed the challenges of translation in the transfer: “All the jacks are shaking” and “Some compensator keys are also loose, what is quite inadmissible.” Connecting with RCA engineers in other cities by telephone took up to twelve hours.
Nonetheless, six months later the Soviet Union had the world’s fifth electronic television station. One winter night Jones journeyed to a cottage 30 kilometers away that was accessible only through “deep snow” to see a Russian movie broadcast that was both “excellent” in reception and “weird” in the context of a lonely wooden dacha. By April 1938 more programs had been broadcast to the ten Soviet-made TV sets. Despite RCA’s improvements to factory production, however, radio receiver output declined from a peak of 334,000 in 1936 to 160,500 in 1940. As for television, the Soviets produced 300 receivers in 1940 and did not produce another set for a decade.
There are three parties in international technological transfers: the governments of the two nations and the agent bearing the technology. In this case, RCA gained useful experience in constructing television systems and a financial boost during the Depression. For the United States there was no effect on Soviet foreign policy that benefited American interests; for the Soviet Union, there was no obvious benefit technologically or militarily, thanks in part to Stalin’s political purges of technical and military experts. During World War II RCA built radios for Soviet tanks, aiding their victorious coordination during the world’s largest tank battle at Kursk in 1943. It’s worth remembering, then, that transferring technology to a dictatorship does not necessarily transfer the capabilities that make the technology so valuable in the first place.